One of the first things you notice when visiting the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is the other visitors — walking in pairs and groups, walking with a bike, pushing strollers. Sometimes, they pause to take photos of one another with “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” then rejoin the flow on the open garden grounds, which stretch from the Walker Art Center to Dunwoody Boulevard.

Another thing you might notice is the flow of city traffic with a rhythm of its own, slowing to a halt for stoplights and then starting up again.

That sense of openness, movement and connection to the city wasn’t part of the garden’s original 1988 design by Edward Larrabee Barnes. Nor was is a priority when the garden was expanded in 1992 by Michael van Valkenburgh. Back then, the garden was enclosed by walls of spruce trees on three sides, closed off from the distractions nearby.

But the new, improved Sculpture Garden is part of a brilliant reweaving of the Walker’s setting that includes the transformative entry on Vineland Place, the Wurtele Upper Garden on the old Guthrie site, and much needed plantings along the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue facade.

Rethinking the garden — with help from Tom Oslund and Tadd Kreun of Oslund and Associates along with the Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board — created what feels like a public park on public land, rather than an enclave.

In a daring design move, the Oslund firm proposed removing the stand of trees to the north of “Spoonbridge and Cherry.” Since they were planted in the early 1990s, the trees have grown until they blocked the visual connection between the garden’s north and south ends. In fact, Dana Murdoch, the Park Board’s project manager for the renovation, said that “many people never ventured north of the trees” to explore the rest of the garden.

I was one of many who questioned cutting down trees just as they were maturing. But the stunning new sense of wide open space proves that the designers were right.

The $41 million remake of the Walker campus also links the garden to its historic roots as the former parade grounds for the Minneapolis Armory. Built in the late 19th century, the armory was a solid brick structure that eventually fell into disuse and quietly sank into its wetland site.

In 1913, Minneapolis Parks Superintendent Theodore Wirth created floral gardens on the armory site, which became a civic showplace into the 1960s. Over the generations, the popular “Armory gardens,” as they were known, were open to the streets around them, much like the Sculpture Garden is now.

Built into the hillside

You get an even grander sweep of space from the Wurtele Upper Garden, which offers panoramic views of the Sculpture Garden, the Basilica of St. Mary and the downtown skyline.

From there, you can see both Barnes’ original Walker and the later expansion by Herzog & de Meuron unfold as an ensemble of playful forms. And, for the first time since it opened in 2005, the Herzog addition makes sense as part of the hillside and its surroundings.

Belgian landscape architect Petra Blaisse of Inside Outside accentuated the steep grade change of the Upper Garden through an ingenious ensemble of small, billowing hills. They create a sense of adventure and refuge as you move among them and their room-like groves of locusts, pines and maples.

Because it was built over the parking garage, most of the Upper Garden is a sophisticated green roof, deep enough to support grass, prairie plants and trees. Down the center of the hillside, Blaisse designed a cascading lawn that makes a natural amphitheater for events like Rock the Garden, outdoor movies and other open-air performances.

Tying it all together

The Walker campus couldn’t have become whole without a stronger connection to the art center itself. For years, the Walker lacked an inviting front door. It needed a more transparent museum entry that connected it to Vineland Place and the gardens.

Joan Soranno and John Cook of HGA solved that seemingly intractable problem by tucking a one-story entry and cafe into the hillside, a solution so subtle that it seems as if it were part of the original Barnes design.

The new entry, now the heart of the Walker campus, also makes a graceful transition to the Upper Garden with a rooftop terrace overlooking Vineland Place.

To unify the grounds, Oslund and Associates created a consistent palette of materials for plantings, lighting and pathways.

When the Sculpture Garden opened in 1988, the Walker boasted that it was “the largest urban sculpture garden” in the country. The new, 19-acre campus is so much more. This hybrid of public-private planning is a powerful expression of public space, welcoming design and ecological history — and arguably one of the nation’s most important urban arts districts.

 

Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.