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Downtown View: A Small City and Its Architecture

A few weeks ago architecture in Boston was the topic of this column. It must have hit a nerve because many people wrote or phoned to say they also were concerned about the pedestrian nature of the architecture that has been Boston’s stock in trade for the past several years.

So I’d like to introduce you to a city in which architecture is interesting, vigorous, and sometimes beautiful. That city is Minneapolis.

You might have expected me to say Chicago or New York or some other city that is known for its attention to architecture. But no, it is little Minneapolis, half the size of Boston.

Not everyone, of course, would like every building. But the skyline is filled with towers, some of which are 30 years old. Remarkably, they still look fresh. The city’s architects are sometimes the same as in Boston—Philip Johnson; Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners; and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Some of the architects are not well known in Boston’s commercial market—Hammel, Green & Abrahamson, Inc., for example, which mostly works in the Midwest.

Two buildings stood out. Both are designed by Cesar Pelli, the architect for Boston’s proposed South Station Tower, which has been on hold. One, the Wells Fargo Center, is the antithesis of the unvarying shafts that seem to capture most executives with a building complex, or most developers, for that matter. It is designed in an updated Art Deco style stepping back as it rises, with restrained detail to interest the eye.

Also handsome is the Hennepin County Library. This is a bit smaller than the addition at the BPL—appropriate since it is a smaller library system. The building is a simple construction of five banded stories. It is lively and warm, compared to the brooding thud that Philip Johnson left us with.

The outside of the Hennepin County Library is decorated (horrible word to some architects) with shimmering vertical glass panels. Once you get close to the building you realize the panels are etched with the trunks of birch trees. A nice surprise. And an even nicer surprise is that as you walk around the building the etching turns horizontal, and you realize Pelli has captured the tops of the birch trees. I’m a sucker for such entertainment, and you might be too.

In a gesture toward the aggressive geometry of many contemporary buildings, Pelli has thrust a thick triangular canopy over the entrance. At least it tells you where the entrance is.

Inside, a sunlit atrium rises to the top and through the building, narrowing to the other side. On the right are the library’s circulation areas. In the kids’ section, several small children looked at books with their parents and sat at computers on diminutive chairs trying out their skills.

To the left of the atrium are offices and meeting rooms. The place is warm and cozy and spare and contemporary and fun, all at the same time.

Despite its sophisticated architecture, Minneapolis won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and overall I was disappointed in the city. The reason? Skywalks.

Some city fathers must have thought Minneapolisians—is that the word???—didn’t have the hardiness their Chicago neighbors had. So they connected all the buildings downtown with covered walkways at the second-story level—rather like Liberty Mutual’s connection between its old headquarters and its new building that’s under construction. The Skywalks certainly give Minneapolis a sense of place, and it’s sort of interesting at first.

But the consequences are deadly for the city. Except for a bridge over the Mississippi and Nicollet Mall, a long street lined with restaurants and shops that ends at the library, Minneapolis has no street life. Windows along the sidewalks are curtained, blank and empty. The sidewalks have only a few lone souls on them. When we asked what to see, every native told us only to go to Nicollet Mall.

When I asked a clerk in a shop along one of the Skywalks, she said she loved them because she could park her car and walk inside for the six blocks it took her to get to work.

“But after 5 p.m., it’s creepy,” she volunteered. No one walks in the Skywalks after work, and security guards are stationed at certain entrances.

Street level sidewalks with lots to see along the way attract people, and the crowd means there is no need for security guards.

So every city has its downsides.

But one happy note about a Minneapolis-Boston connection. When the Hennepin County Library was built it was still part of the Minneapolis Public Library. Later it merged with the Hennepin County Library and now uses that name. Coincidentally, Amy Ryan, who is now president of the Boston Public Library, was director of Hennepin County Library system as merging plans were taking place.

Ryan and her staff now have a plan to make the BPL’s Johnson addition more lively at street level.

As a former Minneapolis resident now in Boston who saw an architect create a good library building in her old home town, she’ll have some good ideas about what will work at the corner of Boylston and Exeter streets and what won’t.

I bet she doesn’t suggest any “Skywalks.”


Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

One Reply to “Downtown View: A Small City and Its Architecture

  1. I enjoyed reading both of Karen's articles. She has captured the essence of City Life. People, visual stimulus and a vital downtown area. The article on the Esplanade said it all. People are social creatures , who have a need to interact in pleasent outdoor surroundings. This is especially relevant in the City.
    Parks are great equalizers and provide all citizens with a space to connect and enjoy precious free time.

    Boston is fortunate to have residents who aren't satisfied with the staus quo. A world class International city that continues to evolve for the better, despite ecconomic challenges.

    Thanks Karen for re-enforcing this message.

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