Bits and Pieces

The final projects for two of my classes–  Landscape Construction: Landform Systems and Spatial Performance; and Studio: Making Landscape Spaces and Types– involve designing a new sculpture garden for the open space adjacent to the Walker Art Center situated between Uptown and Downtown in Minneapolis.  The Walker Art Center (WAC) was founded by lumber baron Thomas Barlow Walker in 1879 and is now considered on par with other such modern art museums as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Hirshhorn.  The WAC is sited on a 17 acre campus that includes the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (home of the infamous Spoonbridge and Cherry) and the 1971 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes.  The Barnes’ design is an imposing modernist cube with an almost completely windowless brick facade.  Between 2003 and 2005, the WAC underwent a major expansion that involved the construction of an underground parking structure, the razing of the Ralph Rapson-designed Guthrie Theater (redesigned and relocated to the Mill City neighborhood along the Mississippi), and the construction of the WAC addition designed by Herzog and de Mueron– arguably one of the most adventurous buildings in Minneapolis.

Michel Desvign was chosen to create a landscape plan for the WAC sculpture garden.  His design utilized a grid system to tie the space to the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden while paying homage to Minnesota’s geologic and agricultural heritages.  Ultimately, his design has not been realized and the space has existed since 2005 as an open park without the canopy trees, paths, water features, and topographic excitement that Desvign envisioned.

The Walker Art Center’s program is a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates performance, new media, visual arts, youth and community empowerment, design, and artist residencies.  The WAC’s philosophy is summed up in the phrase Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole as they strive to act as a catalyst for social and civic engagement.  The Walker strives to be a communal atmosphere while acting as a container, a convener, a connector, and a catalyst.

I made this panoramic photograph of the Walker Art Center campus from the west limit of the open space.  It not only shows the large field that is to be developed into a performance area and sculpture garden but also the general character of the institution complete with all its bits and pieces.  You can see the juxtaposition of the Barnes design and the Herzog and de Mueron, the way the complex rests on the topography, the surrounding blend of the secular and the spiritual, and the skyline of downtown Minneapolis behind the Walker.  There is a certain elegance.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time at the Walker to try to better understand the site.  I know that this is a luxury as sometimes designers are expected to create a space having visited the location only once or maybe never.  But I’ve enjoyed a performance — Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider— in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, spent a full day exploring the current exhibits (Yves Klein, Alex Soth, Eiko + Koma), sketched and photographed both inside and out in weather ranging from seventy and sunny to freezing and snowy, and wandered for hours in the underground parking garage.

My class consists of 28 students: We paired up and each group amassed general information about the WAC to help us each understand the site better.  One group studied the shadows that fall on the site throughout the year.  One group researched the vegetation and art objects at the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.  One looked at current sightlines, one at public versus private spaces, one at the geology beneath the site, one at figure-ground changes through time, one at programming.  My partner and I studied the underground parking structure and how it impacts our design decisions.

Designed in 2002 by Hammel, Green, and Abrahamson, the 700 unit, five floor parking ramp was constructed to alleviate parking problems in the neighborhood and to eliminate the unsightly aboveground parking facility.  The parking ramp takes up space beneath over half of the site meaning that it imposes a major design challenge for the WAC space:  Essentially, we are working with a green roof design rather than a traditional park space.  There presently is only about two feet of soil and sod above the concrete roof which limits the choices of trees, for example, that can be used.  Weight restrictions, water penetration issues, and the inability to excavate all must be considered when designing the site.

Another factor that one must consider when designing the Walker Art Center site is the presence of James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, 2005.  The WAC is, as mentioned, one of the top five American institutions for viewing modern and contemporary art.  The sculpture garden expansion would certainly be in keeping with that identity so one should expect that the Turrell installation sets a precedent for the types of work that might be presented.  It is a multi-component sculptural piece at nearly the top of the hill toward the southern limit of the site that requires the visitor to enter a long corridor from outside which then leads to a small room that is open for views of the sky.

Sky Pesher, 2005 is an installation that the designer must keep in mind as he or she works on the site.  It required major modifications to the parking ramp to support not only its weight but also its intrusion into the ground.  One must remember not to block the entry but must design a permanent path to it, mustn’t place vegetation in places that would disrupt the Sky Pesher‘s surroundings, and should consider what other sorts of art might be exhibited nearby.

The Walker Art Center sculpture garden exists in space, doesn’t it?  The designer must be cognizant of its relationship to the surrounding neighborhood.  The WAC directors want to keep this space open to the public as much as possible.  The current Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, while open twenty-four seven, is a mostly enclosed and segregated space because of the hedges that surround it.  Conversely, the WAC would like the expansion to be part of the Walker Without Walls identity and to promote a “town square” feeling.

A common goal of landscape architecture is to create a dialogue between the inside and the outside of a space.  What is the relationship between spaces?  The Herzog and de Mueron design endeavored to place windows at points where a person looking out would see something significant about Minneapolis and the neighborhood surrounding the Walker Art Center.  A project that is sensitive to the surrounding landscape will place design elements in the viewshed of the WAC windows to tie the landscape to the museum experience.  An even more successful design will entice visitors from the Walker’s galleries and public interiors to the sculpture garden outside.  While inside the Walker, I noted the viewsheds so that my final design could engage in that dialogue through the windows and pull people outside.

The Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden is completely about landscape architecture. The student working on that space is obligated to consider so many factors while designing a plan for a possible future for that space.  I’ve been engrossed completely for weeks on the WAC and am working now steadily to compile a comprehensive design plan that might be meaningful to both the Walker Art Center and the City of Minneapolis.  I know that this space is the link between Uptown and Downtown and participates heavily in the park program of this city.  It belongs to the neighborhood, to the Walker Art Center, to Mr Turrell, to Herzog and de Mueron and Barnes and Desvign.  It belongs to all people interested in contemporary art, museums, and the development of public spaces.  I hope to design a sculpture garden that is sustainable, captivating, and appropriate for such a significant space.

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About matthewtraucht

Graduate school student at the University of Minnesota's College of Design pursuing a Master's of Landscape Architecture, class of 2013.
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