By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"The clients know I am an innovator before they interview me," says Gunnar Birkerts, who built the old Minneapolis Federal Reserve Building. "If they don't have the nerve, they don't take me."
Hugh Galusha had the nerve. He was president of the regional Federal Reserve in 1968, and he gave the young architect the commission of a lifetime--the chance to build a building that was practically a sculpture, that was as innovative structurally as it was visually. As Popular Science put it in 1972: "The Building is a Bridge." The bridge was built after a decade of terrifying architectural destruction; throughout the postwar period wrecking balls flew, erasing any traces of history from downtown Minneapolis. Now the building that is a bridge and a sculpture is itself threatened: after less than 25 years, the Fed is packing up and moving out.
In 1973 what seemed so bold--92 ton catenaries (like giant suspension cables) anchored by eight-foot long bolts, the lack of a ground floor, and two-thirds of her body concealed without light below ground--now seems foolhardy and extravagant. What seemed heroically poetic--the building symbolizing a bridge across the Mississippi, just as the Twin Cities bridge the Mississippi--now seems merely starry-eyed.
But to Gunnar Birkerts, the building is still fantasy fulfillment. "It is all my dreams realized. The granite is the great mountains, the glass mirrors the great sky. It is strong and silent--like the people. It is powerful like capitalism, and it is rich, the bank of all the banks." Like a perfect poem, there is no part of the structure of the building that does not express Birkerts's meaning. But unlike a poem, Birkerts's bank must exist in time, and space, and weather. It is vulnerable.
The building needs significant repair: there is an asbestos problem, and the exterior glass lets in air and water vapor that has caused some structural rust. Birkerts blames the Fed: "If you had a car for 30 years you wouldn't expect not to fix it up a little, to do some maintenance." James Stageberg, a Minneapolis architect who led the fight to save the old Met, agrees. He says that if Hugh Galusha, Birkerts's Fed champion, had "still been alive, he would have found a way to maintain the building. It's a magnificent creature for when and what it was designed for."
But even aside from maintenance problems, says David Levy, vice president of Public Affairs for the Federal Reserve board, the Fed and the building simply are ill suited. Levy says Birkerts had anticipated "a checkless society, that we would go entirely electronic and there would be no need for a check-clearing process anymore." Of course, Minnesotans write more than a few checks, and the Fed processes 3 million daily. "The people clearing checks are on four different floors, they're getting on elevators with little pushcarts. If we sat down to design a system you probably couldn't come up with something more inefficient," says Levy. Since two-thirds of the building's space is below ground, some employees "don't get any sunlight, and start to feel less human." Levy says increased security, in the wake of recent bombings of federal buildings, added to the space needs of additional employees, finally led the Fed to look for another home.
But this decision was eased by deep pockets. After building a tower in 1925, (the National City Bank building at Fifth and Marquette,) the Minneapolis Fed has engaged in large scale construction about every 25 years. Last March, the General Accounting Office reported that the Fed, as an institution, is insufficiently accountable, and should spend less and return billions more to the treasury. Is this frequent construction an example of Fed waste? Would the Fed and the Building have worked out their differences if the Fed hadn't found it so easy to walk away?
Considering a renovation price tag of somewhere around $25 million, Birkerts's sculpture may be doomed without the Fed. As Stageberg says: "If the Fed doesn't care, who else would have the necessary resources to?" But Stageberg also has mixed feelings about the future of the building. "In a way, the bank is a symbol, an icon of the sixties. It is architecture in the highest sense, expressed in the most complete sense in every way, with all the stops out. That's its downside too, since all elements bowed to the idea. Philip Johnson's glass house was an icon for its time--but in fact, he sold it. All buildings shouldn't have an endless life, though we'll all shed some tears if it comes down."
The Fed insists that the building isn't coming down. It's now "eligible" to be on the National Register of Historic Places, which, according to Levy, "means that it's not technically on the national register but that it's in the process of getting there, so it's not guaranteed that it won't be knocked down, but it guarantees that it will get scrutiny from historical groups and so forth." Scrutiny seems like flimsy armor, considering the local love affair with the bulldozer. Without a champion, this glass and steel beauty should be very afraid. *
If you haven't heard, Lois Lane and Clark Kent finally tied the knot earlier this month after over half a century of mistaken identity and flirting by the water cooler at the Daily Planet. The ceremony spawned a special episode of The Adventures of Lois and Clark on ABC and a DC Comics special edition called Superman: The Wedding Album. (Was he in a wheelchair? you ask. He wasn't.) Now the good people at the College of Comic Book Knowledge wanted to give something back to the couple that, hem, pays the rent. So they threw a reception and registered the happy couple at--where else?--Target's Club WeddSM. (Rumor has it the Fortress of Solitude hasn't been redecorated since 1967, so think housewares.) THE SUPERCOUPLE (who are probably already Superrich from the Superhoopla, and are donating their wedding loot to the Harriet Tubman Center) have some odd marital needs. Follows an abbreviated list from the Club WeddSM roster: