The Decorated Duck

Between a hard rock and a place: The nowhere look of downtown's Block E

Back in the late 1960s, the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown saw the future of the American city in the most unlikely of places: the neon-laden commercial architecture of the Las Vegas strip. Fast, cheap, and self-consciously theatrical, Vegas was a rebuke to the European-influenced, self-aggrandizing heroism of glass-and-steel monuments by modernists like Mies van Der Rohe. In their landmark 1972 study of the strip, Learning From Las Vegas, the pair identified two competing strains in this distinctly American idiom. One, called "The Duck" after a poultry-shaped roadside stand on Long Island, celebrated the symbolic language of buildings themselves. The other, which they dubbed "The Decorated Shed," was characterized by the ostentatious ornamentation of plain buildings. The preeminent example of this latter is probably Venturi's own never-built design for the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame, a simple box surmounted by an enormous electronic billboard flashing images of gridiron heroics.

Certainly, Vegas itself, with its newly Disneyfied profile, has changed radically since Scott Brown and Venturi produced their manifesto. But their arguments about populism and elitism seem still to be working their way through American commercial architecture. Witness one of Venturi's oft-quoted aphorisms: "Ugly & ordinary is better than heroic & original."

Which brings us to Minneapolis's own mini-Bellagio, the new $150 million hotel/entertainment/retail emporium on downtown's long-dormant Block E. Designed by Chicago-based Joseph Antunovich and Associates, a firm most often identified with the Streets of Woodfield, a shopping arcade in Schaumburg, Illinois, the Block E complex aspires to the dynamic eclecticism of Venturi's Vegas or New York's 42nd Street. Built to mediate between the dignified, clean-lined buildings of the Warehouse District and the shopping centers across Hennepin Avenue, Block E's parti might be described as a purposeful mishmash. To leaven the development's monolithic scale, the building's faces are broken down to resemble a jumble of smaller storefronts. Its skin, too, which incorporates rough stone, brick, and even marble, seems designed to convey a sense of heterogeneity--a somewhat jarring dissonance with the shopping-mall aesthetic of the interior.

"The word pastiche comes to mind," muses Dale Mulfinger. Mulfinger, an architect with Excelsior-based SALA Architects and an instructor at the University of Minnesota, is one of two practicing architects who agreed last week to amble around Block E and share his thoughts on the building's design. "You could also say cartoonish," Mulfinger adds. "It's a cartoon version of a mall theme park." Mulfinger points out a decorative detail on the First Avenue façade, a classical pediment transposed over an entrance. "That's an element pulled right off the Parthenon. But it's set over those modern windows. It would need two central columns there to give it the illusion that it's bearing weight.

"You see, what's happened here is they've pulled pieces from various historical contexts, but not in a joking or playful way. It would almost be more interesting if it was a joke."

Mulfinger points to the skyway that links the complex to the Target Center across First Avenue. It's painted bright red and designed to resemble a suspension bridge. "Now this I like. This bridging element is great. But there's still this sense that Designer A did the bridge, Designer B did this, Designer C did that, and then the whole thing was collaged together. Now, certainly, a place like this doesn't have to read of all one architecture. The space could be kind of fun depending on the activity that's going on inside it.

"Part of the problem is that it's designed from the outside as a series of different façades," Mulfinger continues as we pass beneath Le Meridian, the 22-story hotel that rises from the building's First Avenue face. "Which doesn't read true to what's going on inside. Outside, you have these references to the 19th Century. Inside, you have this contemporary shopping-center motif." And indeed the building's interior is finished in classical mall style, all pastel colors and glass window displays. "Here you have a shopping center masquerading as a building with historical antecedents. It's really a building in search of a theme. Maybe that theme will come along later."

This corner of the complex is dominated by a sign for a Hard Rock Cafe, a 35-foot-long flashing neon-lighted guitar that leans over the sidewalk. As much an iconic symbol as the rock 'n' roll reliquaries kept behind glass in the restaurant itself, the sign seems to connect the complex, at least faintly, to Venturi's notion of the Decorated Shed--a building animated by gaudy symbolic ornament. But what, if anything, does the café's sign signify, other than one more example of the corporate branding of public space? (All of the signage that will eventually adorn Block E has been rented by media behemoth Clear Channel.) "You could probably call this a 'decorated shed,'" Mulfinger muses. "But I would have hoped that there would be more interesting, or provocative, or playful decoration."

We walk around the Seventh Street side of the building, which features second-story balconies and high arched moldings--both purely decorative. "There are a lot of decorative elements here that look like someone was just searching for something to throw onto the façade. Here we have a little taste of Palladio shipped in from Italy. It looks like it was designed to appease a lot of committees. Some design committee wanted the façade broken up. And the investment bankers wanted a clear view of their stores.

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