The Decorated Duck

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

"I think a lot of the design here was done in deference to City Center," he says, gesturing to the inert façade across Hennepin Avenue. "That was a real benchmark for the city, because the architecture was so bad it actually made the front page of the newspaper. I think they wanted to break the scale down over here, make it seem less monolithic. To the average lay person, the architecture is really going to fade into the background."

We proceed inside through the complex's unassuming Hennepin Avenue entrance and take an escalator to the skyway level, an empty hall fractured by columns and tiled in a pastel pattern that echoes the brightly painted exposed ductwork above. "This space is all about moving through," Mulfinger comments. "You certainly get the sense that you're no place: There's no 'here' here.

"It looks familiar," he says. "But that's just the memory of other places you've been in, of malls all across America."

"Where's the city here?" The empty ornamentation of Block E
Diana Watters
"Where's the city here?" The empty ornamentation of Block E


Perhaps it seems silly to parse the aesthetic merits of a shopping mall. Certainly, a Hard Rock Cafe, Borders Bookstore, and Gameworks arcade are an improvement over Block E's previous tenants, including the seedy Moby Dick's bar--at least insofar as it's better to be gouged than stabbed. And there's nothing inherently ignoble about retail architecture: As Rem Koolhaas noted in the recent book Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, mall grazing is one of the remaining forms of public activity, as well as one of the principal ways that we experience a city. (Coming from an iconoclast like Koolhaas, that statement probably ought to be read as something between a complaint and a benediction.) But then "architecture" isn't limited to the private palaces that CEOs build to entomb their wealth, or the occasional university or public library. Instead, it defines where we park our cars and buy our groceries: Every building is public space when viewed from the sidewalk.

"Any good, really vital American city needs points of tension," explains Garth Rockcastle. "Imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower. The sparks that come from that tension--that's what creates intelligent design." Rockcastle, an architect with the Minneapolis firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, is, like Mulfinger, an instructor at the University of Minnesota. He is also a longtime and vociferous critic of the Block E development. When the project was in its initial stages, Rockcastle proposed a design that would have created a street-side piazza along Hennepin Avenue. In the finished development, what looks at first glance to be a plaza on the First Avenue side turns out to be a valet-parking area for the hotel.

"The first thing I'm struck by is the music coming out of the bushes here," Rockcastle says as we saunter past a fountain surrounded by flower beds. A line of people is waiting outside the Hard Rock Cafe, while the competing strains of Pink and Olivia Newton-John issue from hidden speakers somewhere nearby. The building is lined with oversize posters of the musicians Seal and Alanis Morissette, along with several others. (Why these two modest talents have been so canonized remains a mystery.) "It's a very conscious stage set. The whole block feels very theatrical. And that's neither good nor bad. They're trying to use the theater of the place to create an atmosphere.

"I look at this as both a citizen and an architect," Rockcastle continues. "I wonder, Why is this being done for me? Why is it good for us? For anyone who travels at all, this feels like an old game. It's doing the same things as Las Vegas, but not nearly as well. Why would anyone come here? It's designed for people from the suburbs who will maybe come downtown for a trick or two. If you're going to talk about Las Vegas, the thing about the buildings there is that they have an animated sensibility. They're embedded with a sense of play. Minneapolis could have brought that range of sensibilities and combined it with a German or a Scandinavian sense of aesthetics. Instead, we get the most mundane aspects of Las Vegas. You could call it a 'decorated duck.'"

The complex's duckiness, Rockcastle explains, arises from its use of the familiar forms of suburban retail design. The building's symbolic language, in other words, is that of a strip mall--a sharp contrast to the two other ducks that will eventually anchor the axis of Minneapolis's downtown: Jean Nouvel's riverfront Guthrie Theater and the new Walker Art Center by Herzog & De Meuron. "There are a lot of safe things embedded here: There's the Hard Rock, the Borders, a multiplex with all the big movies that you see advertised everywhere. There are safe things embedded in the flesh of the building, too. It's all about appeasing people."

We continue into the complex's interior. Unlike most malls, Block E has virtually no public space--no glass atriums, no two-story escalators, no places to sit and people-watch. "One reason developers don't like public spaces is that they like control," Rockcastle explains. "How developers work is, they say, sure, there'll be a lot of spaces that will be public. But then they can't control things like hours and behavior and how people move around. I find this kind of architecture so transparent. There's no magic. It's all loud music and sheetrock."

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