The Decorated Duck

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

Looking out a second-floor window that faces the Target Center, Rockcastle elaborates, "Where's the city here? This is the only overlook here, and you're looking right at one of the worst buildings in Minneapolis. Why isn't there a café here, you know? You're looking down, and there are people down there. This would be a perfect place to have a drink before going to something across the street. Instead, it's a dead space. How stupid! You need life. You need people enjoying themselves instead of just spending money."

We proceed to the 15-screen multiplex on the complex's third floor. The theater is decorated in the standard mall style, with a neon motif. Rockcastle shakes his head sadly. "This is an example of good intentions," he says. "This sensibility lusts for action. When there are no people here, it feels apologetic, almost tragic." He mentions a possible alternate design--a "cinematographic" projection in the theater's lobby, which, like an installation piece by Nam June Paik, would connect the space with the idea of moviegoing. "I'm not saying they should have done that, necessarily. But that would activate the space. And you don't see that in the suburbs. It's something that's exciting because it's moving us somewhere we haven't been.

"I think all commercial designers should spend time in Japan," Rockcastle says as we make our way back to the skyway level. "If you look at examples from Tokyo or Osaka, you see these commercial places that are laboratories for different lifestyles. People are experimenting with different conceptions of public life. You really get a sense of fluxus. Where's that energy in America? We keep confusing public life with shopping."

We walk across the skyway to get a final look at the building from the opposite side of First Avenue. "You see those cornices over there?" Rockcastle asks, pointing to a detail on the face of Le Meridian Hotel. "Think about what a cornice is: What's its function? Here, it's just a theatrical device. But a cornice is much more than that. It's for crispening the line between earth and sky. It's for keeping water out of a building's key areas. Now these are just a parody of what a cornice is.

"But dishonesty is not the problem," Rockcastle continues as night begins to fall on the city outside. "Fiction is not true, but it's necessary for culture. Here we have the difference between writing a dime-store novel and a great piece of literature. Both take the same amount of time. But if you're writing literature, it means you care enough about the culture to make the effort. With architecture, there's so damned much money involved that we should always aspire to elevate our cities. Sure, you'll make more money writing the romance novel. But what does that say about us?"

The 35-foot guitar isn't talking.

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