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.

"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."

 

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."

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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