Does New Minneapolis Architecture All Look the Same?

A few weeks ago I happened across the first rendering of a new developing going in at the corner of Snelling and Selby Avenues in Saint Paul, via the Twin Cities Business Journal. The building is going to be be a six-story mixed-use complex housing a Whole Foods on a corner that has contained a rather awkward three-story bank and a surface parking lot.


The Snelby development.


It’s quite a change, but the posted rendering elicited the following comment on Twitter from David (of Transportationist and fame):


The comment got me thinking. I seem to have heard lots of similar sentiments lately, particularly as the debates intensified over dense development around the University of Minnesota. This architecture is sub-standard, people would write. It’s “cookie cutter” and has no charm or character.

It’s not that I don’t empathize with the critique. I don’t really know anything about modern building materials, but compared to an older brick building, many newer condos seem to lack detail. At the same time, when compared to the vast majority of post-war apartment architecture (a good example is Laurel Village on Hennepin Avenue), most contemporary designs seem to be an improvement. So which is it? Is contemporary mixed-use architecture boring or innovative? Repetitive or a vast improvement? Ugly or beautiful?


To The Architects!

Rendering of the Opus Dinkytown development.

I was curious what actual architects might say about this “cookie cutter” critique, so I reached out to a few architecture friends and colleagues. I asked them the following questions:

1) Do you think recent apartment / condo developments in Minneapolis are ugly? Why or why not?
2) Do these developments all look the same? How could the city improve them? Or is everything fine?
3) Is development today more or less “cookie cutter” than it used to be?
Three people got back to me, and here’s what they had to say…

Robert Roscoe,  owner of Design for Preservation in Minneapolis, and an observer of the urban design of cities – their opportunities and predicaments:

The word ‘cookie cutter’ is interestingly relevant to condo development. There are nice looking and tasty cookies, and there are cookies like every bakery does to copy other bakeries. In and near historic warehouse areas, the architectural style is often what I call “19th century warehouse revival.” Others hang a variety of exterior material sheets in place, as if the building is a sales center for these materials. But there are very well designed places out there.



Peter Crandall, is an architectural designer, urban researcher and city enthusiast who has worked at architectural design firms in the Twin Cities and as a research fellow with the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota.

1) I don’t think they’re ugly so much as superficial. Many recent developments seem to draw on aesthetic trends in modern architectural housing, yet they only employ “design” or “architecture” on the surface, dressing up what is essentially a wooden box with flashy features like aluminum siding or chunky overhangs. Their allure doesn’t hold up to close inspection and likely won’t hold up with time. If I may cite the eminently quotable film Clueless here, many of these developments are “full-on Monets.” From a distance they’re OK, but up close they’re a big ole mess.

2) I think they do all look the same, in many cases because they are being built by the same developer who probably does employ a “cookie-cutter” technique to their design. What is lacking is a sensitivity to context. How can these developments draw from and enhance their architectural and urban surroundings rather than just insert themselves into the landscape. One thing the city could do is employ some design staff to develop more rigorous guidelines on a micro-level and not just let developers dictate the agenda. We need to think of housing as a vital part of our infrastructure that can create and enhance a sense of place and not just as a quick fix to an immediate shortage.

3) Development has been going the way of the “cookie-cutter” for decades. In much the same way that wealth has become concentrated in other sectors of society, design has become relegated to the 1% of projects that can afford a starchitect. In most cases the budget for actual design time is so tiny that an architectural firm can only employ a formulaic approach in order to stay profitable. More recently cities are so desperate for development after the economic crash that they’ll let in almost anyone with the financing, and give them free reign to build however they want, masterplans and zoning be damned. It’s essentially a race to the bottom.


In the end, it’s hard to know what to think, how much our city should be pushing for better design and quality, and how much we should attempt to get as much development built as we can.

The more I think about it, for me the larger question isn’t about facades. Rather, I care about how a building functions. Sure people can have opinions about the merits of certain styles of development, but from an urbanist perspective, the key is to make sure that a building has density and an activated ground floor. To me, these are the things that really matter, that create street life and a more sustainable city. Apart from that, everything else is tasty gravy.

An early rendering of the 222 Hennepin development Totino’s development. (Whoopsies!)

32 thoughts on “Does New Minneapolis Architecture All Look the Same?

  1. helsinki

    Strongly agree with the last paragraph.

    I also strongly disagree with Mr. Gilquist’s disparaging remark about the ‘refinement’ of Minnesotan architectural taste. Being a sucker for Architectural Digest style-war fads is a mark of insecurity and pretension, not refinement.

    There was a great post today about ‘The Case for Unremarkable Buildings’:

    The brownstone walk-up Back Bay in Boston or even Haussmanian Paris are the definition of cookie-cutter. The differences between these examples and the current manifestations of our apartment boom seem to lie more in the quality of the materials and the manner in which the buildings approach the public realm.

    Knowing the Twin Cities, however, everything being built today will have been torn down within a generation anyway so it’s kind of a moot point.

    1. Jeff Klein

      Sure but there’s no way these things are going to age like a brownstone walk-up. You build something out of bricks and it has a way of transcending decadal changes in style. Those aluminum-sided stick-built condos might look mighty trashy in twenty years.

  2. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    “Development has been cookie cutter since the late 1890s.”

    Yeah. You know what’s cookie cutter? All the brownstone walkups in Stevens Square, Loring Park, and elsewhere. And they’re fine. Buildings that shout “I’M A BUILDING, LOOK AT ME!!” rarely age well.

    I’m still curious, though, about the assertion that the stick-frame buildings won’t age well structurally. Hopefully someone thought all that through before building a ton of them.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Another thought.. the people who complain about the architectural style going up right now being ‘cookie cutter’ seem to be the same people who also want new buildings to match the existing character of the neighborhood… which would only increase the uniformity of a given area.

  4. Julie Kosbab

    Yeah, the Snelby dev looks JUST LIKE the 222 Hennepin building. I overlook said building at work, and I’m not sure about the “added tower.” They just jutted out the corners a little.

  5. Adam MillerAdam

    I see a lot of similarity, so “cookie cutter” or, more accurately, “of an era” is probably appropriate, but it’s a much better era than much of what was built in the second half of the 20th century.

    20 years from now, we’ll be able to tell what was built during this particular boom. That’s not the end of the world.

  6. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    Not to be anal twice today, but that last rendering is of Red20 (the Totino’s site redevelopment) not 222. You can see St. Anthony Main in the background.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Maybe i’m being ironic on purpose, like I can’t tell apart the developments because they really do look all the same? huh? huh? did you think of that?

      (actually, no, I’m a dumbass)

      1. Julie Kosbab

        That’s okay. It still does look like 222 Hennepin, which has made valiant attempts at trees and shrubs as “streetscape” but still has really hostile street facings, generally on really hostile streets.

  7. Evan RobertsEvan

    Of course they look similar. Just like a lot of single family homes of an era look similar. Riding or driving on Park or Portland you can see the decades of different housing styles pass you by. Some of these new apartments do seem to be constructed in such a way that one can imagine the cladding being replaced with different colors or materials after some time, and that’ll make them look less similar as they age.

    Most buildings don’t need to look stunning or original, they need to interact well with the street. Many (but not all) of these buildings are doing that, which you really can’t say for several decades of post-WWII cookie cutter architecture.

    Cookie cutters allow you to make cookies easily. Reproducing the same design saves money, and that’s a good thing if you care about housing affordability.

    1. Janne

      I was telling someone about this post and realized I was saying, “Of course they’re ‘all the same.’ The triplex next door to my house is identical to my place, and it’s 110 years old. The apartment building on the corner of 25th and Colfax is identical to the one on the corner of 22nd and Aldrich. It’s always been that way.” If I thought for a few more minutes, I bet I could come up with more examples. The three buildings on the north end of my block, the pair on Hennepin around where Emerson comes out, and another trio or quad of them along Fremont just south of Jefferson.

      1. Nathanael

        Jane Jacobs said that the way to get variety in construction is to make sure the buildings aren’t all built at the same time, and aren’t all built by the same developer.

  8. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    My 1939 tudor revival home in south minneapolis (which I find quite lovely) looks pretty much identical to thousands of other tudor revivals constructed in the 1930s-1940s. I don’t know that I find this problematic. I agree that all the new buildings look the same to me, but also agree that I’m much more concerned about density, form, and street activation than anything else.

  9. Ian Bicking

    I personally like the color swatches on the Riverside Plaza buildings. Some of this isn’t necessarily a matter of making a more or less beautiful building, but just a building with something distinctive about it, something that will let you remember that building specifically. A little clock tower. An unusual color. Some decorative finish that you wouldn’t normally see. It’s nice to come home to that too – “home” isn’t the best of all places, but it’s YOUR place and distinctive touches establish that. But if you want to turn the units over faster then generic is perhaps better; but then it’s no one’s home, which also seems like a more fragile proposition.

    1. Janne

      Ian – as a mom (sans pop) landlord, my units are all painted interesting colors. On purpose. When people come to see them, they once-in-a-great-while hate them, but more often than not, they REMEMBER them and sorta like that it’s not like the 7 other apartments they just looked at. I’m convinced that appealing strongly to a reasonable share of people is preferable to being unobjectionable (and unlovable) to everyone.

  10. helsinki

    Not sure I would look to Frank Lloyd Wright as an inspiration here.

    The man was the ultimate anti-urbanist ( and he loved automobile oriented sprawl.

    An example of what I can’t stand about Wright: his Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, WI places the only entrance in the ‘carport’ and has no operable windows. Thick carpet, air-conditioning, and flourescent lighting were the mantra indoors. Taliesin is cool, but that’s not what cities should look like.

    I think he is rightly venerated for his early Jugendstil-inspired design. As an urban theorist, though, the guy was a catastrophe.

  11. bw

    “In Minnesota we have to settle for people accustomed to an “apple pie” architectural taste. Home buyers’ and developers’ tastes in other American locales are significantly more

    This is just not true, go to any major US city and you’ll find pretty much the same kind of style in the infill/condo projects. If anything I’d say the Cities have more interesting styles and architecture than most major US cities.

    IN addition to the good news that most of these buildings have active ground floors, many of them also have balconies — which can make even the ugliest building work. (I think someone did a post on this at one time.)

  12. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I’ve agonized over buildings like these for years. Now I face the same issues in the new house we’re planning. It’s a stool with four legs but I can’t have them all as long as I want. Aesthetics, Energy Efficiency, Durability, and Economics all compete with each other. We want a full-on passive house, but that’s quite expensive. More so when we try to get windows that meet the passive huis spec and that also meet our period design aesthetic of very accurately detailed Nantucket Shingle Style. Even just mixing highly energy efficient with aesthetics causes economic problems. Will one have to give or will we or someone be able to find a creative solution?

    Durability is fascinating. Our first two options were houses that were over 100 years old, but lost both in not being fast enough to the purchase table. We ended up buying a lot with a house built in 1972 (looks just like the Brady Bunch house) that when it was built was state-of-the art, yet nothing about it today is worth salvaging. Houses built 80 years prior are in better shape, worth more, and far more aesthetically appealing. So, we raze and build.

    Stone could last 200+ years and over the long-term would actually cost less. But the cost up front is astronomical and it’s difficult to recoup an investment over a 200 year period. If we had the money we could build with stone knowing that though we’d never recoup the investment, our offspring might, or perhaps their offspring would.

    Stone construction is required in the Cotswolds of the U.K. and in many historic areas of cities and villages throughout Europe. They don’t have a choice so they’ve developed as economical a stone building industry as they can and simply eat the remainder of the higher cost. Is society, and thus all of these individuals, better off for this?

    For a commercial developer looking for a fairly quick return on their investment, durability and aesthetics only need be ‘good enough’–to meet zoning/building requirements and fill the place with tenants. That’s not a very high bar.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Also, … A single large building cannot, I think, be built with the interest and visual appeal of several smaller buildings. These buildings in Amsterdam have interest because they’re different, have different sized windows with floors at different levels from one to the next:

      What if a developer built a central tower in the middle of a block but then sold off small parcels along the perimeter (that included space up under the tower on the first and second floors) to individual developers? Or what if we restricted development on any block to no more than 1/5 of that block? Economically these would be more expensive than the current mass scale buildings, but would likely have much higher aesthetic appeal.

      1. Walker

        Smaller buildings also promote competition. If you own the entire block you don’t have much local competition, if you only own only individual storefronts then you have competition directly next door, you’ll be more likely to produce an appealing structure.

    2. helsinki

      There are many masonry options besides stone that you may not be considering. Porotherm block walls with a reinforced concrete frame will be very durable, energy efficient, and relatively economical. You can put on any facade you want.

      Our current 7 story apartment craze could have been built economically this way as well, although wood is far cheaper.

      1. Walker

        My concern with this is ‘facade’. In the stone construction around the world that’s lasted hundreds of years, the structure and facade are one in the same. With a facade on Porotherm, how long will the facade last? How will the facade look compared to natural stone construction?

  13. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

    I wanted to share this comment I got from an architecturally-informed reader via Email:

    I wonder what we’ll be calling this style in the future. I vote for “Fiber Cement Block,” due to not only the materials, but also the form and bulk.

    What really surprises me is how these buildings are judged to be compatible architecture in a variety of historic districts:

    5th St SE:

    Grain Belt Brewery:

    Mill District (not actually designated but highly billed as a historic district):

    St. Anthony Falls:

    1. Walker

      All of those drawings have lot’s of people walking along the sidewalks. Why? What is there for them to be there for?

  14. Matt Pogatshnik

    Having this conversation without mentioning Robert Venturi and “Learning from Las Vegas” is hurting RV’s feelings!

  15. Nathanael

    Frank Lloyd Wright designed things which were unusable. His silverware doesn’t actually work.

    …and his houses have the same problem. They are non-functional; they have a strong tendency towards severe water leaks and damage.

    He was a *bad architect*.

  16. Archiapolis

    As an architect, this post, the quotes within and the comments section give me great hope. Generally, it appears that you guys “get it.” I am very encouraged to see a great deal of onus being placed on the developers. There is very little “ARCHITECTURE” (with a big A) happening in the US and almost ALL of it is being done by “starchitects.” The tiny percentage of ARCHITECTURE that is not being done by “starchitects” is being done by “local starchitects.” Multi-family housing/mixed-use in the US (and especially a mid-market midwestern town) is generally avoided by the starchitects and local starchitects alike because the fees are small, the budgets are tiny and the opportunity to do “ARCHITECTURE” is almost nonexistent. The quality of multi-family housing/mixed-use is almost ENTIRELY dependent on the developer’s budget and desired profit margin. The current market is for “5 over 1” stick framing, with concrete parking levels below a wood frame mid-rise (height restricted by building code). 99/100 developers (999/1000?) want as many units within the building code and zoning code for any given site – hence, the “box” form. Start to carve up/alter the box – fewer units, more expensive structure/framing, additional schedule…atypical design = dead on arrival. I really like the recognition here that the developers deserve scrutiny, buildings of EVERY era have their own distinctions (good or bad) and that as long as the street scape is good, the project deserves SOME credit. As for FLW – this man is a cultural icon and some of his buildings had flaws to be sure while some are just undeniably incredible. If you have the chance, go to the Willey House (255 Bedford St. SE Mpls) and form opinions – in my view, this is perhaps the best single-family home that I have EVER been in. Thanks for caring and I hope to see you all continue to invest your time and energy considering architecture (big A and small A) as well as urbanism. Cheers.

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