Walker Art Center a Culprit in Badness of Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck

Walker Art Museum, from the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge over the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck

Walker Art Museum, from the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge over the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck

The Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck: Not great by any measure. The City of Minneapolis is working on a plan to, basically, repave it. Many well-written thoughts about that project and whether or not it’s a good idea and what we’d do if we had exponentially more funding for it can be found here. But as with many large public works projects of questionable value, there are some helpful little things we can do on the side that cost considerably less than millions of dollars but still go a long way towards improving the experience of being alive in the area when not driving a car.

One of those things would be to considerably alter the streetscape along the eastern side of the Walker Art Center. The Walker is the most prominent of the several institutional uses along the bottleneck, and it makes up about a fourth of its total street frontage.

The Walker Art Center's street frontage in red

The Walker Art Center’s street frontage in red

The phrase “considerably alter” maybe implies that it would be expensive, but it’d certainly be some fraction of the cost of even the most minimal bottleneck repaving, currently budgeted at about $9.1 million dollars, and a much smaller fraction of the Walker’s $152 million dollar endowment.

But there’s a lot to do here.

Here are some pictures taken on Sunday, and keep in mind that the people you see are potentially residual folks wandering around after Open Streets on Lyndale.

Not great

Does anyone have a Shop-Vac?

Here’s a modest strip of cement up against four lanes of car traffic, one of which is barreling towards I-94. (Sidebar: Walking around the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck always makes me extra aware that something like 75% to 100% of motorists are looking at or talking to their phones at any given time while driving, but that’s a subject for another time.) Obviously, the picture is a little bad because of the gravel and caution tape and gray skies, but the experience isn’t much improved when it’s swept and there’s no caution tape and it’s sunny.

Obstacle Course

Obstacle Course

Here’s the area where the sidewalk isn’t too small–it’s huge but somehow considerably more desolate. The green patches of grass don’t do anything for it. It’s unclear what the idea is behind those. Recently, while checking out a Nice Ride bike from the rack at the Walker, I noticed that literally all of the green patches I could see had at least one cigarette butt in them. So that might be what they’re for.

Robot Head

Robot Head

Here’s the entrance on Hennepin/Lyndale, under the giant robot head. Without getting too much into the debatable aspects of whether or not it’s a good idea to build prominent buildings that look like this…it’s the only permeable part of the Walker along this entire block, except for this parking garage entrance:

Beetlejuice, beetlejuice, beetlejuice!

Beetlejuice, beetlejuice, beetlejuice!

So the street frontage isn’t great–it’s basically a blank wall for over a block, with windows for some stretch of it.

Groveland & Hennepin

Groveland & Hennepin

Vineland & Bottleneck

Vineland & Bottleneck

Above are the two corners of the building that face Hennepin/Lyndale, and you can see that they are literally blank walls with some interchangeable adornment on one. The current informative adornment noting some exhibits is much better than the previous, dishonest adornment. There’s some sort of quasi-plaza-like situation going on at the corner of Vineland & Bottleneck, but it’s empty and not particularly inviting. There were previously some sculptures of some sort there, but they are gone now.

It seems unlikely that this post will convince the Walker to blast holes in the side of their building, but there are some other things that could be done to substantially improve the conditions along the bottleneck without even touching the street.

  • Substitute the green dots for actual vegetation, including (and most importantly) trees. It will feel exponentially less desolate with some shade that isn’t the robot head. Fantasy: The Loring Park area is hard up for community garden space! It could be on the front doorstep of the Walker! Offbeat vegetables could be grown!
  • Do something with the blank walls. Anything. Other than a loading dock. Loading dock is the only thing worse than a blank, opaque wall. Fantasy: Cut windows into the side of the building where possible.
  • Most importantly, rethink that whole quasi-plaza-like situation at Vineland & Bottleneck. Go with one plan–either build an actual plaza, or scrap the whole thing and roll it over into grass for now. Fantasy: A fountain on the corner! Minneapolis needs some fountains. Or maybe a decorative waterfall down the side of the building? Lit with an LED glow? It wouldn’t be huge, so it could be heated to not freeze over, maybe. I’m not an artist–see disclaimer below. It (or other TBD good use) would be something for people to actually sit at and think about while walking over to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, across the street.

It’s really important to point out, very controversially, that buildings like this alienate people for no particular reason other than to be loudly saying that they look the way that they do. Be as contemporary and avant-garde as you want with a sculpture or a painting, but architecture tends to impact people without their consent, and this building actively makes its environment worse. We can do a lot better.

Disclaimer: The author is an uncultured rube who simply doesn’t appreciate the complexities of modern architecture.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

35 thoughts on “Walker Art Center a Culprit in Badness of Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell


    It’s been fascinating to me, both in the U.S. and in Europe, how long older traditional design buildings last vs how long contemporary buildings do and how many people older traditional design buildings attract around them vs contemporary. Perhaps there’s more to it than just traditional vs contemporary, like better construction in traditional buildings and traditional buildings more likely to have doors, windows, and other elements of interest. But even aside from these, is it more comfortable to sit next to a brick building along a nice park or a silver clad building on a slab of marble?

  2. Stuart

    To me, the obvious choice for the almost plaza corner is a green wall installation. It would soften the exterior considerably and add a lot of visual interest. Once installed (properly) they require minimal maintenance. It would also help the buildings heating/cooling needs.

    Plus it’s very on-trend and could easily be done in an artistic fashion. Think of it as an alternative take on “Sculpture Garden”.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    This is why postmodern architecture is awful. Architecture is not art. It was awesome to hear so many new urbanists rip apart architecture such as this last week.

    Oh, and sprinklers for 1′ circles of grass? I’m sure that cost less than a watering can.

  4. Kevin

    I live by the Walker and like it pretty well. I’ve also worked in museums before, and they can be tricky design-wise. A lack of windows is usually brought about by the need for movable gallery space (unless the museum is spacious enough to have exterior windows looking in on an lobby or atrium with the galleries further into the core of the building). So, rather than just creating a hideous warehouse-looking building, the approach for many big institutions is to create a showpiece building by some star architect. When this works, the city gets an iconic building. When it doesn’t, it gets an ugly building. I imagine they’ll continue to be reluctant to put trees and sculptures and other such adornments around it because doing so would imply they’re trying to conceal or distract from the fancy cutting-edge edifice they spent so much donor money to build.

    1. Stacy

      I’ve always thought art galleries, because they need wall space, are good candidates for false windows. I know fire departments don’t like them (and maybe they should be placed high-up so firefighters don’t try to use them), but when done well, they add a lot of visual interest to the sides of otherwise bleak-looking buildings.

  5. Kyle

    While I wouldn’t be surprised if those grass circles are classified in some way as “art” and are deemed “exhibit space” or something equally bizarre, the tree idea in the grass circles is spot on. As in the grounds keepers can drive down to Home Depot, pick up some fruit trees, and have a gentle fix in place overnight.

    If they put in a fountain, I hope it is a year round fountain that is impressive in the warmer months and slowly but surely builds a giant, organic, ice mountain sculpture in the winter.

  6. Nathaniel

    Architecture – classic, modern, post-modern or otherwise – needs to speak to us at a basic level. It needs to ultimately respect human form at its base. The Walker Art Center doesn’t do anything very well (on the exterior) expect scream, “I look like a robot!”.

    Of course, the flip side is that Lyndale / 94 aren’t exactly pleasant places you’d want to design a building to front. Is it a chicken and egg situation? Do we need good streets to have buildings wanting to front them; or do we force buildings to front bad streets and hope the street one day will get better? (Anyway – rambling here).

  7. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Nate brings up a good point. If I were an architect tasked with designing a building facing a street like Lyndale/Hennepin, I might choose to not to. In this sense, we as a city are kind of giving architects an impossible task.

    It’s funny because, other than those weird crop circles (yes Nick, they should contain trees!), the middle frontage of the Walker isn’t bad, if only it faced a worthy public realm. What is so maddening is the nice public realm it faces (Vineland and the Sculpture Garden), there isn’t an actual window or pedestrian door – the only door that faces the sculpture garden is the parking garage.

    The old Guthrie faced the Sculpture Garden directly. Wow, I’m getting more upset. I better stop writing.

    1. jim

      This is incorrect. There is an entrance that faces the Sculpture Garden. And when the weather is nice, you can get food and beer outside of that entrance, on the patio facing the Sculpture Garden. And as a cherry on top, there’s an iconic Lichenstein to view (perhaps “some sort of sculpture” to the author of this piece). And that other cherry, too.

  8. Evan RobertsEvan

    Nate and Sam bring up a good point. The Walker is trying to engage Lyndale/Hennepin, because they shifted their front door to the street. The old entrance by the Guthrie was on a quieter street and while the building wasn’t as flash the whole thing succeeded much better because the street was better.

    I do feel some sympathy for the architects here. Art galleries (and sometimes libraries) are difficult buildings to put windows all over. Not to say it can’t be done, but the interior content often needs protection from light. That puts architects in the position of having to design buffer spaces between the galleries (book stacks) that can receive light.

    Another way of appreciating the point about the street making a huge difference is to look at the Weisman. Terrible street frontage in many ways, but its one entrance is situated on a pedestrian plaza, and they activate the blank walls facing Coffman with displays.

    The Walker addition and its entrance reminds me a lot of the design of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Fairly low and small entrance in a modern building. But the NGV faces a beautiful plaza right across from one of the world’s great railway stations, and the feel is totally different because of that.

  9. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    The problem isn’t the building, it’s that crappy sidewalk in your first image. The Walker should work with the city to add something streetscape wise so that walking along the sidewalk doesn’t feel like teetering on the edge of an ugly cliff. You know, maybe some of those birch trees they like so much, benches, lampposts, the usual. The problem is having no separation between people walking or spending time outside the museum and the de facto 8-lane freeway.

    Until they fix that, the space outside the Walker will stay as dead as it is today. It’s sad, really.

    PS, some bike parking would be nice too! It’s currently located around the back of the building by the loading dock: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2012/02/props-to-walker-for-their-bike-parking.html

  10. Felix G

    Remember when the Walker was appealing to the city to get lane cut-outs on Hennepin for buses and cabs to activate the front entrance, and how the city refused?

    Also, how is Lawrence Weiner’s “Bits & Pieces” “dishonest”? Seems to me it’s accurate regarding any brick structure, any art collection made up of discrete objects, any community made up of individuals coming together…

    1. jim

      You are on point re the Weiner installation. Not sure how an artwork can be “dishonest.” Also, those “some sculptures of some sort” were the works of Alexander Calder, only one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

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  12. Bill Dooley

    Will be hard to change to building exterior without fundamentally altering the building architectural concept but wish they would put some money into landscaping and break up all that continuous concrete sidewalk.


  13. Janne

    The same day this was posted, I was at a meeting recently about Hennepin/Lyndale, and Walker staff was there. He reported that the Walker agrees this is a problem, part of the problem is that the landscaping budget was cut while building the addition — AND that they are now planning to do something about this. I did tell them about this post and invited them to submit a post about their plans. Hopefully, we’ll get a Walker perspective to add to this post.

    1. Ryan French

      I missed the recent meeting, but spoke with the Walker reps who were there. You are correct, we are actively planning a “greening” of the Hennepin side of our campus. Nothing to share yet–in part due to the big street rebuild–but know that it’s coming. Also, know that art was removed from the lower terraces on Hennepin/Vineland due to our construction project last year. It will return as part of this new plan.

      The Walker will continue to attend the planning meetings and will stay in dialog with our neighbors on this project and others that impact our community. I welcome people reaching out to me directly about their questions and concerns.

      Ryan French
      Director, Public Relations

      1. Janne

        Ryan, could you provide your contact information here so it is easy for people to contact you?

        Also, do you have any plans to seek input on your plans? Or could you share the basic principles or goals that are guiding the planning (that would make a great post on streets.mn)?

        Having lived as a Walker neighbor for 18 years, I’ll confess I’ve learned to set expectations low for neighborliness and good design. I would love to have my mind changed, hopefully sooner than later.

        1. jim

          You’ve been there 18 years? Jesus (liberal, non-denominational Jesus). The Walker has been there since the ’20s. Can you please provide your contact info so I can explain to you how you’ve ruined the neighorhood?

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  17. Cedar

    I’m happy to hear that the Walker is working on a “greening” of the building. I did just want to add to the conversation that art museums, in particular, present a very different type of architectural need than many building types; natural light is an issue when displaying art, and museums need to meet very strict standards when it comes to controlling light levels, humidity levels, etc. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways around this, but glass windows on display or storage space is not optimal.

    That said, I really do hate the current Walker facade. There are a lot of good, creative people at the Walker, however, so I hope that if they turn their attention to a real, meaningful solution we can come up with something good — it is, after all, a chance for a significant American art museum to do something truly innovative with green exterior living art. There’s some real potential there. Maybe the recent Fritz Haeg show got some good internal conversation going; that was an awesome installation and related conversation.

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