About the Neighborhood

A city needs postcard buildings

But postcard buildings do not a city make

Michael Graves is one of a very few living architects whose name is a household brand.

Yes, he’s designed regular buildings, like the playful Dolphin & Swan Hotels at Disney World and the ever-popular public library in Denver, but today he is mostly known for his product design, including the 2,000 objects he’s designed for Target–toasters and tea kettles, clock radios and can openers, desk lamps and picture frames.

Now Michael Graves is at work here in southwest Minneapolis, designing additions to the Children’s Theater Company (CTC) and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), both located in Whittier. The CTC is adding classrooms, rehearsal space, and a 300-seat theater for plays targeted at teens, while the MIA is adding gallery, library and office space.

When Graves unveils his designs

soon, I’m sure they will be delightful, a collection of quirky, colorful and whimsical forms arrayed against the staid backdrop of the existing buildings. If the CTC and MIA can raise the money, and it’s all built as planned, I guarantee that southwest Minneapolis will gain a new "postcard building."

What architects call a postcard building is one that’s photogenic and popular, a unique work of Architecture As Art that makes a community proud. Think of the Lake Harriet bandshell, the IDS Tower, or the State Capitol.

Postcard buildings play a vital role in a community. They help focus community identity and civic pride. A city without postcard buildings is missing something. I was in a meeting at Richfield City Hall recently, and all the images on the conference room wall were, not from Richfield, but from Minneapolis: the Lake Harriet Bandshell, the Linden Hills trolley station, the Minneapolis skyline as seen from across Lake Calhoun. And I asked myself, How can a community with no postcard buildings develop any civic pride?

Yet, while a city does need postcard buildings, postcard buildings do not a city make. If Richfield is a city without monuments, then Columbus, Indiana, is its opposite: a city where almost every building is Significant Architecture. Back in the 1950s, the Cummins Engine Foundation made a deal with Columbus: it would pay the architectural fees for any new building if the church or school or library in question selected an architect from its list of hot young designers. Today, Columbus has more postcard buildings than any other city in America. It should be wonderful, right?

Wrong. In Columbus every building is shouting for attention. No single building stands out, and there is no sense of the community as a whole. A city of monuments is like a choir of soloists, or a sports team of superstars. It doesn’t work as a whole.

The new Michael Graves postcard buildings at the CTC and MIA will be a welcome addition to Minneapolis, giving identity and pride to a troubled neighborhood. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s the everyday architecture, the houses and shops and schools working together as a community, that truly make a city strong. And we shouldn’t reserve all our resources for the show horses of Architecture, when it’s the workhorses that hold us together.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, located in Linden Hills. He can be reached at [email protected]