Talking about Design:

The Walker Art Center expansion. The new "Guthrie on the River." The Children's Theatre addition. Almost every morning in the Star Tribune there's either an architectural rendering or a model of one of these projects. More architecture news is soon to come: In the next few weeks we'll see the preliminary design for the new Central Library and the expansion to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

As an architect there's nothing I love more than seeing design on the front page. What has startled me is that, despite the flurry of coverage, there's been so little public discussion of the proposed designs.

After all, these structural re-workings of our major cultural institutions will change the character of Minneapolis for decades to come. Where's the passion? Where are the flaming letters to the editor? Where are the impassioned commentaries? Why has there been hardly a peep?

It's not as though the designs are bland. The Walker expansion involves tearing down two well-loved buildings--the Guthrie Theater and the Allianz Life Insurance building--to build an underground parking ramp and a wisp of an addition that threatens to float away in a digital haze. The new Guthrie looks like a fortress with a protruding, runaway skyway, reminiscent of the campy "Infinity Room" at Wisconsin's House on the Rock. Meanwhile, Michael Graves' Children's Theatre design so completely ignores the existing building that it isn't even included in the renderings. There's plenty to talk about!

Yes, there are obstacles. Minnesotans don't have much of a history of publicly discussing architecture and design, and, like dance and art, architecture can be hard to talk about.

Yet the public has much to offer. Architects, like the members of any profession, can suffer tunnel vision. Too often they design for their peers rather than for the citizens, or just float off into the ether of their own imaginations. We need public input to keep the architects--and the building committees--grounded in the reality of our shared city.

If nothing else, the public can help evaluate whether the stated design intentions are working. For example, the Walker wants to create "an indoor/outdoor town square as a hub for artistic, educational, and community activities." Yet what

does this town square face? Not the bucolic and beloved Sculpture Garden, a natural gathering spot, but the eight lanes of Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues, filled with belching buses and semis hurtling by at high speed. This can't possibly work!

Of course, even if you WANT to talk about architecture, there aren't many outlets. The two daily newspapers are reluctant to write critiques, though they will run letters to the editor or commentaries.

More helpful, if less visible, are online possibilities. There's the Minnesota issues forum (www.e-democracy.org/mpls), which has devoted considerable cyberspace to Guthrie design deliberation. The Star Tribune sponsors startribune.com/talk, where citizens can post thoughts about articles it runs; the entries include running commentaries and discussions about the new Children's Theatre and Guthrie designs. Minnesota Public Radio hosts "Soapbox," where citizens can post commentaries on various topics (though I couldn't find any about the buildings in question).

Ultimately we in the public need to be asking: how can we make our city better? Architecture, for better or worse, is the visible form of our city; discussing it is a means to discussing the future of Minneapolis.

The impact of civic architecture can be enormous. Look at Bilbao, Spain, where the resurgent spirit of a city is beautifully captured in the soaring new Frank Gehry building. Or look at the Sydney Opera House, or closer to home, Milwaukee's new Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum expansion, a building that unfolds its wings like a bird over Lake Michigan.

If Milwaukee can do it, why not Minneapolis?

-- Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, located in Linden Hills.

He can be reached at [email protected]