Library bigwigs say "no exteriors for you!"

The saga started with a few lines in the newspaper.

Linda Mack, the Star Tribune's astute architecture reporter, covered an Aug. 13 presentation by Cesar Pelli, the architect designing the new $123-million Downtown library. "Pelli," she wrote, "showed the first exterior images of the design to the committee in charge of the project….The images shown Tuesday were not released to the public."

I read that and thought: weird.

The committee -- a.k.a. the Central Library Implementation Committee -- is a public body appointed by the Minneapolis City Council and Minneapolis Library Board. They were holding a public meeting. The new library is a public project.

So why couldn't the public see these images in their morning newspaper?

I know that this isn't Watergate. But the new library is a nine-figure addition to Downtown's sculpture garden; we've been promised a beautiful landmark embodying public spirit. Plus, we're the client: it's our $123 million, and Pelli works for us. We should be able to see his work product.

So I called the Implementation Committee's Anne Ulseth and asked for the images. Our discussion could only be described as Kafkaesque.

Her first version of "no": the images had been made public. Any member of the public could have come to the Implementation meeting to see them.

I asked incredulously, "You really mean the only way the public could view the design was to go to an afternoon meeting of an obscure committee in a small room?"

Her next argument: the image was already out of date.

Fine, I replied. I'd be happy to run a caption saying the design is preliminary and evolving -- or, she could give me a more current image.

No dice.

I launched the public-interest argument: look at the World Trade Center rebuilding; the public hated the early layouts, and the architects are adding human-scale improvements. You're telling me that Minneapolitans will receive less?

She parried that the public has been involved through surveys and workshops for many months.

But not since you've had an actual exterior they can react to, I answered.

She replied that the public would have a chance to react -- after the design is released at a big public celebration Oct. 1. But guess what? The Implementation Committee will vote on the design that same day, and the City Council and Library Board will vote seven to 10 days later.

Any political pro knows it's hard to change things once a vote's taken place. The Implementation Committee will get virtually no public reaction, and the 10-day window to influence the council and library board is ridiculously small.

Ulseth notes that the vote will only finalize 20 percent of the finished design. However, she added, the size and shape "won't change much."

(Note: Ulseth is not the villain here; she's a flak-catcher following someone's orders.)

So why are the library planners so afraid to let the public see the exterior evolve? I called Mayor R.T. Rybak -- an Implementation Committee member and a guy who ran for office advocating more openness in City Hall.

"I completely understand your frustration, where you sit," the mayor began.

He recounted his own days as a Strib reporter, covering the evolution of Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Center -- also designed by Pelli.

Rybak remembered chasing Pelli's presentations all over town but never being able to get an exterior he could run in the paper.

He's simpatico, I thought -- at last, a powerful ally!

But apparently Rybak was just going through a phase. "As a reporter, I very much wanted to be able to put a picture in the paper. But it would've been inaccurate, because the picture is not fully formed."

Now, he said, showing Pelli's preliminary exterior would be "like trying to tell the story of a movie by taking one frame."

To me, this sounded suspiciously like "the public is stupid," as if you and I can't be trusted to evaluate a rough draft -- but library staff and politicians (and Minneapolis Club lunchers, who also saw a presentation) can.

Rybak made one practical argument: fundraising. A dramatic unveiling creates a bigger "wow!" factor that might better unlock the wallets of donors needed to fund some final library amenities.

(One library insider offered an especially piquant analogy: showing a design is like seeing a sexual partner naked; the more often you see it, the less exciting it becomes. I replied that I wanted a design I can love in the morning.)

At least one member of the Implementation Committee, 7th Ward Councilmember Lisa Goodman, has the good sense to be annoyed.

The famously brassy Goodman -- a vociferous advocate for Pelli during the architect selection process -- minced no words. "The client is the public. If we really want to involve the public, we should show the drawings as soon as possible. To show us a [full] proposal, what room is there for input from the public? I don't think the input from 10 people is as good as hundreds or thousands."

I've thought about suing for the drawings, but frankly, the cat will be out of the bag before the case has a chance to be resolved. And, as I said, this isn't Watergate.

For now, we'll have to hope Pelli's formidable talent carries the day. Rybak paints this word picture: "The building has evolved, so that the midsection, the public atrium, is beginning to take on a light, airy quality with a signature wing. It's inspired."

Too bad that light airiness is cloaked by a heavy-handed disregard for the public's right to know.