A $125 million bet: will Pelli’s Galleria be a great civic space?

Cesar Pelli, the architect of the Norwest Tower and Gaviidae Commons, is warm, suave, and urbane, a genuine old-school gentleman who radiates emotional warmth and charm. He’s just the sort you’d expect to have designed two of Downtown’s warmest, most elegant landmarks.

So why is the new design for the Minneapolis Central Library as cold as yesterday’s pizza?

Maybe it was just the icy quality of the computer-generated drawings (a poor substitute for Pelli's famous watercolors), particularly the exteriors. So far, there’s little in the library renderings to warm Minneapolis hearts.

Which is too bad because, presentation style aside, the building itself is blessedly simple. Pelli broke the library into two five-story blocks and skewed them to fit the diverging grids between Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues. Between the two blocks is a soaring, five-story-high triangular atrium, a grand civic space dubbed the Galleria. Over the Galleria floats the design’s one truly bold idea, a triangular roof that cantilevers dramatically over both the Nicollet and Hennepin Avenue entrances.

This roof form, however, battles for attention with the Planetarium dome, which grows like a futuristic glass artichoke out of the roof.

There is no funding for the planetarium yet, but Pelli has wisely shown it anyway. Domes, of the futuristic or historical variety, are the single most powerful symbol of civic architecture. Take away the Planetarium dome, and there’s little to identify the library as the civic heart of Minneapolis rather than just another corporate slab.

But it’s not the stealth bomber roof or the planetarium dome that is the building’s most intriguing feature. It’s the glass. Glass spans from floor to ceiling all around the perimeter. Vertical mullions break the glass into an irregular rhythm that is meant, says Pelli, to look “like books on a bookshelf.” The glass is etched with the swirling pattern of a Minnesota snowstorm. Different glass opacities throughout the building will create a subtle, constantly changing pattern across an otherwise flat faade -- an effect lost in the presentation renderings.

On the exterior, the horizontal band of each floor is wrapped in Mankato-Kasota stone -- not the warm golden-buff stone we’re used to in Downtown buildings, but the “Mankato Grey” vein, a much cooler color. Fortunately, the interiors look much warmer and more inviting.

The success of the entire building, however, hinges on one simple question: Will the Galleria feel like a grand civic space? If it does, then the library will be worth every penny of its $125 million budget. If it doesn’t, then expect another new library building in 40 years.

My gut feeling is the Galleria will be wonderful. Each floor opens onto and overlooks the Galleria. A ground-floor caf and bookstore will guarantee pedestrian traffic, and it will likely be filled with light and humming with activity, a much-needed civic space to rival what the IDS Tower’s Crystal Court once was

AIA architect Robert Gerloff is Southwest Journal's architecture writer. E-mail him at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.