Maya Lin’s magical downtown garden

High-concept design doesn't have to be boring and stuffy -- here, it's electric, hypnotic and visceral

Forget everything you’ve heard about the “elegant simplicity” or “Zen understatement” of Maya Lin’s new Winter Garden in downtown Minneapolis.

“Elegant” and “understatement” are usually art-world code for “tedious.” But the garden and its primary feature, an outdoor water wall, is anything but dry -- it’s just plain fun.

The Winter Garden is a three-story glass box at the American Express Client Services Center, 10th Street and 3rd Avenue South. Lin is a New York architect best known for her Vietnam Memorial.

Her sculpture has two primary

components:

The first is the water wall, a wall of glass between the Winter Garden and the street. Rows of invisible nozzles along the top of the wall send water cascading down the wall into a pool of water filled with smooth black granite stones.

Simple, yes. But utterly magical.

The water doesn’t simply fall through space as in an ordinary fountain. It pulses along the glass in waves, each one unique. Watching the water fall along the wall is as hypnotic and relaxing as watching waves wash a beach.

From inside the Winter Garden, you look at the city through cascading water. Sunlight sparkles. Buildings distort. Passersby and cars are blurs of color and movement.

There is the wonderful sound of splashing water and the electric scent of after-the-rain ozone. And any place where a child can splash in water is good.

The second component of Lin’s design is an undulating maple floor inside the garden. Punctuated by trees and granite benches, the floor rolls as gently as the swales on the Minnesota prairie.

All this sounds very high-concept, but the effect is immediate and visceral. To walk on this undulating floor is, as my daughter would say, “way cool.” Walking on a floor that isn’t flat makes you mindful of walking. Focusing on each step while surrounded by rushing suits barking into cell phones is phenomenally calming.

Describing and analyzing the effect ruins it, the same way dissecting a joke destroys the humor. Experience it yourself.

Lin's mix of pragmatism and breeziness could be problematic. The water wall, for example, is intended to freeze in the winter. While the idea is stunning -- imagine seeing the winter sun setting through a wall of ice, a sheet of waves frozen in time -- will it work?

We won’t know until next winter, but in the meantime, I pity the fool who has to maintain the water wall. As the controversy over Loring Park’s Berger Fountain demonstrates, installing a water sculpture is only a fraction of the long-term cost of maintaining it. Nozzles freeze. Pipes break.

American Express has given Minneapolis a magical gift. I only hope it lasts.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects in Linden Hills. He can be reached at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.