Michael Graves’ new design for the Art Institute: your father’s Oldsmobile

At least it's not as clumsy as his proposed Children's Theater addition.

However, Michael Graves' design for the $50-million expansion to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), 2400 3rd Ave. S., is anything but inspired. In fact, it's downright dull.

This is surprising, for the MIA as an institution is anything but bland. At a time when the Walker Art Center seems to have fallen off the local cultural radar -- can you name a single Walker show of recent years? -- the MIA is out there hustling, getting art in front of a broad and increasingly multi-ethnic public.

Multi-ethnic is the key: While the Walker seems mired in an antiquated belief in the avant-garde, the MIA is fairly pulsating with good energy rooted in its passionate belief that great art has flourished throughout the ages and around the world. We need only open our eyes to see it.

In the MIA, you can experience the refined Zen calm of a Japanese teahouse, stand in a Chinese scholar's study, face down African spirit masks, and watch a video of Jim Dine scribbling and scrawling his way through enormous charcoal drawings made directly on a museum's walls.

This place is happening.

But none of this positive energy, none of this adventurous, eclectic Globalism, is communicated in the Graves addition. It's your father's ponderous Oldsmobile in a world of zippy imports.

Granted, Graves was faced with a difficult design problem. Additions are always trickier than new construction, and the original 1915 building, designed by McKim, Mead & White, is a masterpiece of Beaux-Arts Classicism.

To add to the complexity, the museum already sports one extensive modern addition from 1974, in which the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange blew open the old marble box and invited in the neighborhood with glass walls and a welcoming entry on Third Avenue.

While Tange's design was radical in the 1970s, as time has passed it seems nicely tied into the original building through its use of white and brick.

To complicate matters further for Graves, his addition needs to contain mostly gallery space. Museum curators generally want galleries to be "black boxes"--that is, rooms lit entirely by artificial lights (or highly controlled skylights) rather than by windows. And windows, of course, are an architect's most powerful tool.

How can an architect animate a sheer four-story wall without windows?

Graves has cut false windows, or niches, into the white Portuguese limestone. Some niches have round free-standing columns to catch and mold light, creating shade and shadow, and thus interest. This is a strategy common in Classical architecture, an approach visible on the East 24th Street elevation of the original building, the side facing the park.

Graves has also broken down the larger building into smaller "bays." Instead of one big flat wall, the addition on Stevens Avenue looks like a series of seven four-story buildings. Reducing the scale of a building by breaking it into smaller pieces is another common architectural strategy.

While the Stevens Avenue faade only has one entrance, windows at the bottom of each bay make a nice effort to open the addition up to the neighborhood.

But these are all strategies, not ideas. Though the strategies are competently deployed, the result is bland. Stylistically Graves simply splits the difference between the two existing styles. Whether you call it Modernized Classicism or Classicized Modernism, the result just doesn't inspire.

And most important, it doesn't communicate the energy pulsating inside the building. The MIA, the cultural institution at the cutting edge, should hold out for something more inspired.

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