After I graduated from college, I worked at an architectural firm in San Francisco for a couple years. The architects there used to make fun of what they called the city’s “beauty contest” for new development. Architectural renderings were submitted to the city by developers and then evaluated on how the proposed project would visually enhance the skyline. I thought it was a good idea. Sometimes I wish we did that here. But I think everything should be beautiful.
One day last fall, I took a shortcut through the North Loop on my way home. At the corner of N. 3rd St. and N. 10th Ave., just around the corner from the Salvation Army discount store, I saw a new building with an undulating aluminum screen covering the upper floors. I immediately pulled over.
Through orange construction barricades I could see the one-story base of dark brick was punctuated with large expanses of windows. A matching six-story tower on the corner, also with large windows, marked the pedestrian entrance. The blocky shapes overlapped and provided dimensionality to what could have easily been a solid rectangular mass. But it was the upper stories that captured my eye. Pierced aluminum panels connected in a basket weave texture that turned the ramp into a piece of sculpture. It was beautiful. And it was just a parking ramp.
My sister, who was recently promoted to CEO of a home remodeling firm in the Silicon Valley, was in town a few weeks ago. We often talk about architecture. I took her to the ramp and said it was my new favorite building in Minneapolis. “A parking ramp?” she asked. “Why not?” I answered. It has to be designed by someone; why not make it nice?
I drove by the ramp several more times and showed it to other people. Everyone agreed it was beyond what was expected. I decided I needed to know more.
UrbanWorks architects have won more than 42 design awards in 12 years. They believe that architecture is about more than good design; it’s a way to build a sense of place. David Miller, the firm’s design principal, said they don’t typically work on stand-alone parking ramps. But they have designed ramps when parking is bundled into a larger project like at 4Marq, the luxury high-rise apartment building at 4th & Marquette that has a multi-hued perforated covering on its lower ramp floors.
The North Loop ramp actually went up in July 2018. The upper floor’s panels are perforated aluminum wedges that slant out from the structure. Miller rotated the panels 180 degrees to create the visual texture. Perforated panels allow air to move in and out of the ramp. They meet the city’s ventilation goals without having to use mechanical equipment. Miller said he enjoys the challenge of designing unique ways to use this type of screening on ramps.
Miller designed North Loop Parking for Schafer Richardson. UrbanWorks is also working on an affordable housing project for the same developer that’s going up across the street from the parking ramp. The ramp was part of a bigger vision for the area. Not only will it provide parking for area workers and residents; the developer wanted the ramp to create an active presence on the street. So the ramp’s large first-floor windows are actually rentable office space.
Architectural design isn’t usually one of the criteria used in deciding where to park a car. But parking ramps are a part of our built environment; they deserve design attention. Minneapolis is trying to reduce the use of cars in the city, but we’ll always have some. Parking ramps are utilitarian structures typically designed like hulking behemoths, so it’s nice to see how one can actually exude aesthetics. If there were a parking ramp beauty contest in Minneapolis, North Loop would definitely win.
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