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Extending eclecticism: Herzog & de Meuron bring a new sense of animation and dynamism to a historic Midwest cultural institution.

Faced with the task of expanding the Walker Art Center, designed by Edward Larabee Barnes and completed in 1971, Herzog & de Meuron have both respected the old and flamboyantly identified the new. Established in the late nineteenth century and housed in a number of buildings during its life, the Walker has evolved into an institution with an outstanding reputation for both collecting and commissioning contemporary art, with particular emphasis on multidisciplinary collaborations in design, film and visual, performing, literary and digital arts. As its name suggests, the Walker makes a point of being not simply a museum, but rather a dynamic centre of creative activity. But by the end of the twentieth century, with a burgeoning collection and increasingly diverse audiences, it had once again outgrown its premises.

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Following an international search, Herzog & de Meuron were commissioned to undertake an ambitious expansion programme. This first phase provides 12 000sqm of new space, effectively doubling the museum's size. When the adjacent Guthrie Theater moves downtown to its Jean Nouvel building, now under construction, the existing Guthrie will be demolished to make way for phase two, a four-acre 'casual' sculpture park designed by French landscape architect Michel Desvigne. This will complement the formal Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the north and provide a transition between the Center and residential neighbourhoods to the west.

The Walker is located on the east edge of its site along Hennepin Avenue, a busy eight-lane divided highway that defines the principal public face of the building. Edward Larabee Barnes responded to this condition by placing the entrance on a quiet side street to the north and stacking the galleries to make a visually prominent tower at the north-east corner of the site. Herzog & de Meuron have followed suit on the south-east corner with a tower that is distinguished programmatically, formally and materially from its predecessor. While the old tower houses quiet, contemplative spaces, the new is dedicated to social and performing arts. The extension houses an entrance and shop at ground level with a 385-seat theatre in a six-storey volume above. A restaurant is tucked under the rake of the stalls seating on the first floor, and a lettable entertainment suite shares the top floor with the theatre's fly loft. A new plinth links the two towers. Above an underground parking garage, this plinth houses three galleries at ground level. A fourth gallery, also at ground level, has been created in the existing building by relocating staff offices. Expanded library, archive and educational spaces, together with a refurbished cinema, have been created in the basement of the existing building. Loading docks and back-of-house service areas occupy a two-storey white stucco block at the south end of the site.

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In addition to the obvious programmatic and formal complexity of integrating new with existing facilities, Herzog & de Meuron have productively pursued a strategy of opposition. While the Barnes tower is a firmly grounded, strictly disciplined cubic mass, the new tower is, in Jacques Herzog's words, 'magic and sexy'--a slightly folded, distorted cubic volume that hovers above the plinth and kicks out toward the street. In contrast with the gravitas of the plum-coloured hard industrial brick skin of the old tower, the creased metal mesh rainscreen cladding clearly sets out to appear soft and light. As a counterpoint to the formal spiral of circulation integrated within the tower galleries, ground level galleries are rendered as solids loosely dispersed within the transparent medium of discrete meandering circulation space, which incorporates generous informal lounges and creates views through the building from city to garden. Brick-paved floors match the entrance hall and cladding of the Barnes building but, beyond this, the new spaces have a markedly different character.

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Instead of orthogonal geometry, tour guides proudly note that hardly a right-angle is to be found in the extension. In place of crisp corners, radiused edges--as in Tokyo Prada (AR August 2003)--create the illusion of a jointless architecture. And, in contrast with the exterior lightness of the new tower, interior spaces in the link appear heavy, carved rather than constructed. The thick canted outer walls of the galleries are finished with white Venetian plaster that provides a polished mottled surface animated by reflection. Additional sparkle in the circulation areas is created by theatre marquee lights at the top edges of walls and by dramatic chandeliers, designed by Herzog and made locally using chunks of waste from the glass manufacturing process that are suspended on stainless-steel threads. Inside the galleries, there is a rapprochement. New galleries--like the old--are simple, white, flexible cubic volumes that rely on artificial light.

The thick gallery walls are carved to create intimate inhabited spaces including suede-upholstered audiovisual niches and a wood-lined outdoor seating area in the sculpture garden. The most important of these interstitial spaces are the gallery vestibules, which are emphasised by lace-like fretwork ceilings. Matching fretwork pocket doors enable the galleries to be closed, yet remain visually accessible when foyers are used outside of gallery hours. The lace pattern--flat and two-dimensional in the foyers--becomes decidedly 3D in the extraordinary new theatre. Here walls are covered with fine gauge black expanded metal deeply embossed with the lace pattern, and balconies are finished with wavy thick black plaster copings, recalling the lavishly over-the-top decor of vaudeville music halls.

The new entrance to the Walker is on Hennepin, a difficult pedestrian environment given Minnesota's extreme climate, the volume and speed of traffic and the fact that there is no lay-by. From a large, stark new forecourt--relieved only by the etched lace pattern in the concrete paving and a few dots of grass--visitors enter under the metal mesh soffit of the new tower's cantilevered corner. Once inside, there are multiple trajectories: left to the shop; straight ahead and up to the restaurant, theatre and entertainment suite; and down a ramped circulation space parallel to the street. Along this route, it is possible to enter both new and old galleries or connect through to the former entrance, which is being maintained. Movement of people in this link is clearly visible through a double glass skin with a 600mm conditioned air space between leaves, which serves as an acoustic and climatic buffer. At high level, translucent glazing comes to life at night with video projections advertising the Center's events.

Herzog & de Meuron's abiding interest in building skins is aggressively advanced at the Walker. The aluminium expanded mesh panels are simultaneously ambiguous and precise. In contrast with the facile legibility of the older tower's brickwork, the metal cladding is apparently casually crumpled. In fact, the panels are modular and there is only one layout of folds, with variation introduced by random rotation. Panel size is derived from the 1.5m width of the metal coil and the desire for a surface without splices, yielding 1.14m square panels with folded returns. Each panel is a 200mm deep box made in two parts; the rear is flat and the front wrinkled. The two surfaces of bright dipped anodised mesh create a moire pattern and conceal the aluminium tube substructure to which the rear piece of the boxes is fixed. To accommodate the geometry where the tower kicks out at restaurant level above the entrance, sleeves were added to the stamping die to make parallelograms so that panel joints would align face-to-face.

Although the folding pattern rotates, the expanded metal maintains a constant directional grain. Wrinkles are not random, but are cleverly calculated so that adjacent panels align to make a continuous surface at panel joints without elevational disjunctions. However, with high and low points at panel edges, corners such as soffit-to-wall joints are by definition visually less precise. In contrast with the carefully deployed ribbon windows of the brick tower, the metal tower is ruptured by irregular polygons--large expanses of flush glazing providing city skyline views for the restaurant and entertainment space and, for the tower's stair, small randomly placed apertures that are recessed and slightly displaced relative to the openings in the metal mesh. By night, these spots glow from within and by day, the mesh captures muted reflections of changing light and weather conditions. Herzog & de Meuron bravely speculate that, in winter, the mesh may transform into a block of ice.

The stair and theatre foyers are complex folded volumes that reiterate the language of the building skin. However, in contrast with the generosity of social space on ground level, these upper spaces are meagre and Spartan, and their windows--while framing views of the future sculpture garden and important historic buildings in the city--also draw attention to the undistinguished flat roof of the plinth. In an article in the New York Times (8 August 2004), Herzog & de Meuron, among other international architects, were critical of North American construction culture, particularly in contrast to the quality achievable in Switzerland and Japan. The Walker shows traces of this dilemma. Shadow gaps on stairs and slight folds in the Venetian plaster walls are not as crisp as in the mind's eye, indications of a mismatch between expectations and execution.

When it opened, the Edward Larabee Barnes building was characterised as minimalist and described by a critic as being easily mistaken for an 'elegant warehouse'. Ironically, much of Herzog & de Meuron's reputation has been built upon elegant minimalist warehouses, ranging from Ricola to Dominus (AR October 1998). Moving away from the single-minded restraint of this earlier work, the new Walker is eclectic--minimalist in places and, in others, completely over the top. This eclecticism is purposeful; the heterogeneous formal and material language of the new extension, together with its visually open social spaces, endows the Walker with a democratic sense of accessibility for artists and public alike. These two generations of the Walker are good companions, each reflecting the cultural values of its time--the elder reserved and proper, and the new kid on the block more animated, extrovert and playful.

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Article Details
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Author:Lecuyer, Annette
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Words:1672
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