In early January the Walker hosted more than 30 local architects, landscape architects, product and graphic designers, artists, and other cultural thinkers to help us think about the four-acre green space that was created as part of the museum’s 2005 expansion.
This convening took place as the first public step in an upcoming summer-long program called Open Field—an experiment in new educational and presentational platforms that can engage the public in a dialogue about what makes the “cultural commons”—that great reserve of collective knowledge and creativity that is publicly held. Open Field begins on June 3 and lasts through Labor Day. During that time there will be lectures, workshops, classes, and artist residency projects taking place around the Walker campus.
While our first impulse was to create an open competition, the decision to explore a more collaborative model proved a better fit given our themes of participation and collective culture. Free to convene in any size team and to work in any fashion that suited them, participants tackled the unique challenges posed not only by the site but also pondered the philosophical and logistical dilemmas of how best to engage with artists and the public. After eight hours of requisite site visits, intensive drawing, conceptual speculation, and shared presentations and critiques, five distinct groups emerged.
Highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the site and project, the teams provocatively challenged many of our underlying assumptions, and most importantly, offered keen insights and creative solutions to our problems. Many designers are accustomed to some version of a charrette, or collective brainstorming session, during their education or perhaps later in their professional lives, such as consultations with community constituents. What was particularly unique about this charrette was the willingness of frequent competitors to work together.
We crafted an inventory of current site problems and opportunities that was distilled from each team’s work and presentations. Many teams noted the Walker’s Vineland Place entry, located directly across the street from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, as an important threshold for the museum. But it’s one lacking shade, and is a jumbled and confusing patchwork of materials, pathways filled with obstacles, a necessary but unfortunately located fire lane, and a giant retaining wall—the collective effect contributing to the plaza’s homely face and unwelcoming presence.
Busting free from the box we originally placed them in (our prescribed zone of Vineland Plaza), the teams conceptualized the entire space as zones of different activities—with unique circulation issues and hidden vistas. A do-it-yourself ethos emerged frequently in solutions that called for visitors to participate directly by bringing their interests to the field, or in such schemes as a collective “tool box” that could house a variety of items—whether picnic blankets and umbrellas to use on the lawn, or even a machine like the kind used on ball fields to paint lines for a game that you create.
Noting the Walker’s landscape as rather one-dimensional, with a penchant for sod and occasional prairie grasses, a couple of teams proposed planting some trees—or in the case of one enterprising team, planting a “big ass” tree. A beautiful metaphor of the cultural commons, the tree captivated many people. Evoking the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks, or the spectacle of Maurizio Cattelan’s unearthed olive tree, this idea became pivotal to our thinking of how to re-invent the space.
Other teams urged us to unify our hardscape of mixed materials: continuous grass, crushed gravel like the Sculpture Garden paths, or even Astroturf were all suggested. Many tackled the nearly 100-foot-long white retaining wall that terminates the plaza, with solutions that included creating a living or “green” wall of plants, covering the entire surface in blackboard paint, or using it as a giant video screen. One team tried to overcome the wall as a barrier by building over it and around it—suggesting the importance of connecting the space above and below and reminding us of the axial alignment between the Spoonbridge and Cherry in the Sculpture Garden and the area atop the wall—a place currently inaccessible to the public.
Out of all of these ideas and insights, we are currently studying the feasibility of many of them: not one tree, but a grove of trees to provide shade on the plaza and also act as a gathering place; a communal “tool box” with a variety of items one might use on a summer day (umbrellas, radios, lawn chairs, etc.); a series of ramps and stairs to a platform or deck at the top of the retaining wall for classes and performances; a new beer garden and outdoor barbeque on the plaza; and better integration of the plaza hardscape.
We will post blog updates on our progress as we continue to design and install our new outdoor lounge, and as our programs and projects evolve. Drop by on June 3 for a special Target Free Thursday Night launch party as we invite you to spend the summer in our new backyard.