In 1999, the Walker Art Center engaged the architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to develop a master plan and design for an expanded facility. Central to the Walker’s vision was the creation of not only additional galleries to display its growing collections, but also new spaces, such as a theater, to house and present multidisciplinary programs. The concept also included a number of gathering places where visitors could converge, opening the possibility of serendipitous encounters with new people, ideas, and art forms. The site plan places the expansion along Hennepin Avenue—a gesture that reorients the Walker toward the city center again (its front door was once on this street), while creating a new park that faces the surrounding residential neighborhood. The entire expanded campus serves as an important urban landmark connecting downtown Minneapolis to the nearby Uptown neighborhood. The new building also links directly to the Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed complex, which opened in 1971.
Herzog & de Meuron’s expansion consists of two parts: a cubic tower and a long, horizontal link. The cube contains a theater, a special events space, and a restaurant, and is a deliberate reference to the vertical massing of the Barnes building. Connecting to the original structure is a double-story volume that includes galleries and social spaces with offices above, as well as a new rooftop terrace. The overall scheme intelligently weaves together existing and expansion spaces, opens the closed circulation of Barnes’ spiral layout, and creates multiple new pathways to explore the Walker.
New social spaces, in-between zones that fall outside the conventional programmatic realm of galleries and theater, create an archipelago of variously sized and shaped lounges scattered throughout the ground-floor level that links the two buildings. Distinct from, but adjacent to, the galleries, these lounges express a distinctly human-scale architecture. One large space overlooks a new garden; the room’s openness and dramatic 26-foot-high floor-to-ceiling glass provide a relaxed setting for the contemplation of art and nature. Another follows the slope of Hennepin Avenue, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, its double-glass curtain wall placing visitors in movement parallel to the urban flow. Other lounges that contain interactive installations for visitors are situated in the interstitial spaces formed between the canted outside walls and the plumb inside walls of the new galleries.
Herzog & de Meuron is best known for experiments with a wide range of materials and processes, such as the stone gabions used in its Dominus Winery in Napa Valley, California; the application of photographic images into concrete and glass; or highly seductive surfaces and structures like its gemlike Prada store in Tokyo or the translucent polycarbonate facade for the Laban Dance Centre in London. Despite the frequent reduction of the firm’s work to the scenographic and its attendant fixation on external appearances, it is its tactical response to the Barnes design that provides the most engaging moments, many of which occur within.
There is a strong dialogical relationship between the original Barnes building and the expansion. The opacity and darkness of Barnes’ brick cubes are countered with the white angular masses of Herzog & de Meuron’s design, while greater transparency is achieved through large expanses of glass that reveal the animation of spaces within. Although the new tower mimics the massing of the Barnes building, it sustains a much more expressive posture and positions itself in tension with its immediate environment. The weightiness of the Barnes is juxtaposed with the lightness of the new tower’s silver metal cladding, which changes its appearance throughout the day, depending on the light—from grisaille to diaphanous. The Barnes’ brick cladding is repeated in the floor of the expansion—a displacement from exterior to interior, wall to floor. The new galleries preserve the flexible design and white cube aesthetic of the Barnes building and repeat its use of terrazzo floors. The expansion engages in a creative spatial dialogue with its predecessor, providing people with glimpses of light and dark, new and old, city and garden.
The new cube’s surface is wrapped in raised, expanded aluminum-mesh panels that have been folded and stamped with a pattern of creases. The effect is like a crumpled piece of paper, or a creased fabric, suggesting fragility in spite of its great mass. Lightness is further enhanced by the perforations in the facade, including several irregularly shaped and variously sized windows. The visual weight of the cube is undermined by its seemingly free-floating quality—cantilevered over the plaza below and jutting out toward the street. Although referred to as a cube, this volume is
in fact a multifaceted structure with unique sides. This non-orthogonal geometry is carried to other parts of the building, most notably the exterior walls of the new galleries, which fold and cant upward and downward in dynamic trajectories. Openings into these walls echo the asymmetry and angularity of the windows. Similarly shaped public seating elements become three-dimensional embodiments of these openings, scattered and clustered along pathways.
The design of the Walker follows a more recent path within the architects’ work to explore new possibilities that are beyond the purity of modernist and minimalist forms associated with their early work. Herzog & de Meuron has created a design for the new Walker that will be, perhaps, best remembered for its spatial experience and its creative juxtaposition and ingenious reconciliation of seemingly opposing qualities: new yet familiar, intimate yet grand, fragile yet strong, simple yet complex, dynamic yet composed.
— Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator
Published in Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 267.