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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Post Office Student Work Goes Public

After more than a year of research into the reuse potential of the downtown Minneapolis Post Office, which included a research report by a graduate student funded by Target Corporation and RSP Architects, and an urban-design studio of 12 graduate students, taught by MDC research fellow Tim Griffin and RSP partner, Rich Varda, the project was unveiled on April 2nd to the public and the press at a lunchtime event in Minneapolis’ IDS Crystal Court. The event included displays of the students’ drawings and models, and a large 3D printed model of the section of the downtown surrounding the post office site, and was attended by sizable crowd, that included print, online and broadcast media, and City, Hennepin County, and Minnesota State leaders. The attentive crowd listened to remarks by Jay Cowles from the Downtown Council, David Wilson from Accenture, Jono Cowgill, Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board District 4 Commissioner and, MDC Director Tom Fisher, who all conveyed the significance of the project.  Tim Griffin and Rich Varda fielded questions during the event, underscoring how the project could change the face of the downtown Minneapolis riverfront. The memorable moment happened when Mayor Jacob Frey didn’t just welcome the audience, but approached the model, removed the post office pieces, and arranged them on the Crystal Court stone floor to explain how he could see parts of the building being reused and other parts being demolished. Brandishing the models like giant Legos, Frey lived up to his reputation, as David Wilson said, of being a hands-on mayor. Tom Fisher

The MDC Goes to the Big Apple

MDC Director, Tom Fisher, was invited to give a talk as part of the Design, Climate Change, and Equity lecture series at New York University’s Wager School of Public Service. Summarizing the contents of his 2013 book Designing to Avoid Disaster and his 2016 book Designing our Way to a Better World, Fisher looked at a set of strategies that cities like New York City, lying in vulnerable locations along coastlines and over fault lines, might explore to avoid the fate of other coastal communities hard hit by extreme weather events, like Houston and New Orleans. Fisher looked at strategies of protection around cities, such as the wetlands proposed around Manhattan; strategies of accommodation, such as plans to create water channels to accept future flood waters in New Orleans; strategies of mobilization, such as making cities more mobile as Fisher advocated in his recent piece in the Huffington Post on “Cities as Sitting Ducks;” and strategies of appropriation, such as those used by the homeless in seeking shelter wherever they can find it.  Tom Fisher

Monday, April 2, 2018

Mpls. Post Office Building, Reuse Design Studio

With funding from Target and RSP Architects, the MDC studied the Minneapolis Post Office and its site as the basis for future reuse. Based on that initial research, MDC research fellow, Tim Griffin and RSP partner, Rich Varda, led a studio of 12 graduate students, who looked at a range of ideas for reusing the building, reimagining the site, and reconnecting downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi River. Their work, along with a 3D printed model of the area, went on display in the IDS Crystal Court on April 2, 2018, and conversations about the reuse of the building continue.  Tom Fisher

Site design above by UM Architecture studio student team, J. Mills, S. Powers & A. Voch.
For additional site designs and reports, link to the project page at

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV), Tom Fisher: Minnesota Design Center

Graphic above shows how SAV's utilize less pavement and typical neighborhood streets may be re-designed to increase green space and recreational activities.

MDC Director Tom Fisher is rapidly becoming the go-to person on the land-use implications of Shared Autonomous Vehicles (SAV).  Since December, Fisher has given presentations on this topic to Cargill management, to the Regional Council of Mayors, and to the Transportation Research Board in Washington D.C., among others.  His work focuses on the pervasive and disruptive impact that SAVs will have on often-overlooked aspects of the built environment such as parking lots and ramps, driveways and garages, and suburban lawns and public park systems. He also predicts that SAVs will have a disruptive impact on traditional public and private service professions such as truck drivers, taxi/on-demand drivers, delivery drivers, auto dealerships and insurance companies, not to mention car manufacturers.

Mason Riddle is a MDC Communications consultant, and writer on the visual arts, architecture and design.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer

In 2018, one wonders how the Austrian architect Victor Gruen would approach the current state of retail shopping, and how he would use design thinking to solve problems now experienced by brick and mortar stores due to the ever-expanding online shopping universe. That and other questions were addressed at the Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer, a recent event hosted by The Minnesota Design Center.  Gruen (1930-1980) revolutionized the retail landscape when he designed Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota. Southdale, the first fully enclosed, climate controlled shopping mall in the United States, opened in 1956 to great fanfare and was developed by the forward-thinking Dayton Department Store Company. 
The Victor Gruen: Visionary Urban Designer featured an open discussion with MDC director Thomas Fisher, Viennese architect Judith Eiblmayer, Viennese sociologist and cultural critic Anette Baldauf, and architect Alan Bruton, who investigated Gruen’s impact on 20th century design. The most radical question addressed, however, was “What would Gruen do in a radically changing, 21st century retail landscape?”
As originally conceived by Gruen, Southdale was to include housing, schools, medical facilities and community assets such as parks and play areas for children, most of which was never realized. (Currently, housing is being developed at the outer boundaries of Southdale.) Gruen went on to design other shopping centers in the Twin Cities and across the country. So widespread was his design vision, that he became known as the “Father of the Shopping Mall,” a label he later vehemently rejected. His original retail design concept was utopian - his communal spaces would bring people together and serve their needs. Gruen never intended his vision to produce vast acreage of asphalt parking lots or structures devoted solely to the cult of shopping. When Frank Lloyd Wright visited in 1956, his distaste for the entire Center was widely reported.
            The “What would Gruen do?” discussion continued after the MDC event by email when Baldauf wrote to me, “I think, considering Gruen’s psychodynamic, he would locate the center of power, as he always did, and pitch what seems today an outrageous idea but will soon reveal itself as an appropriate mode of survival: He might call up Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, and ask him out for lunch. There Gruen would remind Cook of his last keynote speech, praising Apple stores as the new town squares of America. Gruen might assert that he is happy to see Apple following his legacy, taking responsibility for the public good. But he would remind Cook to go beyond semiotics, to reinvent Apple and provide public services like open libraries, a tuition-free university and last, but not least, a living wage.” Provocative food for thought.
Bruton agreed with Baldauf, writing “I also think he would be heartened by the sense of urban activism in which ordinary citizens increasingly engage, and their increasing desire for more dense and multi-programed, urban re-developments in our hollowed-out downtowns, as well as in his denatured suburban malls. So, perhaps, Gruen would become something of a populist leader in the revitalization of the American mall as multi-use civic centers, again.” 
            The MDC Gruen event also included a screening of the documentary film The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall, written and directed by Baldauf, and Katarina Weingartner and, in which Bruton performs as the protagonist. (Here’s the trailer)
Baldauf also signed her book Shopping Town: Designing the City in Suburban America, a fascinating read, part memoir and part design philosophy, published by Minnesota Press 2017.
Mason Riddle is a MDC Communications consultant, and writer on the visual arts, architecture and design.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Post Office and St. Anthony Falls District Urban Design Studio

Over the course of Fall semester 2017, 12 graduate architecture students at the UM investigated placemaking opportunities of the Saint Anthony Falls district along the Mississippi River, and ways the historic Minneapolis post office building(s) could support the riverfront experience. The studio built on MDC’s  2016 “Downtown Minneapolis Post Office Revitalization Preliminary Research Report” that looked at post office reuse precedents across the country, the Central Riverfront Framework, and specific site characteristics. The students conducted additional environmental scans, developed four district plan options and 12 post office adaptive reuse concepts. Key ideas for seasonal public life include food related experiences, river activity, and institutional use that would compliment the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum. The student’s architectural reuse concepts dissected the massive building and connected the adjoining neighborhood to the Mississippi River both through and around the structure. The studio was taught by MDC Senior Research Fellow, Tim Griffin, and supported by Rich Varda and Tom Fisher.  During 2018, the team’s ideas will be part of the public discussion that is advancing the Riverfirst vision that extends from Gold Medal Park to Weber Parkway. The model will be a useful tool to envision the central riverfront reach.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Urban Places, Seeing the World through Design

Most people today live in cities or small towns around the world. I always pick places to sketch that illustrate an architectural integration with the landscape in a way that reflects their unique place on the earth. They are places where culture and landscape are closely connected. They are often historic and some are contemporary, but all exhibit places where landscape is integrated into and with buildings in very comfortable and simple way reflecting climate and culture. Some of the sketches of compact urban places, like narrow medieval streets or plazas connect with nature only through the sky. Sometimes it is the character of the line between the earth and sky that catches my eye and that is why I drew it.

Dewey Thorbeck, FAIA, FAAR