A Critical Essay | The Walker Art Center: A Referential Architecture

The Walker Art Center (WAC) is an accumulation of evolving architectural form and shifting societal ideologies. Physically, the building is composed of two structures that are linked to create a whole. The original building [1971] and the addition [2005] combine ideas from different epochs. In this way, beyond being a center for the arts, it attempts to represent social evolutions and provide foresight for generations to follow. The building represents city, and the city represents man. This dialogue is visualized throughout the building. Through its site and urban relationships, the WAC acknowledges the city but envelopes it to create anticipation and spectacle. Structural components and building technologies are hidden to increase a sense of confusion. Carefully choreographed light dances across skillfully prepared surfaces to augment reality. Every corridor, gallery, stair and opening consciously shapes the viewer’s visual perception. The WAC exploits the 1971 institutional form to further engage the viewer. Institutional form becomes catalyst in the creation of confusion and conscious discoveries. Most importantly, this combination of social definition, spectacle, concealment, augmentation and perceptual engagement creates a recollection. This recollection is what places us in the city. Without the reference of old, acknowledgement of prior or nod to the former, man is lost. In a new era, the WAC establishes an autonomous, referential architecture to provide spectacle and develop a new identity for art in the city.

To develop a pertinent and evocative discourse around the WAC, one must first engage in the building’s site. The WAC is situated within the urban threshold of Minneapolis. Submerged amongst the fast paced mechanistic automobile, the site is wedged between many paths. Many of the paths are defined by the automobile and shape the landscape. More hardscape materials and impermeable surfaces cover the surrounding area than natural surfaces. Paths define the WAC site. These paths vary in speed, directionality and density / volume.

Speed: Many adjacent roads and paths that ultimately connect to the WAC are residential paths. This links the site to the people surrounding the site. These streets are organized to the West, Southwest and South of the building; or, in other words, facing the rear façade. Traffic here moves slow and recognizes the WAC more carefully. People are encouraged to walk, bike and observe. Life here moves at a manageable pace, creating a relaxing environment and space for reflection.

Directionality: Roads, bike routes, bus routes and sidewalks are just a few “paths” that surround the WAC site. The directionality of these paths varies dramatically. The user defines the destination of the paths. Therefore, the WAC isn’t at center or destination. The direction of these paths instead links between points. Depending on the directionality of the path, the WAC poses itself differently. Depending on directionality, façades change and evolve as you pass through the site.

Density / Volume: Situated in an urban context, it’s safe to assume high densities of traffic. However, what’s important to note about the WAC is its daily evolution of densities. Being situated on an urban threshold and adjacent to many vehicle roadways, the site experiences an increasing evolution of traffic densities. While the surrounding roads are traveled consistently, vehicle traffic increases during rush hours. In addition, foot traffic is highly subjective. Depending on tour schedules, seasonal changes, outdoor events and other variables, foot traffic fluctuates. During the daily evolutions of traffic volumes, the presence of the WAC shifts.

The WAC site helps to define the role of the building in the city and its role in the arts. The site declares architectural importance and creates a societal statement. Its placement in the city suggests temporal ideologies. Placed in a perceivable connection between uptown and downtown, the site establishes a dialogue between the arts district and the corporate gridiron. Residing in a transitional zone, the building acts as billboard. The speed of vehicular traffic and adjacently situated tunnel emphasizes this notion of external radiance. As vehicles pass by at high speeds, the site hovers above the driver. As one approaches the site on foot or by bike, the site and building form hover above. The site straddles the ambiguous separation between dwelling and polis. The WAC site refers man to the city; it connects.

The [2005] building at the WAC has a fully concealed complex and expensive steel structure. The steel elements create a frame that wraps the cube-like structure. The steel wrapper is then anchored to a large concrete shear wall structure. The steel structure is so complex and dense that the final wall thickness ends up over three feet at some locations. There is only one moment in the building when one can perceive the thickness of the wall: at the openings. The perception of structural density has been removed from the experience. Once emerged in the [2005] building, experiences revolve around the art and architectural space. The role of art is placed in the forefront. No longer is it important and deemed necessary to expose or celebrate structure. Rather, physics are introverted and indiscernible. The viewer experiences a transition from the hard, rough industrial textures of the urban fabric. These tactile qualities are changed to become clean and white. The concealment of the [2005] structure enhances the transition between city and art.

In contrast, the original [1971] building exposes its structural capacity. Based on structural rhythms and material spans, the spaces become dissonant. The honesty and uniformity of the structure is emblematic of the period in which it was built. Being an art center, the [1971] building uses an autonomous material palette, resembling a monument. Brick, concrete and other heavy structural materials enhance the anchoring aura. Exposing the structure and creating a monumental building establishes a “hands off” approach to the art. Responsibilities of architectural interaction and engagement with the art are eliminated. Stakes become irrelevant and the architecture becomes primitive.

As one entity, the treatment of structure at the WAC unifies the building. The attitudes of structural concealment versus structural honesty create an interesting dichotomy. The visitor feels perceptually jarred. The spaces informed by structure in the [1971] building spill into the galleries of the [2005] building. This translation, or referential architecture, creates a sense of confusion. Unsure of what it is, the visitor channels this curious energy to the artwork itself. That is to say, the structural attitudes at the WAC establish an experiential bewilderment that further engages the artwork.

In addition, the treatment of envelope in the [2005] building acknowledges city while the treatment of envelope in the [1971] building engages man. This distinction is made through the choice of material. The extruded aluminum mesh panels in the [2005] building literally wrap around the façade and become ceiling on the interior. In this way, the city is acknowledged through the industrial aesthetic of the aluminum panels. Furthermore, the city is invited or pulled into the space by bringing the material to the interior. In an interesting way, the [1971] building also treats its envelope in an interactive way. Brick emerges from the ground in the form of stairs and outdoor patio space. It then crawls up the façade to envelope the building. Acknowledgement is made to both city and man. Scale, orientation and tactile qualities of the envelopes are leveraged to further define contemporary art in the city. The architectural treatment of envelope at the WAC ackno­wledges the importance of city and invites man to engage.

At the WAC, the phenomenon of natural light is handled with delicacy to enhance the exposure of human scaled elements. Oriented off axis, the building receives dense natural light during the morning hours. Openings are carefully placed to allow light to infiltrate specific spaces. Being an art center, natural light must be handled carefully to maintain the integrity of the artwork. Furthermore, light is used as a catalyst for revealing the hand applied plaster walls in the [2005] building. Light dances across the surfaces with reflections shifting, exposing the buildings delicate interiors. These reflections and manipulations of light make the visitor feel displaced. Views to the outside are reflected on interior surfaces. Long corridors of glazed walls fill the interiors with washes of natural light. These glazed surfaces create a dialogue with inside and outside, man versus city and art against mechanization. Through these openings in the building, the role of society is fully engaged. Throughout the whole building openings are carefully oriented to pragmatically allow the penetration of light, but to also acknowledge the presence of the city. Natural light is used in a delicate way at the WAC. It emphasizes the craft of man and scale of the human by reflecting across surfaces on the interior. In addition, openings are placed to allow light to infiltrate interior spaces and create a visual connection to the city.

Consequently, the product of manipulations in urban relationships, structural integrity and natural light is a highly altered visual perception. Visual perception is an internal, intimate relationship between the senses in ones body. It isn’t something perceivable by all and cross-pollinated. It’s subjective. Visual perception is what intrigues us. It’s what we see and what we feel. More specifically, visual perception is defined by the spaces around us.

At the WAC, visual perception is integral to its successful visitor experience. From multiple scales, the same notion is recorded. As one enters the site, the building is billboard. Once inside, surfaces are irregular in the [2005] building and complement the conceptual rigor of the [1971] building. There is a constant tension between architectural form and societal ideologies. Visual perception is engaged and leveraged as a device for manipulating experiences. This altering of experience is suitable for an art center in the city. Creating confusion and displacement, the self-referential architecture recalls memories and focuses on art. Visual perception is integral to experiences at the WAC. The product of manipulations, it enhances the spaces and surrounds the art with architectural achievement.

In 1971, it is fair to say that architectural and societal ideologies were different than they are today. In the age of high modernism, architecture strived for high order and clarity. Structures were to be exposed and celebrated. It was uncommon to hide entire structural components, redefine urban relationships or use natural light to reflect interior surfaces. Certainly, visual perception was less important than conceptual clarity. At the WAC, the [1971] and [2005] buildings are different in many ways. Through this distinction, a referential architecture is created that enhances the experience of art center. The architecture redefines the role of art in the city. Catalyst to this achievement in the institutional form of the [1971] building.

The original [1971] building by Edward Barnes is a highly modernistic building that exhibits intense institutional form. Every dimension, span and opening is precisely calculated. Spaces are uniform and blank. There is no attention given to treatment of surfaces. The building acts as a wrapper and simply encloses space for the viewing of art. Art is placed high on the pedestal and social interaction is highly discouraged. As one moves into and amongst the [2005] addition, spaces slowly change and become a new dialogue. In-between, there is careful acknowledgement given to the [1971] building. Materials are used to cover surfaces that resemble the original building. Walls are placed on the same structural grid. Slowly, the referential architecture becomes its own entity. But, through the careful recognition of the old building and its societal responsibilities, the WAC leverages institutional form to be integral in its architectural presence.

Joe Krummel | October 15, 2010