The Pride of Minneapolis

By Weir, Elizabeth | Stage Directions, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Pride of Minneapolis


Weir, Elizabeth, Stage Directions


Nouvel's remarkable Guthrie on the River is a theater event in its own right.

When French architect Jean Nouvel visited the 2.6-acre riverside site for the new Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis, he walked the land and noted how it sits back from the Mississippi, how the bluff rises, blocking the view of the swirling water some 50 feet below. Nouvel asked general contractor McGough Construction for a crane and cage, invited Artistic Director Joe Dowling to step aboard, and signaled for the crane to lift. As they rose, spectacular views of the historic Stone Arch bridge, the racing St. Anthony Falls and the elegant loop of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge opened up to their left; across the river, they saw the Pillsbury A Mill and its ranks of grain silos; and downriver they saw the muscular, four-chimneyed power plant with its immense power line-bearing tripods and more bridges.

At 48 feet, Nouvel waved for the crane to stop. He'd found his spot: This would be the level of the lobbies for the proscenium and thrust-stage theaters.

Gone was the horizontally designed theater complex that the Guthrie board and Dowling had imagined. Born was Nouvel's sleek, vertical theater design that reflects its industrial setting and that sports a 178-foot endless bridge, cantilevered out towards the Mississippi.

"Nouvel was adamant that the Guthrie must connect to the river," says Robert Zakaras, project manager with the Twin Cities firm Architectural Alliance. He is the onsite architect, conjuring Nouvel's vision into being as it nears its grand opening, June 24-25.

"The whole of levels four and five are the two-and-a-half-story bridge," says Zakaris. The structure runs like a spine from east to west, uniting the drum element of the thrust theater room and the restaurant below it to the proscenium block and to the studio tower. The bridge leaps out from the midnight-blue building, toward the Mississippi. A massive structure, it is anchored through robust uprights to caissons sunk deep into bedrock.

"We believe there's more steel in the bridge than the Eiffel Tower," says Frank Butler, Guthrie production director. He added that before steel prices shot through the roof, Donnell Company Incorporated, the theater's cost consultants, negotiated a maximum price with McGough. "That saved our bacon," he says.

The fourth and fifth floor lobbies are public spaces, where people can drink and dine at bars and wander toward the river, admiring spectacular views through precisely placed windows. At bridge's end, they can step out through doors set in a starfire blue glass wall and onto a stepped terrace, to enjoy the view that inspired Nouvel to think vertically.

His compact, vertical Guthrie created the challenge of transporting people, equipment and materials to a third- and fourthfloor height for the 1,100-seat thrust and 700-seat proscenium theaters and to a ninth-floor height for the 250-seat studio black-box theater. "The vertical transport issues were a nightmare," admitted Butler. "We had to introduce a whole system of elevators and escalators to move people and equipment." Two 100-foot escalators rise 47 feet from the ground floor lobby to the fourth floor; 58 sets of stairs honeycomb the building; 17 elevators serve the 10-story complex, including two oversized freight elevators, the largest measuring 34 feet long, 12 feet wide and 10 feet high.

Douglas Stebbins of Fisher Dachs Associates, a top theater consulting firm based in New York City, says that the vertical design did not have much impact on their preplanned delineation of every inch of rooms, space and adjacencies that the three-theater complex would need. "When Nouvel went vertical," he says, "we simply moved spaces 36 feet into the air."

Because the scene shop needed to be on the same level as the thrust and proscenium stages, and the building is aligned on an east-west axis to the Mississippi, extra land had to be negotiated across second Street to the west. …

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