The Twin Cities' Little Sister pix
A Minnesota metropolis just got a bit more cosmopolitan, thanks to the Rochester Art Center by Hammel, Green and Abrahamson
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 8/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Although it's been named one of the top three most livable U.S. cities by Money magazine, few people who haven't been treated at the Mayo Clinic are familiar with Rochester, Minnesota, a municipality of 92,000 located 80 miles to the southeast of Minneapolis–Saint Paul. But even way back in 1958, Eero Saarinen must have foreseen Rochester's potential: His blue-steel IBM building, just outside the city center, was the first notable piece of modernism to shake up its architecturally conservative environment. Now, the forward-thinking Rochester Art Center by Hammel, Green and Abrahamson is picking up where Saarinen left off.
Founded by a local baker eager to provide cultural balance to Rochester's medical excellence, the museum opened in 1946—upstairs at the city's main library—and eventually moved to a two-story brick home in downtown's Mayo Park. "The old RAC building was completely forgettable," says chief curator Kris Douglas. It was also much too close to the expanding Mayo Civic Center, which gradually cut off the RAC's street traffic. In 2003, after the board of directors raised $8.2 million, HGA broke ground on a larger RAC on the other side of the civic center.
What resulted is a stunning cubist composition. "It took a bit for residents to warm up to this style of architecture," says architect Kara Hill, HGA associate vice president. "Eventually, they embraced it." Bestowing a municipal urban-design award for new construction as evidence.
A committed environmentalist with LEED certification, Hill maintained a small footprint for the 36,000-square-foot museum by building up instead of out: Galleries occupy a two-story cantilevered front wing, which is anchored to a three-story rear wing that houses functional components such as the elevators, emergency stair, and restrooms. She also chose natural materials for the facade, copper panels for the rear wing and zinc ones for the front wing, where they capture the reflection of the shallow, swift-flowing Zumbro River below.
The cantilevered wing also shelters the museum's entry—the foot of an L-shape atrium that extends upward between the two volumes. "It's a sculpture of light," ' Hill says of the space, with its three-story butt-glazed sidewalls capped by a skylight. Aluminum framing casts artistic shadows on the poured-concrete floor while lending structure to views of the river, park, and downtown. "The interior is all about the exterior," Hill explains.
As the start of the museum's cultural journey, the atrium lends itself to dramatic displays, for example the 60-foot-long black-and-white banners by Maija Isola that swooped diagonally across the space during the recent "Marimekko: Fabrics, Fashion, Architecture." Visitors then proceed upward, climbing a main stair that begins in a sandblasted-glass enclosure and continues as stacked flights cantilevered 6 feet into the atrium—cantilevering is a theme here.
The stairs lead first to the second level's 5,000-square-foot main gallery, a typical white-box space with the same concrete floor. (During "Marimekko," this is where 150 textiles, pieces of clothing, and photographs were shown.) Another conventional gallery and a neighboring audiovisual gallery, dedicated to video art, take up the rest of the second level.
On three is a long and narrow gallery, often reserved for Minnesota's emerging artists, as well as two studios and a new-media lab for children's classes and day camps, adult workshops, and the Artrock! concert and visual-arts series. Teaching and community outreach have been a part of the mission at the RAC since its founding, points out education curator Scott Stulen, adding, "We embrace experimentation and change."
So does Hill's building. Not only is it transformed each day at sunset—the glass atrium shines out, while the solid wings recede—but the copper and zinc will also patinate over time. In five to 10 years, the copper panels will lighten to green, their silvery zinc counterparts darken to gray. A fitting metaphor for an evolving city.