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The crinkled squares of aluminium mesh that cover this Minneapolis art gallery's new tower change in appearance throughout the day – a reflection of the changeability of modern art

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Minneapolis is a thriving, vibrant city, able to attract the world's best and brightest workers at a time when the populations of other Midwestern cities are shrinking. Yet, Minneapolis has a harsh climate, is far from the ocean and is relatively isolated.

This lack of natural advantage is one of the reasons why the city is home to so many world-class cultural facilities. Its residents have had to work harder than most to make it an attractive destination for creative, young professionals.

The Walker Art Center – well known for commissioning and presenting innovative, contemporary art – is just one of the many cultural facilities recently upgraded or built in Minneapolis. Pritzker Prize-winning architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron was engaged to design the Walker Art Center's new wing, which extends the Edward Barnes-designed tower built in 1971.

Walker Art Center director Kathy Halbreich says that by 1999, the Walker had outgrown itself.

"The Walker Art Center had become more like a museum. We really needed to create a physical platform for what made the Walker remarkable," she says.

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The expansion is essentially a cube-shaped, five-storey tower connected to the old building by a long glass structure.

The new tower, affectionately referred to by the locals as an ice cube, is clad in custom-stamped aluminium mesh metal.

"Every moment of the day the skin is radically different, reflecting the changeability of modern art," Halbreich says.

The expansion doubles the amount of gallery space, and houses several new facilities. It includes a retail centre on the main floor, a restaurant on the second floor, a 279m2 events space on the fifth floor, and a 385-seat multi-disciplinary performing arts theatre on the third and fourth floors. The double-storey glass walkway includes galleries and social spaces with offices above, as well as a new rooftop terrace.

Halbreich says the new tower has two different window treatments – large windows let people walking past see in; smaller windows are for those inside to look out, carefully placed so as to focus their attention on something special.

The transparent nature of the new tower and the glass walkway are partly a reaction to the solid brick structure of the Barnes tower. Halbreich says the old building had very few apertures, and they wanted the new building to have a more transparent nature.

Christine Binswanger, partner in charge from Herzog & de Meuron for the Walker Art Center project, says they did incorporate several elements from the old building into the new wing.

"Edward Barnes' gallery concept, along with his choice of materials, especially the terrazzo floors, has clearly stood the test of time and ensured remarkable curatorial freedom," she says.

Galleries have a similar feel in the two parts of the building, but one major change was to have no reveal between the floor and the wall. Designed to increase air flow, the gap was problematic for curators, and the reveal was usually filled in.

Binswanger says internal spaces in the Walker were arranged to encourage Minneapolis' residents to treat the Walker Art Center like a town square.

"The two-storey walkway connecting the two towers functions like a town square, open to everyone as a meeting point – a place to exchange information and news or to have a cup of coffee.

"The new exhibition spaces are freely arranged within this glazed public area so that the town square will include cosier spaces, like side streets or alley ways."

The expansion of the building along Hennepin Avenue re-orients the Walker toward the city centre, symbolically representing the architects' aim for the building to embrace the city's residents.

Halbreich says the new Walker reflects Minneapolis' status as a cultural hot spot.

"It's a cultural magnet in the middle of the country; a miracle on the tundra. It reflects that Minnesotans are deeply rooted, but their heads are turned 360 degrees – we're aware of what's going on in the world," she says.

First published date: 12 April 2006

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Credit List

Location Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Architect of record Hammel, Green and Abrahamson
Design consultant Herzog & de Meuron (Basel, Switzerland)
Structural engineering/mechanical engineering/electrical engineering/civil engineering/landscape architect Hammel, Green and Abrahamson
Lighting design Isometrix Lighting and Design
Construction manager MA Mortenson
Landscape design Desvigne-Dalnoky
Acoustics and audiovisual consultant Kirkegaard Associates
Theatre planning and design Fisher Dachs Associates
Vertical circulation Lerch, Bates & Associates
Mechanical contractor MMC
Painting Swanson and Youngdale
Exterior materials Base acrylic stucco; glass curtain wall; insulated glass with custom acid-etched surface; cladding; expanded aluminium mesh panels with custom-stamped surface by Spantek
Glazing Shenzhen Sanxin Special Glass Technology; Oldcastle Glass
Roofing Carlisle
Venetian plaster Armourcoat
Exterior paint Tnemec
Exterior paving Wausau Tile
Interior paint Valspar
Brick flooring Endicott Brick
McGuire theater interior Expanded aluminium mesh panels with custom-stamped surface
Theatre seating Secoa
Walls Hand-finished and polished plaster