Backstory: Bilbao on the Mississippi

Revamped arts museum and the new Guthrie Theater symbolize an image remake for the Twin Cities.

The new Guthrie Theater here is wrapped in a dark blue glass-and-metal "skin" that at night reveals ghostly images from past stage productions. Its architecture includes a cantilevered "bridge to nowhere" that stretches toward the Mississippi River. On its roof looms a trio of LED-lit masts that, with some Shakespearian drama, announce featured plays.

Not far away, the new Walker Art Center makes a dramatic statement of its own with a crinkled aluminum exterior and curved walls that appear to make the building "move."

These are just two of several new buildings that are giving the land of 10,000 lakes, the Mall of America, Garrison Keillor, arctic winters, and folks who are "Minnesota nice" a new image - as an architectural and cultural mecca.

A series of major arts and cultural building projects in Minnesota's Twin Cities, designed by a half dozen architects with international reputations and costing half a billion dollars, hits its zenith this month with two grand openings. On June 10, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) opens a new wing created by renowned designer Michael Graves. Two weeks later, the striking new home of the Guthrie - 12 stories above the serpentine and slumberous Mississippi - will greet the public for the first time.

"This new crop of buildings is an effort to say, 'You know, the Twin Cities is not just a frozen city up in the middle of the northern plains, but in fact we have always been, and continue to be, a center for intellectual and cultural activity that can compete nationally,' " says Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Minnesota.

Noting these and several other major arts building projects, Travel + Leisure magazine has named Minneapolis one of its top five destinations for 2006, the only American city on the list, and Smithsonian Magazine lists Minneapolis-St. Paul among six hot travel spots this year. Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine now rates the Twin Cities No. 2 (after Nashville, Tenn.) among its "smartest places to live," citing its outstanding cultural amenities as one reason why.

"I can't say that I would have gone to Minneapolis before, but now it's a destination spot for me as an architect," says Ronnette Riley of New York. She's a member of the design committee of the American Institute of Architects, which is so excited about Minneapolis that it's planning to hold its 2007 meeting there.

The MIA and Guthrie projects join a new $125 million high-tech Minneapolis Central Library, designed by Cesar Pelli, which opened in May; a new wing for the Tony Award-winning Children's Theatre Company, also by Mr. Graves and completed last year; and the futuristic new addition to the Walker Art Center, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

The Walker addition, whose architects created the Tate Modern museum in London, wins a rave from Ms. Riley, who likens it to an art object and praises its feminine curves and feeling of movement. "I always thought New York was the center of the universe. But now, I think, there are actually more iconic new buildings [in the Twin Cities]," says Riley, whose firm, Ronnette Riley Architects, looks out from a signature structure itself, the Empire State Building.

Still to come: a new addition to the Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota, to be designed by Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has put that city on many a tourist's itinerary.

The Twin Cities seem to be following the strategy outlined by sociologist Richard Florida in his controversial 2002 book, "The Rise of the Creative Class." It argues that regions with great recreational and arts amenities draw talented people and in turn create vibrant economies. While dramatic new buildings are not guaranteed to spark vibrant communities, they can help put a city on the map. "Build it and they will come," says Riley. No one ever went to Bilbao. They didn't even know it existed until you put an iconic building there."

The region's long history of generous corporate and private support for the arts and culture has been tested by undertaking so many competing projects at once.

"People who have done well here feel the absolute obligation to give back to the community and to serve that community in a way that I don't think exists in many other places," says Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, a preeminent nonprofit regional theater.

Its $125 million, three-theater complex, the first North American project for French architect Jean Nouvel, included individual donations of as much as $10 million. The Guthrie also sought state funding, in part to make the point that it was not an elitist organization but a vital resource for all of the state's citizens, Mr. Dowling says. Despite strong opposition from then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, a $25 million bonding bill passed in 2003 and was signed by his successor, Tim Pawlenty. "We had to win the battle in the court of public opinion," Dowling says.

Donors in Minneapolis "have always been supportive of taking risks, artistically and culturally," says Mr. Fisher. "Because of our location, we're sort of like Avis: We just have to try harder. We don't have a mountain range or an ocean or other things to attract people."

New Guthrie transforms Minneapolis skyline

St. Louis has its Gateway Arch, Seattle its Space Needle, San Francisco its Golden Gate Bridge. Will the new Guthrie Theater, shimmering high above the Mississippi River, provide a similar signature for Minneapolis?

Joe Dowling thinks so. "It will be an iconic building," says the Guthrie's longtime artistic director.

Among the new Guthrie's unusual features are its dark blue glass-and-metal "skin," which at night reveals ghostly images from past productions; its cantilevered "bridge to nowhere" stretched toward the river; and its three rooftop masts that announce productions.

The new Guthrie, which begins its first season with "The Great Gatsby" July 15, will hold a free day-long open house June 25. After that, the lobby, on-site restaurants, and lookout will remain open to the public free of charge.

Upon entering the building, visitors will ride an elongated elevator to reach the fourth floor and the 1,100-seat main theater, which features a "thrust" design in which the audience sits on three sides of the stage. It's a close copy of the distinctive theater in the original Guthrie, built in 1963 next to the Walker Art Center a few miles away, but the new space offers more legroom.

The complex also contains a 700-seat traditional proscenium stage and a 200-seat flexible space for experimental and student work. The main thrust stage brings big productions, such as Shakespeare plays and musicals, close to the audience, while the proscenium is ideal for intimate works.

The United States is too big and too diverse to have just one "national theater," Mr. Dowling says, but "we're calling ourselves a national center for theater arts and theater education. It reflects what we're doing."

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