Minneapolis architecture: expansions stun

Lovers of the fine arts and architecture have gigantic new reasons to visit downtown Minneapolis this summer. About $500 million in expansions have cemented this city’s reputation as a leader in the visual and performing arts scene.

It is quite a show, and much of it can be seen for free.

These projects are the work of marquee designers, “starchitects” whose buildings include icons and whose bios include global awards. They are among the best in the business and any one of their names – Argentina native Cesar Pelli, Toronto native Frank O. Gehry Jean Nouvel of France, Michael Graves of the U.S., Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Switzerland – commands attention.

Assign work to each – around the same time and within the same 2.5-mile square of urban landscape – and you’re asking for both a competitive spirit and edgy designs. Now come the accolades, first from Travel and Leisure (Minneapolis is “one of five up-and-coming places to visit” in the world this year), then Time and Newsweek.

There are one-half dozen reasons for all the commotion.

Guthrie Theater – Minneapolis is second to only New York City in number of theater seats, per capita. Now its most heralded venue, the Guthrie, has tripled its square footage in a new and deep blue home on the Mississippi riverfront. It opened in late June.

Dramatic effects aren’t limited to the stages. The most exciting element of this nine-floor Nouvel design is the Endless Bridge, a cantilevered appendage that is 12 stories long, stretching toward the river. It is a fourth floor observation deck that, from the outside, doesn’t look like it can hold hundreds of people without snapping off.

Two of three theaters also are on the fourth floor, which means the bridge is a natural gathering spot at intermission. The building also is open for free roaming during the day; dining options are the street-level Cue (which includes seating around a cooking island) and a classy-casual fifth floor restaurant.

The new Guthrie is can’t-miss structure that stands out because of its color, size and the towering, ghostlike images of past performances that subtly clothe walls inside and out. With darkness, these pictures become more distinct.

The metal and glass building is in the Mills District, a hot growth area of the city, a pleasant walk to the cafes and pubs of St. Anthony Falls. Nearby are multiple condo developments and the Mill City Museum, an inventive study of the city’s grain and flour history.

A new adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” runs July 15 to Sept. 10 in the Wurtele Thrust Stage, which mimics the old Guthrie in its layout but has 200 fewer seats (to improve leg room and sight lines). The McGuire Proscenium Stage presents “The Real Thing” a Tony Award-winning comedy, Aug. 5 to Sept. 24. “The Falls,” a Cornerstone Theater Company production, opens Aug. 19 in the black box Dowling Studio. For more: www.guthrietheater.org, 877-44 STAGE.

Walker Art Center – A rooftop terrace and Wolfgang Puck fine dining option (20.21 Restaurant & Bar), as well as more gallery space, became possible when Herzog and deMeuron almost doubled the size of this hub for contemporary art. It has been open since 2005 and is the second expansion of the 1971 building.

A 385-seat theater has been added, and the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will gain space, too. That is partly because the original Guthrie Theater will be razed.

The new Walker’s most appealing design elements are its exterior, covered with embossed aluminum, and the tendency to use windows of odd shapes to frame outdoor scenery.

Special exhibits include a retrospective of Diane Arbus photography, through Sept. 10. Admission is free on Thursday nights and the first Saturday of each month. For more: www.walkerart.org, 612-375-7600.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts – Roughly 5,000 years of art has been accumulated during this building’s 91-year history, and architect Graves’ 113,000-square-foot addition has expanded the amount of exhibit space by 40 percent.

That means the MIA is able to show 5 percent of its collection, instead of 4 percent, at any given time. This astounding swath includes a 3,000-pound Dale Chihuly sculpture, Andy Warhol screenprints of Mao Tse Tung, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, a Tatra T87 sedan from the 1940s.

The MIA is in the multicultural Whittier neighborhood and a quick walk from Nicollet Avenue’s “Eat Street,” which has a multitude of ethnic dining and market options – German and Greek to Malaysian and Middle Eastern – all sandwiched together.

Admission is free to all MIA exhibits except one: “The Surreal Calder,” 70-some works by sculptor Alexander Calder, here until Sept. 10. For more: www.artsmia.org, 612-870-3133.

Children’s Theatre Company – Connected to the MIA, its expansion in 2005 was another Graves project, featuring a second stage (for preschooler and teen programs).

This is the continent’s largest children’s theater, it won a regional Tony Award in 2003 and it sent the first Minnesota-created production (“A Year with Frog and Toad”) to Broadway.

Next up: The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), which runs Aug. 22 to Oct. 29. For more: www.childrenstheatre.org, 612-874-0400.

Minneapolis Public Library – Pelli’s second architectural contribution to downtown Minneapolis opened in May. (His first was the 1988 Wells Fargo Center.)

A generous proportion of translucent and transparent glass give the new library a bright, light and airy feel. There are no load-bearing walls, so that enhances the ability to make layout changes in the future.

The environmentally friendly roof is topped with a ground cover that is resistant to sun and drought. There are loft spaces for readers who want privacy, and a planetarium on the library’s fifth floor is to open in 2010.

It’s no big deal to simply walk inside and take a gander. Visitors can check their e-mail without charge. For more: www.mpls.lib.mn.us, 612-630-6000.

Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum – Still to come is a Gehry expansion of this funky stainless steel home for the University of Minnesota’s art collection. Details have not been made public. The Mississippi riverfront building opened in 1993 and was designed by Gehry.

Collections are strong in early 20th century American art, ceramics and Korean furniture. Admission is free. For more: www.weisman.umn.edu, 612-625-9494.

What remains as a structural irritation? That honor seems to go to the 1982 Metrodome, but three sets of plans are needed to replace this multipurpose sports venue. Only two seem to be in place.

The Twins in 2010 should have their own $390 million major league baseball field near the Xcel Energy Center, and the Gophers hope to get a new $250 million NCAA football stadium on campus by 2009.

That leaves the Vikings, whose hope to plant a $675 million pro football complex in Blaine, 20 miles north of Minneapolis, has gotten nowhere.

Some arrangements for this trip were subsidized by the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association (www.minneapolis,org, 800-620-1958). Next week: Good lodging and meal options in the Minneapolis area.