The Next Starchitect?
How do you build a shockingly successful career in architecture before the age of 45? (Hint: It helps to have gobs of talent, Frank Gehry’s phone number, and the best last name in Minnesota.)
(page 1 of 4)Margee says to Peggy, We’re getting nowhere. They’re friends and neighbors, these two women, taking their morning constitutional in the Mill District near their condos. Margee—that’s Margee Bracken—is a board member at the MacPhail Center for Music, and she’s talking about their building campaign. After some 80 years in a bland brick box, MacPhail is planning a new campus near the Mill City Museum and the Mississippi riverfront. They’ve got a finished design and a full set of schematics. What they don’t have is a lot of enthusiasm. And in the nonprofit world, where there’s no enthusiasm, there’s no money. And where there’s no money, there’s no building.
Peggy—that’s Peggy Lucas—knows from buildings. She’s a partner at Brighton Development, the company that brought you some of the city’s nobbiest condos. In fact, she’s got a fantastic project called the Portland going right down the block from MacPhail’s stalled site, on the new Second Street slugger’s row made by the Guthrie and the Mill City Museum. The architect for that building, Peggy says, is a rising local talent with an acclaimed arts center in the western suburbs. So Peggy tells Margee: You should call Jim.
Margee calls Jim (let’s hold off on a last name for now). A few days later, he turns up to meet her and MacPhail’s director, toting a small 3-D model and a Moleskine notebook of sketches. A few weeks after that, Jim and his 11-member Minneapolis firm have a contract to design the $13.5 million project. Just like that.
This story raises a couple of questions. First, could social networking—two friends and power brokers kibitzing on the riverfront—be any way to build a great civic building? (You might want to reserve judgement until January 5, when you can see the new MacPhail.)
Second, who the hell is Jim?
The Portland is a hole in the ground. It’s also an exactingly crafted basswood model, sitting on a plinth in the entryway to Jim’s architecture studio. The elevator doors open and there you are, looking at the mini-Portland.
Photo by David Bowman
It’s ahead of its time, this building. It’s also behind the business cycle. See, what the Portland isn’t right now is a working construction site, and that’s a problem. Because, presently, Jim’s studio has practically no solid jobs on the boards. “I think we have six multifamily housing projects that are composed of condos that are on hold right now,” Jim says on a Tuesday afternoon in late August. “A year ago we were ridiculously busy and had more things than we could handle. And in January or March, it just shut off.” (In October, Brighton pulled the plug on the Portland and gave the hole back to the city.)
It was nice while it lasted. The condo boom brought Jim the Bookmen Lofts and the Bookmen Stacks, two forward-thinking residences that stand almost within home-run range of the new Twins ballpark. The buildings are named after a working book depository that closed shop around the turn of millennium. It’s this second residential block, the Stacks, that’s the showpiece: an eight-story glass tower that glows at night like a Sony Bravia with a 100-foot-diagonal screen. The western face of the building overlooks a long, straight entrance ramp to I-394. Viewed from up high, through extra thick windows, the flow of traffic has the oddly calming quality of a kinetic sculpture—a rolling river of SUVs and metro buses.
Inside, a massive exposed-concrete truss system takes the place of interior columns on alternate floors. The effect is like seeing the spine and the skin of the structure at the same time. The Bookmen Stacks feels honest that way—that’s a phrase Jim likes to use. For all its Duravit plumbing fixtures and custom Europly cabinets, what you see is what you get (another Jim favorite).
“If you go around the Warehouse District, the building that he put up certainly stands out,” says Larry Millett, architecture critic and author of the encyclopedic AIA Guide to the Twin Cities. “There’s so much derivative stuff that was done in the [neighborhood]. Projects like River Station—huge, massive, totally uninteresting buildings that are supposed to mimic the historical style. It’s like architects have given up.”
Jim has no intention of giving up, though it’s not lost on him that 10 of the 45 units remain unsold. The Stacks’ starkly modern mood could be a factor. “I want to be honest to my time and do work that is contemporary,” he says. “I think it’s too bad that we do sort of neo-mills and bad warehouse rip-offs. It drives me crazy: It cheapens the actual mill to build a fakey mill right next to it.”
More important than the style of the building: Most of the surplus stock runs $500,000 to $600,000 at the checkout counter—about twice what Jim now believes is the “sweet spot in the market.” In the long run, you can picture a bachelor left fielder for the Twins snatching up a Bookmen unit. For now, though, the leftovers are where no well-groomed condo wants to be: on the rental market.
The slowdown is nothing unusual in such a highly cyclic industry. It’s nothing personal either. Jim is still the same talent who designed the Minnetonka Center for the Arts at 35, an age when most architects haven’t gotten the chance to pick out a single lavatory tile on their own. (He’s 42 now.) In 2006, the American Institute of Architects crowned Jim—and only five others nationwide—with their annual Young Architects Award. Earlier this year, Mayor Rybak touted the new MacPhail as his “favorite local building”—the work of “a Minneapolis architect who’s about to explode on the national scene.” Though the flattering words are appreciated, Jim could be forgiven for asking: Might the mayor have a school somewhere to build? If not a school, how about a gallery? A garage? How about a trash shed?
Jim and the mayor have traded a couple of e-mails. He would never brag about it—wouldn’t even think to mention it—but Jim may have a more impressive Rolodex than the city’s own cheerleader-in-chief. Maybe that’s what comes from growing up a Dayton in Minnesota.