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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.)

The Next Starchitect?
Photo by David Bowman

(page 3 of 4)

Like it or not—and it seems to be a little of both—Dayton has had plenty of opportunities to consider what the name means. “I think the bigger picture is that, in its heyday, it was an incredibly important civic organization,” he says. “It was the place where people went for fancy Christmas lunches. The traditions and the 5 percent club. All the things that the downtown stores did. It wasn’t just Dayton’s; Donaldson’s was very important. We don’t have that as a downtown right now.”

The Walker’s addition bears a well-established likeness to a robot monkey head. And the new Guthrie resembles an IKEA crossed with a corkscrew parking ramp. Dayton’s MacPhail building looks like nothing in particular, which is actually a telling statement about Dayton’s style. (If forced, you could compare it to a side-by-side stainless steel refrigerator with one door open, which is also eight-months pregnant with a rusted dorm fridge. That didn’t help, did it?)

The design’s greatest dramatic flourish didn’t even survive the budgeting process. Shuffling across the construction site on a sweltering weekday in September, Dayton explains that the second-story performance hall (the dorm fridge) was originally intended to be cantilevered within the site. “It’s the signature piece of the whole organization,” he says of the hall. “The point where you graduate and perform your music. They have something like 380 recitals a year—more than one a day.” So while it would have been fitting to thrust the school’s mission forward, the cost of this bagatelle proved too dear. “We added a simple column here,” Dayton says, pointing to the corner, “and took $250,000 out of the project like that.” He snaps his fingers: gone. The money went inside the hall instead of outside—for Dayton, a characteristic choice.

The exterior is still far from dull. The zinc-dressed walls tip forward between floors three and five (it tops out at six), as if the building were taking a modest bow—or perhaps suffering the effects of one drink too many. Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, suggests that this posture lends the structure a sense of motion—an expression of the school’s purpose. “You know the Walt Disney movie Fantasia?” Fisher says. “There’s a musical theme playing and the whole physical environment comes alive: the broom, the chairs. There’s a Fantasia quality with this building; it seems like it wants to move.” That energy, Fisher says, calls to mind the kinetics of Frank Gehry, who has compared his buildings to sails.

Dayton feels a pressure to divorce his aesthetic from Gehry’s, yet he concedes that MacPhail’s galvanized exterior may be “pretty reminiscent of Frank’s stuff. But I think it’s a lot like Frank’s work was 25 years ago,” he adds. “It’s certainly not like the work he does now. His work now is just so baroque and opulent and crazy—billions of dollars of budget. I don’t have that.”

Fisher sees a similar evolution in Dayton’s visual vocabulary and basic approach. “Frank Gehry, like Frank Lloyd Wright, is an original genius,” he says. “And it’s been hard for a lot of people to see where you go from original genius without just doing a lot of knockoffs. What I find interesting about Jim is there’s a kind of Midwest practicality to the work that’s less about sculptural form. It’s kind of Frank Gehry brought back down to the ground. It has a lot of the liveliness and inventiveness of Frank’s work. But Jim is able to work on much more constrained sites and much more constrained budgets. I don’t think it’s easy to go past a master like Frank Gehry, but I think Jim has started to find a way.”

When given the choice between flash and function at MacPhail, Dayton has stuck to the latter. The main doorway is unprepossessing, and at seven-feet high, scaled to children. Likewise, the atrium foregoes a grand operatic staircase to the second floor and the concert hall—a Charles Garnier monument in marble. In its stead, Dayton has installed a flight of triple-height sitting steps that act as “an informal hangout space.” It’s one of the most ingenious things about the new campus. With its nine classrooms and 56 instruction studios, its early childhood music areas, its music-therapy suites, and its adaptable concert hall, the new facility has something to offer the thousands of students who pass through the school’s doors each week. You can learn to clap here (a skill best studied by the just-out-of-diapers set), or compose a reasonable facsimile of a rondo, or join an adult choir. Yet Dayton has paid equal attention to all the nothing that goes on in a community music school: the violist waiting for her sister to finish a bassoon lesson; the parent arriving a half-hour early for an afternoon recital. The new MacPhail has Wi-Fi throughout and is littered with alcoves and couches. The atrium even has its own performance nook, a way to keep music streaming through the building’s walkways and waiting rooms.

“We’ve never had that before,” says MacPhail’s president David O’Fallon—nor, he says, does any other music school in the country. Like the faculty at Blake, O’Fallon describes Dayton as a kind of superlistener. “He had a remarkable capacity to understand what we’re doing,” he says. Yet O’Fallon has also internalized some of Dayton’s descriptions: Both men, for instance, comment on the way the Cor-Ten exterior on the concert hall fits with the corroded industrial bones of the Mill District. What Dayton has given O’Fallon, it seems, isn’t just a building but the language to communicate what the building means.

Dayton walks down a hall of classrooms. Though the teaching rooms have thick walls and acoustically rated doors, Dayton says that MacPhail won’t be a silent building. “Did you ever see Fame?” he asks. “There’s that whole opening sequence in the movie where they’re introducing you to the high school for performing arts.” Here, Dayton skillfully emulates the sound of high-hats chattering. “That kind of violin-kick cacophony going on? We watched that movie in the office. That’s what we wanted.”

Dayton seems happy in here, padding about amid stray AC evaporators and white mountains of acoustical ceiling tile. “He really lights up when he works,” O’Fallon says. “I think he’s a bit of an introvert, which must be an interesting dynamic. You compare that to a Jean Nouvel figure”—O’Fallon affects the accent of Pepé Le Pew—“I will tell you about the great architecture.”

Dayton tromps up a few flights of stairs. From here, you can peer down into the lobby and survey the assemblage of shapes and surfaces. You wouldn’t have to be a classicist to find the geometry of this irregular polyhedron to be disorienting—a bit of a muddle, even. Some walls stand up straight, others duck and dive. Whimsical, maybe, but not beautiful.

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