Modern Love

From mid-century modern to contemporary prefab, the Twin Cities has experimented with almost every architectural style to come along since World War II. Some of that legacy is already rubble—much of it rightly so. But Minneapolis–St. Paul is also home to dozens of modern edifices that deserve a place in the world pantheon of great spaces. Here, 14 buildings—plus a band shell, two bridges, and a park—that deserve to be celebrated long into the next century.


Jean Nouvel, 2006

Can theater change the world? The effects of stagecraft are hard to measure, but there’s no denying that the Frenchman Jean Nouvel deftly transformed Minneapolis in 2006 when he reenvisioned the Guthrie Theater as a big blue box on the banks of the Mississippi. Almost overnight, a swath of riverfront mostly known as a place where you could buy cheap liquor or tailgate before a Twins game became the city’s premier address. Condos, restaurants, and organic markets took root. Gold Medal Park took shape in the former no man’s land.

But the Guthrie did more than just boost property values. In one bold stroke, Nouvel managed to marry one of Minnesota’s most treasured cultural institutions, the Guthrie, with the city’s milling-industry past. It wasn’t just the industrial feel of the exterior—electric-blue metal. Inside, theatergoers encountered windows that framed the landscape, the falls, bridges and buildings—reminders of the river’s central role in our own developing drama. As in many a play, it took a stranger to make us see the bounty that was already ours.


Providence has blessed the Twin Cities with an abundance of religious architecture. But few structures are as conducive to contemplation as Bigelow Chapel, part of the United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, designed by Joan Sorrano and John Cook of HGA and fitted with translucent maple panels; and Christ Lutheran Church, by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, a worship space in south Minneapolis that seems tailor-made for meditation.


Gunnar Birkerts, 1972

The elegance is in the engineering. Most of the floors in this building hang from two sets of catenary cables—visible in the building’s façade—in a design that resembles a suspension bridge. Originally, an open gap between the plaza level and the bottommost floor showcased the building’s bridge-like qualities. A building addition, a green terrace, and the departure of the original tenant, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, have altered the building significantly. But, happily, the “smile” remains—a gesture of beauty and grace.

Photo by wes glenna


Minoru Yamasaki, 1965

Minoru Yamasaki is best known as the designer of the World Trade Center towers in New York, but before the Twin Towers were erected, the Seattle-born architect conjured up classically informed confections like this temple to trade on Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue. Once reviled as a relic, this ’60s survivor has aged with grace. And when the reflecting pools that surround it are refilled this summer, its green marble façade will glimmer in the light—just as it first did more than 40 years ago.




Great paintings, music, and performances deserve a home as grand as the art itself, right? Which is why well-heeled patrons have been happy to foot the bill for these recent constructions:  1. Walker Art Center addition. This metal-clad building was grafted onto the original, brown-brick Larrabee Barnes structure by the Swiss architectural team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron in 2005. Overhyped in conception, it’s nonetheless compelling as executed.  2. MacPhail Center for Music. Opened in 2007, the design of this Minneapolis music school by local architect James Dayton shows the influence of Dayton’s erstwhile mentor, Frank Gehry.  3. Schubert Club Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand. New York architect James Carpenter planted this flourish on Raspberry Island in downtown St. Paul in 2002.

Photo by Wes Glenna


Philip Johnson, 1973

Like an anchor in a storm, Philip Johnson’s IDS Center offers reassurance. It’s the linchpin on which downtown Minneapolis turns, an aid to tourists and native drivers alike. It’s an icon, recognizable to passengers landing at MSP International, a heartening sight to expats. It’s solidly built, respectable, elegant, and serious, but not flashy or ostentatious. In short, it’s the embodiment of Minnesota values. Consider the building’s civic virtues, as well. The IDS once housed a movie theater and still contains a restaurant and a hotel. Its center gathering space, the Crystal Court, is open to all—and attracts visitors of every economic stripe throughout the day. And finally, its design is the very embodiment of democracy: The corners are zigzagged (what the architect called “zogs”) in a way that allows for 32 corner offices, instead of the typical four, on every floor.


Barry Byrne, 1951

The word elegant isn’t often used to describe buildings made of concrete. But Barry Byrne, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright who was deeply influenced by expressionism, had a knack for coaxing beauty, particularly stunning churches, from the material. Case in point: The Church of St. Columba, in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. On Sunday mornings, Catholic parishioners linger on the stepped plaza below the church’s round bell tower—a sign that this is more than a concrete driveway. Inside, a low-ceilinged narthex squeezes worshipers into the stunning, oval-shaped sanctuary, its interior lit by the sunshine pouring through more than two-dozen clerestory windows. The robin’s-egg hue of the ceiling adds to the sense that you’re on a boat bound for heaven. Outside, the concrete is a firm foundation. Inside, it’s light as a feather.

Photo by wes glena


Cesar Pelli, 2006

Twice now, Cesar Pelli has come to our rescue. The first time was in 1989, when the Wells Fargo Center rose from the ashes of the old Northwestern National Bank, which had been destroyed by fire. Pelli’s soaring replacement was part Rocke-feller Center, part ice palace—a knockout. But Pelli deserves equal credit for exhuming the city’s central library. Most of the books in the old ’60s structure were literally underground, accessible only after library staffers communicated with the moles that worked below. Pelli’s library, in contrast, is bright and airy. And like his Wells Fargo tower, the building glows at night—but from the inside, and with a different sort of illumination.



Public works are often bereft of flair—pared down by politicians eager to prove their budget-cutting prowess. So when our landscape is graced by amenities that are not only functional but also eye-catching, we’re especially grateful. 1. Martin Olav Sabo Bridge, 2007.   2. Mears Park, 1992.  3. Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, 1988.  4. Como Park Visitor Center, 2005.


Trying to select the most notable homes from among all the residences built in the Twin Cities since World War II is a task only the most foolhardy would undertake. Which is more important: the Frank Lloyd Wright residence on Cedar Lake or the Marcel Breuer retreat in St. Paul? We’re not sure, but here are two structures we’d certainly like to call home. 1. Eigenfeld House. What is it about this house by Gar Hargens of Minneapolis-based Close Associates that reminds us of Southern California? The blue corrugated-metal siding? The rooftop balcony? The vista views? (Albeit of St. Paul, not the Pacific.) Hard to say, but this much we know: It’s way cool. 2. FlatPak House. Do-it-yourselfers have a friend in Charlie Lazor, who designed a home of interchangeable components for his family in 2004, then took the concept to the masses. Prefabricated panels of glass, wood, concrete, and metal are mixed and matched to create rooms, courtyards, walls, and windows. Some assembly required.


Frank Gehry, 1993

There are no centrist opinions when it comes to this jumble of stainless-steel forms on the U of M’s East Bank campus in Minneapolis. Sculptural wonder or pile o’ tin cans? Depends whom you ask. But whether you worship or revile it, there’s no denying that the Weisman’s opening in the early 1990s prepped us for what lay ahead—the rise of starchitects and a clamor for cool new edifices worldwide. When Frank Gehry catapulted to fame with the Guggenheim Bilbao a few years later, some of us noted—softly, but not without a trace of smugness—that we knew all along that this guy had talent, that our museum was the creative furnace in which Gehry forged his signature style. Spain might have the masterpiece, but we kindled the artistic flame. 

Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.