The Guthrie Reconsidered

Trash-talking the French is an American pastime. So it came as a surprise last summer when aesthetes and audiences alike greeted the Guthrie Theater’s new facility on the Mississippi in Minneapolis with unstinting applause. The Gallic architect, Jean Nouvel, escaped the usual savaging. ¶ But a fancy façade isn’t enough, mon chéri: Great buildings ease and enhance the experience of the people who visit and work inside them. As the Guthrie marks its first year on the river, it seems a good time to assess Big Blue’s functionality: Does it meet the needs of theatergoers?

Everybody likes the views from the cantilevered “Endless Bridge.” And anyone with the slightest bit of nostalgia has to appreciate Nouvel’s nod to the original Guthrie: Watching a production on the new thrust stage is almost indistinguishable from seeing a show in the old house. We love the bordello red of the proscenium stage, but what’s with the coach-class seating? Do the French not have kneecaps?

The theaters are fine, even fun. But otherwise, to be honest, this is the Britney Spears of theaters: She’s pretty, but she’s a mess. The building’s flow—what architects call “circulation”—is topsy-turvy. Getting to the ninth-floor theater requires a transfer between elevators. Pileups at the top of the Endless Escalators are not unheard of. “All it takes is just one person who’s unsteady on her feet to slow things up,” notes Minneapolis architect Tom Meyer. Ralph Rapson, who designed the original Guthrie, is more blunt. “I’d say the circulation is one of the worst I’ve seen,” the 92-year-old complains.

The public spaces are troublesome, too. The entrance hall has all the charm of an “airplane hangar,” says former Guthrie board member Charles Nolte. The spartan lobbies feel “cold and manipulative,” according to retired theater critic Dan Sullivan, who covered the opening production at the original Guthrie in 1963. Everything is hard and shiny. A brush with one of the angular black-leather chairs in the lobbies can leave you with lacerations.

To be fair, the Guthrie’s management has tried to remedy the fixable problems—with more ushers, brighter lights, better signage. And some matters were beyond even the architect’s control: There’s no public skyway between the theater and the parking ramp across the street, for example, because the city prohibits such structures in historic neighborhoods.

But the building’s biggest flaw, a flow that just doesn’t work, should have been evident to Nouvel on the drawing boards. “You get what you pay for,” Sullivan says, “a big-name international architect doing his number in a town where he doesn’t have to live.” C’est la vie.

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.