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.)

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

And there’s Jim, in a pair of finely woven, closed-toe sandals and a sea-foam green dress shirt. He practices a kind of handshake judo, clasping your paw on any occasion exactly as tightly as you clasp his. He points to the protruding window frames on the model, which look like they had collagen injections, and to the Spanish-made wood-resin panels, which give the exterior a honeyed complexion.

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.

 

Yep, there it is: Jim’s full name is James G. Dayton. He’s on the board of the Walker Art Center, for instance, and an alumnus of the Weisman board. He’s acquainted with many of the city’s homegrown art stars—such as Todd Norsten, David Rathman, Warren MacKenzie, Maren Kloppmann—having curated the maiden show in the new Minnetonka Center for the Arts. (Jim called Walker chief curator Philippe Vergne and local supergallery owner Martin Weinstein for advice.) A series of Norsten drawings hangs across from Jim’s desk, right next to the print by modern titan and Neo-Dadaist Robert Rauschenberg. The Motherwell—a typical black-and-white, geometric abstraction—hides out in a kind of window between stacks of design and art books. And the splash of a print by heralded sculptor Richard Serra? That’s not even in the office proper, but laying low outside the less-trafficked of two doors.

Jim had the chance to meet Serra—“It’s like talking to Michelangelo,” he says—through their mutual friend Frank Gehry. Gehry, it should be said, is not just a friend to Jim but a mentor. The postmodern eminence hired Jim straight out of architecture school at the University of Virginia, and kept him busy in Southern California for five years. Of course, Gehry wasn’t always an eminence: Back then, his greatest renown came from hanging crap like chainlink and corrugated metal outside his 1920s bungalow in Santa Monica. The shop was smaller in the early ’90s—just 30-odd architects—before Gehry laid the golden (or, rather, titanium) egg that is the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Now, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, almost 200 employees, and what must be a $2 billion to-do list, Gehry casts a shadow only slightly smaller than the moon during a total eclipse of the sun. Yet Jim can claim to have placed a piece of art on Gehry’s wall: a drawing of a pink alligator that Jim’s 8-year-old daughter Emma scribbled with the great man while sitting on the floor one afternoon.

Jim might have stayed in Los Angeles. He’d even managed to wrangle a little ice time out there as a member of Gehry’s office hockey club, the F.O.G. (named after Frank O. Gehry), an erstwhile touring squad that boasted a retired Montreal Canadien and one of the lesser Hulls.

But his wife Megan, an architect herself, did not love L.A., and she had her own business plan. “She came in one night,” Jim recalls, “and said, ‘I’m moving to Wayzata. You can come with me or stay here.’” Jim hadn’t lived in Minnesota since he was 15, when he decamped to the East Coast, first to boarding school at Hotchkiss in Connecticut, and then to Yale. Yet there he was one Christmas vacation, tooling around in the car—two architects going house shopping, that must have been fun. That’s what landed him in a mid-century house in Wayzata, the unofficial seat of the Daytons. If he’d wanted to get any closer to the place where he grew up, he would have had to move back into his old room.

Here’s a variation on a theme: the story of how Jim Dayton won the commission to design the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. “I probably had no right doing the arts center,” he starts—then pauses and adds, “when I did.”

He continues, “Now, it would be a great project for me. But then, God, I had, like, no staff and no computers. But my aunt”—that would be Sherry Ann Dayton—“was on the board and some of the people that were out here knew that I’d moved back to town, and that I’d come from Frank Gehry’s office. They had a design that they didn’t really like from another firm. They left a very disgruntled board meeting, and she called me and said, ‘Would you be interested in helping us work on this project?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”

There’s a dirty little word for this kind of transaction; it starts with an “N” and ends with “-epotism.” But then the Minnetonka Center for the Arts is, by all accounts, a highly successful building: attractive with its Gehryish steel panels, practical with its concrete floors and exterior display wall, and adaptable for art instruction and exhibition in just about any discipline.

With the lionization of the modern brand-name architect—a legacy of Gehry as much as anyone—it’s easy to forget that these draftsmen aren’t potentates bestowing gifts. What they are is freelance employees. It seems significant, then, that Dayton’s clients are happy, very happy, close to ecstatic if you ask them. John Gulla, headmaster at the Blake School, characterizes the Dayton-designed remake of the school’s Highcroft Campus as a “dream project.” He points to serendipities in the details: the way children play in the shifting beams of skylight; the way the oil on their stubby fingers colors the copper cladding outside.

Beth Hower, who chaired the project planning group and is the director of Blake’s early childhood programs, praises not just the product but the process. Blake’s Lower School, she explains, follows an educational theory that emphasizes a holistic agenda that can be expressed through the languages of art, drama, models, and metaphor. Dayton boned up on this philosophy and incorporated it into his proposals. In this spirit, the expansion claimed as small of a footprint as possible, maximizing the available play areas, and elevating the arts classrooms out of the basement, both literally and figuratively.

Does it really matter, then, that Dayton was himself a Blake student, that a cousin is now on the board, and that his daughter and son represent the fourth generation of Daytons to attend the school? “If the work isn’t interesting and appealing to people, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Millett, the critic, says. “You have to have some measure of talent.”

“A lot of architecture is about social connections,” he elaborates. “When Cass Gilbert”—designer of the state capitol and the U.S. Supreme Court building—“was working in St. Paul in the 19th century, he cofounded the Minnesota Club to make connections with these movers and shakers. Because those are the people who tend to commission buildings—especially larger buildings. Traditionally, many architects have come from socially prominent families, like Richard Morris Hunt in the 19th century. And Philip Johnson’s family”—Johnson designed the IDS Center in 1968—“was very prominent. It’s a complicated process by which architects get commissions, sometimes based on real talent and sometimes on other factors.” Millett laughs: “Welcome to the real world!”

Even with his connections, Dayton doesn’t spend a lot of time mocking up ski villas for Minnesota’s moneyed class. One junior architect at Dayton’s firm, James Dayton Design, actually wonders why more residential jobs don’t roll in on the friends and family plan. In fact, you get the feeling that Dayton tries to duck such commissions.

The truth is that Dayton reviles the idea of being known mainly as a descendant of George Draper Dayton. “The name has gone off the store,” he says, “which is maybe a good thing. It frees up a little more room in the phone book for my office…. I hope my grandkids will [be asked], Are you related to that architect? Not, There used to be a store named after your family 150 years ago.”

 

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.

 

The hardware on the building is more straightforward. Dayton runs his hand over a balustrade made of agricultural grating, coated in zinc. “This is as dressy as we get in my office,” he says. “It’s rough and it’s tough, but it’s totally practical. It’s perfectly real—there’s nothing too fussy about it.”

The performance hall is marginally dressier, with Douglas fir panels lining the walls. Previous plans for MacPhail, O’Fallon says, contained a standard proscenium stage: artists at the front of the room, audience stacked in the back. Dayton’s hall, with its adjustable floor in the center of the room, can replicate that setup—or just about anything else. Indeed, instead of training all the attention on the performer, the hall has a picture window at the back that’s 16-feet tall and 26-feet across. It’s a bit like a movie screen, projecting the placid faces of the buildings outside—a Warhol film, maybe.

Obscuring the riverfront is a 16-story, block-long apartment high rise called the Rivergate from the 1970s. Asked how he likes this prominent neighbor, Dayton chuckles aloud and flashes a little of his inner Nouvel: “I hope someone will buy it, tear it down, and put up something good.”

No one is sitting at the front desk when Dayton emerges from a client meeting in the firm’s open conference room. He’s wearing blue jeans today and he’s got two or three days worth of stubble. Inside, local arts impresario John Kremer is conferring with a JDD architect about his plans to add a residential and studio annex to the California building in northeast Minneapolis. Specifically, he’s talking about the mortgage market. And when developers talk about the mortgage market these days, it means they’re not talking about moving forward with a project.

The vacant front desk, it seems, is a casualty of six layoffs from the week before. Dayton enjoys a reputation for paying his employees generously and the occasion marked the first time his firm has been forced to contract. “It was awful,” Dayton says. “Just awful.”

This past summer, JDD submitted proposals to draft new arts complexes for both the Macalester and Carleton campuses. The firm didn’t win either job. While the Macalester bid—submitted with the avant-garde Boston firm Machado and Silvetti—made for an exciting presentation, it apparently struck the clients as too adventurous.

Dayton is disappointed but unapologetic. “I’m not going to give you a collegiate Gothic colonnade,” he says. “I don’t do that work.” He jokes that he can always hold out hope for St. Olaf, but then it’s difficult to imagine Dayton working in somber limestone.

This situation has prompted Dayton to reach an obvious—yet uncomfortable—conclusion: “There’s only so many arts centers you can build in Minnesota.”

One plum commission lurks: a $90 million gut job of Orchestra Hall. But that boon seems fated to go to one of those bards of the blueprint who sip Veuve Clicquot at donor galas and spend a night in the Chambers every five or six months. Plus, the task is six times the budget of MacPhail. Even Dayton, whose superstructure of modesty rests on a robust foundation of self-regard, recognizes that Orchestra Hall is a serious stretch for JDD.

Then again, Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s conductor, donated a clarinet suite to MacPhail with more than $50,000. And after touring the MacPhail site, he expressed plans to stage a Minnesota Orchestra chamber-music series in the new concert hall. Dayton is a dark horse, but he’s a dark horse who’s made a habit of finishing in the money.

For now, though, the residential market looks to be in a deep coma, and Dayton holds an aversion to doing mundane commercial work. “The way we always put the question,” Dayton explains, “is, Do you want to do Taco Bells? And the answer is, No, I don’t want to do Taco Bells.” That yo no quiero didn’t bend when Dayton consulted with each staffer at the time of the layoffs, he says. “The feedback I got—both from those who left and those who stuck around—was ‘hang in there.’ What defines our business is the integrity of the design.”

What that stance leaves to JDD is the rest of the nation: a vast playing field with boundless opportunities where practically no one has ever heard of James Dayton. It seems ironic, even a little cruel, that so many of the values that define Dayton’s professional persona—the family philanthropy, the engagement with local museums and artists, the wide social network—count for so little on that bigger stage.

Thomas Fisher believes that the success of MacPhail will open bid lists to JDD in other cities and states. Dayton’s wish list is for a small college performance space or a law school lecture hall. Until then, the practice is stuck mailing out the glorified cover letters known as RFPs and RFQs: requests for proposals and requests for qualifications. As Dayton describes it, these opportunities are like the opening round of American Idol: less degrading, perhaps, but with scantly better odds. At the same time, JDD is hiring a marketing director to promote the firm outside of Minnesota.

If there’s an upside to this lull, it may be that Dayton had the time to spend a full month in Maine at his family’s summer quarters. And in mid-August, he took another crack at the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service runs the art competition, and it attracts hundreds of entries. The featured fowls this year are the mallard, the American green-winged teal, the northern pintail, the canvasback, and the harlequin duck. Dayton studied painting at Yale, and a few weekends each fall, he hunts at a club his grandfather founded outside Alexandria. Neither experience has seemed to help him one bit.

“There are five judges and five rounds of judging,” he explains. “The winners get 25 points, usually, or 24. The first round they get five points, and they advance. The second round they get five points—a vote from each judge.” He stops to laugh. “I’ve never gotten a single point.”

It’s a hobby, a retirement pursuit, this duck stamp painting. It’s also a pure meritocracy: a blind competition against a national talent pool. Maybe that’s why Dayton keeps trying to win.

Michael Tortorello is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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