Jean Nouvel’s Minneapolis theatre makes a home for drama in a bleak Midwestern landscape
For a large new theatre in the USA, French super-modernist Jean Nouvel has paid homage to the nation’s heritage. Not the heritage of grand cultural architecture, but of American industry: grain silos, ungainly factories in brick and concrete and a river that functions as an industrial thoroughfare. For the location here is not an East Coast capital of culture but the Midwestern city of Minneapolis on the banks of the Mississippi.
As a result, the £68m Guthrie Theatre is more akin to a 26,500 m² factory than an arts centre. It is an amalgamation of blocky and drum-shaped forms rising to a height of nine storeys and topped by two industrial flues. It is clad in flat metal panels and carries three LED signs at high level, in the tradition of the neon signs that once topped nearby factories.
The other local heritage that Nouvel pays tribute to is that of the Guthrie Theatre itself, which was established by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the British theatre director, in 1963. Guthrie died in 1971, but his theatre has built up a reputation for Shakespearian and contemporary drama throughout North America.
Nouvel explains that his design brings together the two local histories of industry and theatre.
“The Guthrie will show that theatre is a sort of industry,” he says, “a place of production, of sets and big trucks; that it is governed by a series of linked functions; that it is a process of fabricating and presenting a spectacle, and that architecturally all this can be expressed in relation to the history of industrial buildings.”
Not that Nouvel would ever dream of using this historic rationale as an excuse for nostalgia. “This dialogue is obviously a perfect pretext for inventing and using the materials and techniques of the 21st century,” he says.
With that in mind, Nouvel has opened up another inspired box of his architectural tricks. The most arresting of these is an arm that shoots out 54 m horizontally and is supported only at one end.
Called “the endless bridge”, it leads nowhere but to a sequence of spectacular framed views of the river valley, its waterfalls, bridges and parks. High overhead, an amber glass lobby projects to give bird’s-eye views further afield.
The metal cladding comes in a shiny twilight-blue finish that recedes into the evening sky.
As it does so, it highlights eight panels that are screen-printed with vast images of past theatrical performances and float like ghosts in the dark.
Inside are three auditoriums of different sizes and shapes. The largest is the 1100-seat thrust stage overlooked by a semicircle of raked seating in tribute to Guthrie’s original auditorium. The other two are a conventional rectangular proscenium stage and a 200-seat experimental theatre with flexible seating.
Another Nouvel novelty is to line the internal walls and ceilings with large sheets of flimsy paper. Screen-printed with scenes of past performances, they echo those on the outside of the building.
“Minneapolis will discover that history continues to be made,” says Nouvel. “If industry born of the river contributed to its prestige, culture has become an important part of its image and appeal today.” Helped, that is, by a new cultural-industrial building of an indisputable international standard.
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