By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF
EVEN amid all the jostling institutional egos - with one museum after another gushing about ambitious expansion plans - it's hard not to get excited about the Walker Art Center's new home.
For decades now, the Walker has been one of the liveliest museums in the country, an institution that maintained a strongindependent voice despite its ties to the mainstream art world. When the museum hired the Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to design a $67 million expansion and renovation of its existing 1970's-era building, it seemed like a match made in heaven. The architects had built their reputations on museum projects like London's Tate Modern and the Goetz Collection in Munich, known for theirmeticulously refined materials and a sense of inner tranquillity.
The result is an exhilarating place to view art, one that packs in 11,000 square feet of additional gallery space, a 385-seat theater, a hip new restaurant and an expanded bookstore while upholding art's place as the center of the museum experience. Anchored by an aluminum-clad tower, the addition is a masterly example of howexhausted motifs can acquire new meaning when reworked in a fresh setting.
Even so, longtime fans of the architects' work may feel mildly disappointed when they first approach the museum, on a multi-lane avenue midway between the city's uptown bars and coffee shops and its downtown skyscrapers. Herzog & de Meuron's best designs tend to come packaged in exquisite wrappers like bands of shimmeringcopper or embossed concrete. But the Walker's new tower is clad in a pattern of gray aluminum panels that fade into the dull Minneapolis skyline rather than engage the eye, a minor but unfortunate blemish on an otherwise enchanting design.
The original Walker, designed by Edward Larabee Barnes, is the kind of blank brick Modernist box that not so long ago would have been widely derided byhistoricists. Today, that stoicism is more likely to inspire admiration.
Rather than worry about swings in fashion, Herzog & de Meuron's approach is to build on that history. The lightness of the aluminum tower functions as a visual counterpoint to the forbidding Barnes building, infusing it with a new dignity.
The contrast between the two forms also echoes the stone towers of two churches across thestreet and the cluster of skyscrapers in the distance. Viewed as part of this panoply, the Walker evokes the tangled relationship between culture, commerce and religion at the beginning of a new century. And it hints at the museum's aggressive public mission, its belief in art's power "to redeem our isolation," as the critic Dave Hickey once put it.
Of course, that message would have more resonance ifthe tower were a more alluring object. Originally Herzog & de Meuron had planned to wrap it in a luminous Teflon fabric like an enormous paper lantern, but museum officials decided that would be too costly. The final version - a grid of woven aluminum panels that are molded to look like gently crumpled paper - is far less hypnotic, especially from a distance, where the intricately worked surfacesare barely visible.
Still, the tower does work as part of a drawn-out architectural narrative. Cantilevered out over the sidewalk, its corner forms a striking entry canopy, sucking you into the museum's lobby. From there, a shallow staircase funnels you up into the tower, a kind of compact vertical city that houses the majority of the museum's public zones - restaurant, performing arts theaterand events spaces.
Stacked one atop another, these various spaces seep into each other visually as you rise, heightening the sense of compression. A large window cut out of the lobby ceiling allows you to peer up into the restaurant lounge; in the restaurant, the ceiling slopes down at one end to make room for the belly of the theater above.
The result is a buzzing social sphere that serves...