Landscape Architecture Magazine Ι November 2019
Shane Coen, FASLA, drops by the newly restored Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis every weekend. One of the first things he notices is how many more people can use it. The sunken concrete plaza is now far more accessible for wheelchair users and those with limited mobility, and its formerly 10-inch-deep wading pool is now a quarter inch of mirror-finish water on granite. Anyone, age 4 to 94, can slip off their shoes and enjoy the water. When this happens, Coen says, some things are inevitable. “No matter what age you are, there’s some level of play that starts to happen in people,” he says. “They’re connecting with themselves and with people around [them].”
Peavey Plaza offers just enough separation from the rest of the city to signal that it’s an integrated place for play. As you descend nine feet from the street into the plaza, “your mind starts to change,” Coen says. The drama of the ziggurat forms, the resonance of the water, the concrete square platforms that hover over the basin like graph paper stepping-stones, and the broad proportions of the plaza, slightly under one acre, are all clues that it’s time for some performative fun. As a sunken plaza, it’s the inverse of a stage in one sense, but it’s got the same sense of possibility and creation that’s been retained from the original design by M. Paul Friedberg and Associates. “I don’t think it’s necessary to tear something down to repurpose it,” Coen says. “I think it’s a matter of how you want to interpret it.”
Designed to be a public forum, a casual gathering space, a concert venue, and a place for play, the block- scaled plaza links Nicollet Mall, designed by Lawrence Halprin & Associates, and Friedberg’s Loring Greenway. But at first glance, just as when it was built in the mid-1970s, it doesn’t quite exude whimsy. It’s a landscape of powerful, elemental forms rendered in concrete: inverted ziggurat fountains that cascade water into a basin and a sunken amphitheater that nests into the site. The edges of the plaza, past the water basin, are filled with articulated layers of terracing where stairs become sculptural objects.
The raw abstraction of these forms, interwoven with trees and turf that form outdoor rooms along the perimeter of the site, lets the mind wander to a sort of protofuturistic Hanging Garden of Babylon, and the plaza is considerably more charming than most brutalism-inflected city center civic spaces. That key turn is central to the plaza’s value, and to the public space oeuvre of Peavey Plaza’s original designer, M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, a master of deploying abstraction and primal forms to subtly lead the imagination out of prosaic routines. “We have to design space so that the community can interpret it on their own,” says Friedberg, who was not involved in the recent restoration. “It should be sufficiently ambiguous that it can be interpreted; it can be owned in different ways by different people.”
By making the plaza more accessible, Coen, his firm Coen+Partners, and a team of designers and preservation- ists aid this mission, exposing more people to this space and inviting di- verse ownership of the city center. Friedberg’s singular and uncompro- mising vision has become as flexible and versatile as the evolving city that surrounds it. Suddenly, 1975 never looked so good.
Reopened in July, this was Coen+ Partners’ first historic preservation project, in partnership with the Minneapolis-based New History, formerly Preservation Design Works, which guided the plaza’s progress through the state historic preservation office and helped define appropriate preservation parameters. Funding came from the city, state, and the Target Corporation, whose headquarters is a few blocks away. Coen has lived in Minneapolis since 1990, but within a year or so of arriving, Coen remembers Peavey Plaza’s primary activat- ing element, the fountains, running dry, creating an urban dead spot that would remain for decades. Once he got involved in the plaza’s restoration, Coen says, he grew to love its “propor- tions and the simplicity of materiality and repetition.”
It’s an intensely literal restoration that maintains the plaza’s essential character. That was a hard-won struggle by itself. In 2012, the city announced plans to demolish Peavey Plaza and replace it with a radically different design. This led to a pro- tracted fight with the preservation organizations Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which were both supporting the plaza’s preservation. After a lawsuit and dozens of public meetings and historic reviews facilitated by Coen+Partners principal in charge Robin Ganser, ASLA, the intense advocacy got the plaza included on the National Reg- ister of Historic Places in 2013, and the city changed course.
Adjacent to the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert hall, the plaza was built during the same period as the con- cert venue, and steps down nine feet below street level. In this urban remove, the design thrives on the material and textural contrast (and formal similarity) between the plaza’s dozens of trees and its inverted zig- gurat fountains. “It was our sense of an abstraction of nature as waterfall,” Friedberg says in an oral history of the plaza collected by TCLF; sheets of water poured over the ziggurats’ wide, flat tops and into the 75-by-140- foot wading pool.
Friedberg says he would have been willing to use pricier stone for the original plaza, but it wasn’t in the budget, so the concrete was poured. It’s entirely possible that this decision makes the project stronger than it would have been, more unified in its abstraction after being shaped from liquid stone than the granular presentation of blocks of masonry.
The plaza today stands apart from much contemporary commercial and civic work, as there’s no slick and focus-grouped commercial sheen. It’s very much one man’s vision, which hasn’t been disturbed by the renovation. “You could like it or not like it, but the intention is important,” Friedberg says.
The intention is a pure public space with nothing to sell, rendered in an equally minimalist set of materials: “Concrete, granite, and stainless steel. That’s it,” Coen says. “It’s very hard to get a palette that distilled down approved today. I know, because I’ve tried to get it approved.”
The plaza was built at a time when (most optimistically) cities had to be strong to survive. Or, more pessimistically, could best hope to be a durable ruin. (It was completed the same year as the New York Daily News’s era- defining headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) And in the TCLF oral history, Friedberg said he got the job because the clients felt that, as a hardened New Yorker, he could design away crime and vagrancy. Peavey Plaza was really a “period piece,” Friedberg said in the oral history.
The hardening of borders and materials to ward away citizenry deemed undesirable during the Taxi Driver era of urbanism mostly failed to create public spaces that were widely loved. At Peavey Plaza, a combination of deferred maintenance and subsequently less public use was abetted by a lack of understanding and admiration for its brutalist approach, “which only so many people appreciate,” Coen says.
Over time the plaza’s original 76 trees had thinned, so Coen and his team added honey locusts back to the site, to get as close to Friedberg’s original plan as possible. Littleleaf linden trees original to Friedberg’s plan were also replaced in kind, as were shrubs such as creeping juniper along 12th Street, and mugo pine (which was original to the 1975 plan, but was no longer intact) near the main fountains. But Coen swapped the original green ash trees with elms, to stave off damage from ash borer pests. Farther along Nicollet Mall toward 11th Street, the plaza is dotted with a grid of honey locusts that define an entry terrace border- ing Nicollet Amphitheater, one of two amphitheaters. A few patches of bluegrass sod border the Orchestra Hall at the rear of the site, 12th Street, and Nicollet Amphitheater. Some sections of lawn adjacent to ramps and sloped walkways along Nicollet Mall and the rear of the site have been replaced with permeable concrete pavers to make the plaza more accessible.
The Coen+Partners team reconstructed Friedberg’s original cube-like wooden furniture, after much of these site furnishings had been re- placed with standard benches and an assorted collection of other seating. Movable Adirondack chairs were brought to the site for added flexibil- ity, and a new, smaller amphitheater borders the site’s southwestern edge, along 12th Street. The team found that the fountain canisters mounted on top of an inverse ziggurat were made of stainless steel, though they had been so discolored everyone assumed them to be bronze. Scrubbed clean, they’re a key part of the plaza’s minimal lineup of materials.
Eighty-five percent of the plaza now is wheelchair accessible, and from many vantages, the ramps are not visible unless you look for them, their sloped planes hidden behind hori- zontal retaining walls. An existing ramp at the rear of the site was wid- ened, modified with a reduced slope and updated handrails. A new sloped walkway leading from Nicollet Mall (a rich artery of pedestrians) deposits visitors next to the ziggurat fountains. Throughout, new ramps were de- signed with the same forms and spatial rhythms as Friedberg’s original ramp.
The plaza’s most dominant feature, its wading basin, is now a very different experience. With the pool depth down to a quarter inch from 10 inches, it’s good for a playful sprint and a splash, no rolled-up pant legs required. It’s a water feature for Saturday afternoons and Wednesday lunch hours.
The new fountain system reduces daily water consumption by 35 percent, and can fill up the plaza in 15 minutes and drain it in 60 minutes for a dry surface, offering a much wider range of programming oppor- tunities. The new system, designed by Fluidity, allows water to enter the plaza and drain from it when the water is turned off via the same pipe. There’s an enhanced filtration system, and in contrast to the original design, water is recycled instead of being deposited into the storm sewer when the basin is drained for events. Imagine draining the plaza for a farmers’ market in the morning, kids programming with the water in the afternoon, and removing the water again for a yoga class in the evening. (There are also plans for the basin to accommodate ice skating, though this won’t be ready for next winter.)
Coen remembers how the plaza— and the city—transformed when they finally turned the water back on. “Magic happened that night,” he says. “We were able to see the space in a complete way. The city was re- flecting in the basin, and the sound of water completely removes you from the city.” With the rush of water, “the perception of brutalist space goes away,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot more weddings and proposals and love happening there.”