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Modern design: it doesn’t stay shiny and new all by itself

Downtown Minneapolis’ Peavey Plaza made news on Friday as a “Marvel of Modernism.” Designed in the early 70s by M. Paul Friedberg, it’s one of 12 urban spaces selected by the Cultural Landscape Foundation as part of its “Landslide 2008” campaign to draw attention to mid-20th century landscape design – and that fact that these […]

Downtown Minneapolis’ Peavey Plaza made news on Friday as a “Marvel of Modernism.” Designed in the early 70s by M. Paul Friedberg, it’s one of 12 urban spaces selected by the Cultural Landscape Foundation as part of its “Landslide 2008” campaign to draw attention to mid-20th century landscape design – and that fact that these highlighted “Marvels” are looking rather shabby. Indeed, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota included the plaza on its own “10 most endangered” list last May.

Part of the need for such campaigns is due to the odd niche that urban landscape design occupies. In its story about Peavey Plaza, MPR made the point that most people don’t think of landscapes as being designed; by extension, it’s also rare to think about their “maintenance” beyond lawn mowing and leaf raking. Those who perform maintenance, of course, realize that it’s quite a bit more complicated, especially with a design like Peavey Plaza’s, which involves water and fountains and relatively unusual materials like pebble aggregate. (Interestingly, MPR’s story noted that the plaza is maintained not by parks staff, but city streets staff, who may unintentionally make poor decisions since the Plaza is not part of its regular maintenance program.)

Many of the other 11 places chosen by the Cultural Landscape Foundation are intriguing, especially Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon from 1982. In the spirit of Bauhaus, where he got his start, Bayer’s outlook as a designer was admirably “universal” (as he named one of his fonts); besides graphic design and landscape design, he also made sculptures and helped transform Aspen, Colorado from a mining town into a ski resort.

On the other side of the coin, I’m stumped by the inclusion of Boston’s City Hall Plaza. I’ve been there, and it’s simply a wind-swept hardscape wasteland – the exact kind of place that gives mid-century modernism a bad name. What’s almost amusing is that, at the end of its own lengthy essay on City Hall Plaza, the Cultural Landscape Foundation concludes that investment in “making the plaza attractive, viable, and environmentally sustainable” is needed. If this place is neither attractive, nor viable, nor environmentally sustainable – why is it considered noteworthy, let alone a marvel?

I’d be interested to hear about other urban landscapes that people feel merit a visit, whether they are marvelous or stupendously awful. (For the latter, I have a local example: Minneapolis’ Federal Courthouse plaza, pictured here.)

(Image sources: Top: Preservation Alliance Of Minnesota, via Star Tribune; bottom: Dig This Designs )

  • Yes I definitely agree with you it needs maintenance and a great redesign now and then too.