Architecture of West Bank tells a vivid story

By Patrick

On the West Bank of the University, the new building for the Carlson School of Management is rising above its surroundings, a capitalist parvenu in the academic groves, a private-sector colossus of green glass and brick. The Rarig Center, home of theater, is properly shunted aside by this paean to the fiscal arts.
The Social Sciences Building is taller, but narrower and more crabbed in comparison to the block-wide breadth of the new home of the MBA. The library is dwarfed; space for walking is hemmed and narrowed, and parking lots are becoming parking ramps. The Carlson school building is ripe for use and misuse as a metaphor for Minnesota’s societal priorities.
The sad, diminutive and staid building that houses the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs is the woeful victim of business school aggrandizement. “The Hump” dwindles, tucked under the awnings of the new Carlson school like a tacky tool shed. In the peculiar American seesaw between public and private, the business types have definitely won this round. Theirs is the shining building, the spacious hallways, the corridors of power. Government is, perhaps properly, relegated to a sort of shabby backyard garage. But maybe this is unkind to garages.
The critics of West Bank architecture are legion, and the new Carlson barn will not pacify their sharp tongues. The building is not finished, but is already shaping up to be a brute force on the campus, domineering, swaggering, perhaps even brooding. This is as it should be. All professional management schools are, in one sense, absurdities — earnest efforts to codify lessons of life — statements of faith that say you can learn to be a business or government leader from a book — or in a building. Given this intellectual pedigree, it is important to put a powerful face on the idea that business acumen can be codified and taught.
It is interesting to note that the new Carlson pyramid was built with public and private funds. The building will cost about $45 million, of which $25 million comes from the state as a match to business contributions. The Carlson school is built out of a public-private partnership, a visible emblem of the inability of business to complete major infrastructure investments without a tax credit, a government bond, a handout or a partnership.
At the Humphrey Institute, the professors delight in teaching a theory of market failure. Under this theory, government should only act when markets fall short. This theory works well with the new West Bank architecture — a big, impressive private sector building, a small but vital government center. Could Newt Gingrich — or Bill Clinton — have sketched two more symbolic building sizes, shapes and relationships?
Walking from one point to another on the West Bank, around the Carlson ziggurat, will be unpleasant, claustrophobic and counter-intuitive. With each new building, the West Bank has taken shape and become a rat’s warren of boring brick. Only the public sector can maintain such mediocrity of design for so long in one space. The Carlson school building, for all of its private sector backing, is the last and ultimate expression of emptiness in public design.
Between the Carlson school and “the Hump” stands a public square, a lovely but unworkable idea constructed when the Humphrey Institute went up. The idea was for a public outdoor space for presentations, speeches and discussions. The space is rarely used, the words of Hubert Humphrey are sagging off the walls; the idea of discourse in public life has become outdated and quaint. The new Carlson building hems this outdoor space into a courtyard between the schools, between the government and industry, public and private. Will the space be yet another University trash bin, site of gum wrappers and pop cans, detritus and exhaust fumes?
Probably. An outdoor forum in Minnesota is like a motorcycle — cool in theory, but miserable in January. Yet the space is there, between the gargantuan and the diminished, a test for the new partnership of architecture and policy.
Patrick J. McCormack is an alumnus of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and past member of the Institute’s alumni board. He works as a researcher for the Minnesota Senate on business regulation matters.