LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis is one of the best-known regional theaters in the country. It's been home to such legendary actors as Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, and it won a Tony Award for its contribution to theater. Now, after 40 years, the theater company is moving to a new high-profile home on the other side of town. The new Guthrie opens today, but as Minnesota public radio's Marianne Combs reports, a bit of the city's architectural and theatrical past is about to be torn down.
Ms. MARIANNE COMBS (Reporter): French architect Jean Nouvel has designed a nine-story complex for the Guthrie Theater Company. It's his first building in the United States. Sitting in a plush red velour seat in the Guthrie's new ultra-modern proscenium theater, Nouvel says he designed the complex keeping the rituals of theater and the city's history in mind.
Mr. JEAN NOUVEL (Architect): (Through Translator) I'm someone who fights against everything that's generic or imposed on a site or uses the same design language repeatedly. I look at a design in terms of the identity of the place, the specific context of the time, the local geography and history. And here I find I really had the means to work with all of this.
Ms. COMBS: The new Guthrie Theater complex echoes the neighboring 19th century flour mills that have since been converted into condominiums and a museum. The exterior of the building is a bold midnight blue. By day, it might be mistaken for Ikea, but by night the blue recedes into the darkness while ghostly images of past performances light up and appear to float in midair. Tom Fisher(ph), Dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, says the interior is just as dramatic.
Mr. TOM FISHER (Dean, College of Architecture, University of Minnesota): As soon as you go through the door, the spaces and the light in the building are incredible. And I think one of the more important aspects of it is that the street in some ways have been brought all the way through the building, that you can move deeply into the building all the way up to the very top without having a ticket.
Ms. COMBS: So visitors to the new Guthrie can dine in one of its two restaurants and walk out onto a cantilever bridge that juts over the river, affording expansive views of the lochs and dams in St. Anthony Falls. The complex has three stages. All of this is quite a change from the Guthrie's old home. Designed by architect Ralph Rapson in the 1960s, the original Guthrie Theater was a white space, light and open. While Jean Nouvel prides himself on his unique approach to each project, Rapson, at the age of 91, stands by his artistic consistency. He remembers pulling out the old plans for a house decades later to see if it still met his standards.
Mr. RALPH RAPSON (Architect): As I looked at that some 40 years later, there wasn't one single thing I wanted to change to bring it up to date or anything.
Ms. COMBS: In the 1950s, Rapson was the face of American diplomacy abroad, designing U.S. Embassies across Europe. For 30 years he was the Dean of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, teaching generations of modern architects. But over the past several years, he's seen a number of private residences he designed torn down, then a church for the deaf. This fall, his signature Guthrie Theater will be demolished to make way for a sculpture garden for the Walker Arts Center, which owns the land. Dean Tom Fisher sits at Rapson's old desk in what is now Ralph Rapson Hall.
Mr. FISHER: It's unfortunate we're just throwing it away. We have with Ralph Rapson one of the most important American architects of the last, you know, 50 years, living here still practicing and we've been tearing his buildings down.
Ms. COMBS: The new Guthrie Theater does attempt to pay homage to Ralph Rapson's work. The legendary thrust stage for which the old Guthrie is best known has been meticulously recreated, only deviating to allow for wider seats and slightly better sightlines. Dean Fisher says while he thoroughly enjoys the new building, he wishes the public had made a stronger effort to find a use for the old.
Mr. FISHER: I think this community should do more to preserve and honor his work rather than kind of - well, just letting it go and saying it's too bad, but not caring for it enough.
Ms. COMBS: But right now new is cool. Minnesota is in the midst of a building boom. Several major foundations and corporations make their homes here. Thanks to their support, celebrity architects Cesar Pelly(ph), Michael Graves and the team of Herzog and Demoran(ph) have designed a new public library and expansions of the Walter Arts Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Children's Theater Company.
But back in 1964, when the Guthrie was looking for a home, funding wasn't so readily available. The Walker Arts Center loaned the Guthrie's founders the land, but they had to cut corners and make compromises in order to complete the building. Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling is tired of hearing lamentations over the loss of the old Guthrie. He says it was beautifully designed, but not built to last.
Mr. JOE DOWLING (Artistic Director, Guthrie): It is not a building that without major, major reconstruction, major annual fundraising, could survive, and no one has come forward with a viable plan. The Walker Arts Center would be insane to leave it sit down to rot.
Ms. COMBS: Architect Ralph Rapson is still hard at work at his Minneapolis architecture firm drawing renderings of buildings and furniture by hand, while his son Toby and other staff architects use the computers. Ralph Rapson says he has the bittersweet misfortune of living long enough to see several of his buildings demolished.
Mr. RAPSON: I'm not one of these people who thinks that every building has to remain forever. Times change, conditions change, circumstances change. We must move on. But you know, as people have asked me, does it hurt? Yes, it hurts. It's like losing a child, if you will.
Ms. COMBS: Rapson says when he heard that the Guthrie had bought a piece of land on the Mississippi Riverfront a few years back, he sat down and designed a new theater for it, but he never submitted the design. For NPR News, I'm Marianne Combs in Minneapolis.
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