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Parsing Peavey
Minneapolis plaza redesign would alter Friedberg project.
Aerial view of the proposed transformed plaza.
Courtesy Oslund & Associates

With its sunken plaza and dramatic concrete waterfalls, Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis, designed by M. Paul Friedberg and completed in 1973, is a notable modern landscape that has fallen into disrepair. Located adjacent to the Minneapolis Orchestra Hall and the Nicollet Mall, which was designed by Lawrence Halprin, the plaza could seen new life if the city, working in tandem with the Orchestra, moves ahead with a redesign by the noted local landscape architect Tom Oslund. Not everyone is pleased with the process or the plan however. After initially being involved in the redesign, Friedberg now objects to the plan.

Heralded when it opened, Peavey Plaza has deteriorated significantly, and the waterfall-like fountains have stopped working. Critics complain its deeply sunken design is forbidding, even dangerous.

Oslund's proposed Peavey Plaza redesign.

According to Oslund, the new plaza design will keep many concepts of Friedberg’s design—including large water elements and a less sunken plaza—and will link it more closely to the city and the adjacent Orchestra Hall. “We’ve learned a lot about how to design successful public spaces in the last forty years,” Oslund said. Oslund would bring the sunken plaza closer to grade and eliminate the boulder-like elements of the Friedberg fountains. Oslund’s comparatively simple, shallow fountain could be drained easily to create a seating area for performance events. An outdoor stage—large enough to accommodate most of the orchestra—would flank the new fountain. The plaza will, in many ways, act as an extension of the Orchestra Hall, which was designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and is undergoing a renovation by Toronto-based KPMB Architects. The Oslund design will also bring the plaza in line with ADA requirements and make it more visually connected to the surrounding blocks. Additionally, the project will have more sustainable elements like improved storm water management and a water recycling system for the fountain.

Friedberg and Charles Birnbaum, an expert on modernist landscapes and president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, were initially advisors to the design team. Friedberg wanted to serve as co-designer with Oslund. But at some point this past summer, they parted ways, and Birnbaum and Friedberg have since been actively campaigning against the redesign. According to Oslund, two proposals were developed, one a strict restoration and one the new proposed design. “The city made it clear they wanted to go in a new direction,” he said.

Peavey Plaza today.
Charles Birnbaum / TCLF; Keri Pickett

“It’s a false decision,” Birnbaum said. “We didn’t sign up for a restoration project, we signed up for a rehabilitation project.” Birnbaum said he believed the retention of fountains should be non-negotiable. “These fountains are the signature elements of the park. They are works of art designed by a landscape architect.” Birnbaum and Friedberg both signed an open letter criticizing the process and calling for a faithful “revitalization” of the “good bones” of the plaza. Friedberg said he was not wedded to any particular element, but objected to being shut out of the “closed door process.” “Tom Oslund has taken over,” he said.

According to Oslund, the project requires approval from the Minneapolis City Council before fundraising for the redesign can begin in earnest. He expects the plaza, and related programming, will be managed by a non-profit conservancy. “The old plaza was not designed for programming or for interaction,” Oslund said. “The new Peavey will be dedicated to the performing arts, to the vitality of downtown Minneapolis.”

Alan G. Brake