Ep. 2.3: IDS Center and Modernism

Some geometric glass buildings are really boring. Phillip Johnson’s IDS Center isn’t one of them, though! It’s a great example of modernism done well. But what’s modernism, anyway?


Full Show Transcript

Hi there! I’m Keith Pille, your art pal.

This episode, I’ll be continuing my walk through some architectural highlights of downtown Minneapolis, discussing the IDS Tower. The tower is part of the larger IDS Center, located at 80 South 8th st and opened in 1973. I’ll actually use “tower” and “center” interchangeably here, mainly because I’m lazy and because people tend to… just know that IDS Center includes the crystal court and a few smaller side buildings. The principal architects were Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and we’ll have plenty to say about Johnson as we go. IDS Center was built to be the headquarters for Investors Diversified Services, Inc, which is now known as Ameriprise Financial. The building is mostly office space, with some retail down towards ground level in the ancillary parts of the center.

If you’ve spent any time whatsoever in the Twin Cities, you’ve seen the IDS Center. If you do an image search for it, you will no doubt say, “Oh, I know that one!” It’s one of the three extra-tall skyscrapers that jut out of downtown Minneapolis. It’s the blue glass one with the black band on top and a couple of antenna masts sticking out. At 57 stories, it’s generally agreed to be the tallest building in Minneapolis. There’s a little bit of ambiguity there between it and the nearby Capella Tower – the one with the big dish-looking thing on top – because of differing views on which parts of which buildings’ top infrastructure counts for height. It comes down to air ducts and window-washing equipment, basically. But in the end there’s sort of a gentlemen’s agreement that IDS is slightly taller, and everyone just seems to go with that.

So just how tall is the IDS tower? Not including the masts sticking out of the top, it’s 792 feet. When I started reading George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones books, I was really struck by my imagined visual for the wall of ice he describes at the north of the Seven Kingdoms. The wall, he says, is 700 feet high. I struggled to find a way to put that into perspective, until it hit me to look up the height of IDS Center. So there you go, Game of Thrones fans. The Wall is about a hundred feet shorter than IDS Center. I imagine it’d be hard to hit someone with a bow from that height, but that’s a problem for someone else’s podcast.

Why does everyone love IDS Center so much? Part of it comes from its clean, simple design. It’s another glass skyscraper, but with enough deviation to make it interesting. One of the first things you notice about it is its cross-section. The building reads as either a big rectangle with the corners chopped off, or as an octagon where half the faces are pixellated. These setbacks, which Philip Johnson called “zogs,” break the standard, boring glass box mold. They also, as every written description of the building is legally required to mention, give each floor a whole lot of corner offices. I’d say that the color of the glass helps, too; somehow, Johnson and Burgee managed to pick a shade of blue that, despite coming from the early 70s, basically the low point of world aesthetics, manages to look fresh and modern over 40 years later. Overall, IDS Center is a great example of modernism done well. Modernism in architecture refers to a 20th century movement for clean, simple, supposedly “rational” buildings that emphasize geometric shapes, usually featuring lots of steel and glass. Done badly, modernism gets you bland glass boxes. Done well, you get the city’s best skyscraper.

I think it’s interesting to compare IDS Center, which is almost universally beloved, with a significantly less popular building with some superficial similarities, the MetLife (or, as it was originally known, Pan Am) building in New York. This would be another one that’d be good for an image search. The two buildings are of similar height- MetLife is two stories taller- and have a similar octagonal cross-section. Both are tinted glass with a dark band on top. But where IDS has the lively zog setbacks, MetLife’s facets are all smooth, and it makes the building seem leaden and slablike. It doesn’t help, either, that in place of IDS’s timeless blue, MetLife is a bland brownish color, just adding to that “great big slab of crap” problem. The MetLife building gets cited pretty frequently as a building New Yorkers would most like to see demolished. I’ve long thought that the IDS Center looks like the MetLife building redone, with all of the mistakes fixed. The differences between the two is a good study in how details can make or break a building. These differences, and the effect they have, are what makes architecture an art, rather than a mathematical exercise.

To deviate a little bit from the focus on IDS Tower, let’s take a second to talk about another integral part of IDS Center, the crystal court. This is a very large, glass-topped atrium space that protrudes from the north side of the tower. The roof of the crystal court consists of glass facets that rise from three to eight stories up, creating an amazingly open feeling (although it does leak a lot). The main floor of the court functions as a sort of indoor park, complete with benches, vegetation, and a pretty cool fountain, all ringed by retail space and an entrance to the tower. There are even some little birds that live in there; I’ve never been able to determine if they were brought in or just found their way in.

The second floor consists of a large extended catwalk connecting skyway outlets, again ringed with retail space, and allowing for great people-watching down on the main floor. Johnson described his aim with the Crystal Court as wanting to create a “frolic space.” I don’t see a ton of frolicing going on in the Crystal Court, but it’s an invaluable spiritual aid in the Minnesota winter when you can’t go outside but just need to get SOMEWHERE that’s open and airy and not all cooped up.

Now, Philip Johnson himself is a pretty fascinating subject. He’s a tough guy to get a handle on. He was an out-and-proud gay man in the mid 20th century, at a time when that was absolutely not an easy thing to do. He was also a Nazi in the 30s, or at least a pretty ardent admirer of the Nazis. He dropped the Nazi thing hard after Hitler invaded Poland, and spent the rest of his life apologizing and talking about how stupid he was during that period. As they say on the Simpsons, in conclusion, Philip Johnson was a land of contrast.

After World War II, Johnson became one of the country’s best-known architects, designing lots of buildings you’ve no doubt seen and heard of. By contemporary standards, you’d probably call him a starchitect; he made the cover of Time magazine, at least. One of Johnson’s first well-known projects was a house he designed for himself in 1949, the Glass House, a one-story rectangular house consisting of glass panes and a dark steel frame (the only opaque part was an enclosed bathroom). Google “Johnson glass house” if you haven’t seen it. It’s really pretty cool. This is all directly relevant because, if you ask me, Johnson’s design for the skyways coming out of IDS Center look an awfully lot like the Glass House. Like, dead ringers. And this is interesting because the IDS skyways are BY FAR the most pleasant, open skyways in downtown Minneapolis. The other skyways, I’ll walk through them and be happy to be out of the cold, but that’s as far as the appreciation goes. The IDS skyways, I’ll hang out. I’ll linger and check out the view. So good job, Philip Johnson. There was a man who knew how to use glass to enclose a space with style. Like I said, good job, Philip Johnson. And John Burgee. Sorry you always get left out of these discussions, Burgee. It just always seems to happen.

Thank you for listening to Artpal. You can find us on twitter and Instragram at @artpalpod, and keep an eye out for our newsletter, which should be coming soon. If you liked the show, please spread the word or leave a review at whatever podcasting service you used to find the show. And of course, go on and check out the rest of the season, there’s a lot more art and architecture to talk about.

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