Published in 2007, Larry Millett’s AIA Guide to the Twin Cities (“AIA” standing for “American Institute of Architects”) instantly became the must-have volume for architecture buffs residing in, or even just passing through, the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Historical Society Press has wisely extracted two chapters from that chunky guide to yield manageably-sized walking guides to the marquee architecture zones of St. Paul (AIA Guide to St. Paul’s Summit Avenue & Hill District) and Minneapolis (AIA Guide to the Minneapolis Lakes District).
The AIA guides’ hallmark is inclusiveness: landmarks like the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Purcell-Cutts House get their due, but Millett makes room for many lesser buildings that are worth remark even if they’re not showpieces. A walker following one of the AIA guides will delve deep into residential neighborhoods; just paging through one of the guides will introduce you to beauties and oddities so far off the beaten path that even lifelong Twin Cities residents aren’t likely to recognize them.
The tradeoff for this quantity of addresses is in the quantity of words devoted to each entry; reading one of the AIA guides offers the same pleasures, and the same frustrations, as reading the paragraph-long capsule reviews of films in the listings section of The New Yorker. Writing concisely is just as difficult as writing at length, and by and large Millett is up to the challenge of producing pithy reviews that highlight salient information with a dash of witty style. Here’s Millett, for example, on the Lexington Restaurant: “This old-line restaurant offers one of [Grand Avenue’s] liveliest facades, a collection of pediments, pilasters, cornices, arches, keystones, and shutters pasted like oversize Post-it notes to the smooth brick walls. Their message seems to be, ‘I’ve got class.’ Maybe so, but the design’s perilous proximity to pure fifties kitsch is what makes it so much fun.” Like all of us, Millett has his go-to words (at least two church interiors are described as “muscular”), but he ranges surprisingly widely in search of varied and evocative terms to be applied to architecture. The Commodore Hotel, for example, is said to have a “boffo art-deco barroom.”
Millett’s discussion of the technical and historical aspects of architecture is meaty enough for the initiated, yet accessible to the casual reader. Of the Lake Harriet Band Shell and Refectory, for example, Millett writes, “Postmodernism in its dumbed-down, populist phase produced so much dreadful architecture—think of all those 1980s shopping malls outfitted with fake gables—that you can easily forget what the movement was supposed to be about. These wonderful buildings will remind you that at its best postmodernism was an effort to reinfuse architecture with a sense of beauty, memory, and continuity—qualities that many modernists rejected or simply paid no attention to.” Nor does Millett reserve comment simply for the biggest and the best; he also takes note of unexceptional buildings that simply serve as examples of their type. Uptown, Millett recognizes, is defined not just by the Suburban World and the BLB, but by the “mansard roofs of ridiculous size” that “sprouted like bad hairdos on many apartment buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Making your way through a local neighborhood with Millett as your guide will open your eyes to our built environment’s many glories—and, yes, its occasional horrors.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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