A tour of the public art in Minneapolis’ new Public Service Building

23December 2021

When Minneapolis city employees come back to work on January 10th — currently the plan, at least in a hybrid sense, depending on the department — they’ll be in for quite a treat. Many of the thousands of people who (theoretically) work in the brand new ten-story Public Service Building covering everything from 311 to Public Works to the Police, have never even seen their new offices. In place of being scattered all around office sites in a variety of downtown spots, they’ll all be centralized. And waiting for them will be the largest debut of city public art in Minneapolis history.

“We hardly every work indoors,” admitted Mary Altman, the city’s Public Art Administrator, describing the city’s other public artworks. “Usually all of our art has to handle freeze-thaw conditions, and be planned around what it would be like to be hit by a car or plow or lawn mower.”

That’s not the case for the $2M of artworks that are literally embedded in the new building, funded through the city’s public art ordinance that dedicates 1.5% of capital budgets to art.

Instead, in this building they’ve been able to commission and install a wide variety of intricate, detailed, and car-free sculptures explicitly designed to bring architecture, employee wellness and aesthetics together in the new city building.

“There are three basic types of work: artist-designed bird safe glass, murals designed on glass, and elevator lobby ceilings,” said Altman. “It’s been really wonderful to be able to do this. This is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.”

Closeup with the city seal

A historic artwork forms the eye catching centerpiece of the entire building: the 26-foot tall foot Seal of Minneapolis, embedded in the center of the wall welcoming visitors.

As far as seals go, it’s one of the better ones, certainly superior to the blatantly racist state seal or the epically boring seal of St. Paul.  Not trying to do too much, the logo depicting St. Anthony Falls at its industrial zenith, under the overdone slogan, “En Avant.” (French for “forward.”)

Visible even from across the street, the seal is a remarkable bit of historic preservation. It was once part of the old Minneapolis Auditorium, the massive historic home to the Minneapolis Lakers, that lasted from 1927 to 1989. It was embedded in the wall there, five stories over the sidewalk, whereupon a Minneapolis city employee named Greg Goeke saved it from the rubble, and kept it preserved in a farm field for three decades.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Protip: from the cantilevered skyway-attached walkway over the main lobby, you can get an up-close view of the seal, and lean in and almost touch the cute puffs of coal pollution coming out of the mill smokestacks.

According to Altman, many of the sixteen artists whose work is now in the building used the seal as a partial inspiration for their pieces. For most or all of them, the triumphalist European-American industrial vision became something to respond to, a foil for a new vision of 21st century Minneapolis.

Artistic salve for the mundane work of city bureaucracy

Working for government has a reputation of being a bit boring and repetitive. And If you spend enough time among the cubicles of municipal offices — as I have —  you realize that the stereotype is not a complete fabrication; processing yard setback permits, applying municipal tax codes or signing off on bridge engineering is not exactly sexy work.

Perhaps that’s why so much of the new art in the Public Service Building is dynamic: it changes throughout the day and throughout the year, as if it’s intentionally designed to alleviate tedium.

Take for example, the centerpiece of the new works, the massive sculpture mounted over the shiny white terra-cotta floors that squeak with every step through the lobby. Called Current Conditions, Tristan Al-Haddad’s elaborate ever-changing piece is the most expensive piece in the building, and one of two new artworks directly tied to live feeds of data. In this case, the LED lights embedded within the moving resin depict the current temperature and humidity, arranged in a time series that visualizes the data going back six months.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

As Altman describes, the piece’s complexity and mercurial nature is a feature, not a bug. It’s meant to keep city workers and visitors interested and engaged, give something different worth paying attention to, day in and day out.

“There are people in this building that are here every day, for decades,” explained Altman, who, as a twenty-year-veteran of city government, should know. “They see it all the time [so] the art work can’t be one ‘a-ha’ moment, it’s got to be something where the employees continue to see new things over time. A lot of the artists are doing things in their works where there’s either great attention to detail or something that really captivates people for the duration of their experience here.”

To that end, Al-Haddad’s sculpture is likely never the same twice. It slowly reconfigures itself throughout the day, as well as performing specific “programs” at sunrise and sunset. (These days, during the winter solstice, it would be possible for a city worker to be around for both of these events.) It even provides an artistic silver lining to those unfortunate souls who have to work late.

“At night, it plays a ‘deep indigo’ program,” described Altman. “The terrazzo just picks it up and it’s stunning; it’s really fun to be here at night.”

Elevator scavenger hunt

Believe it or not, the most fun artworks of the new building are the ceilings of the elevator lobbies. Each of the seven accessible floors has a distinctly lit installation that, when viewed in combination with the others, turns the building itself into an immersive experience that’s at least as good as that cloying Van Gogh exhibit that was making the rounds.

In other words, when you’re getting off the elevator on your way around the office, be sure to look up.

“We gave the artists a foot of depth to work with and a requirement to use programmable LED lights,” explained Altman. “They had to follow building code, which was complicated, but those were the basic parameters.”

Along the way, the artists interviewed workers in the different departments to get a sense of the kind of jobs they had, what sort of space they would appreciate, and a history of their fields.

The result is seven distinct, creative spaces that make a visit to the Public Service Building a fun adventure for a visitor. In this way, it’s not unlike the lobby of the now-90-year-old St. Paul City Hall, where the 18 stories all have different types of wood wall paneling.

City of Minneapolis

From what I was able to glean from talking with Altman, the most popular ceiling installation so far is by an artist team called LUCITO, named Likeness of an Allegory. Located on the 6th floor, at first glance the thick black molding looks a bit harsh and grim for an office environment.

But the longer you gaze, the more you begin to realize the cutout images are a pop-up book in reverse. Moving around the floor, and adjusting your angle, iconic Minneapolis shapes reveal themselves. It’s a fun game to wait for the elevator as the Stone Arch Bridge, Prince’s silhouette, or [gulp] the Twitter icon reveal themselves in the chaos.

Many of the others are more subtle. I particularly liked the 3rd floor lobby, a work tied to the currents and water levels of the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls, and the 10th floor lobby, designed by Rory Erler Wakemup, made to mimic the night sky. Each floor provides something different, full of changing LED details worth noticing.

“There are different moods,” said Altman, describing the installation by Christopher Harrison on the 4th Floor. “Here, the artist wanted to create a tranquil piece, because they are aware of the stress that employees are under. 311 is a particularly stressful job. You’ll see on the police floor on the health floor that was a goal to support employee wellness, and create places that are more tranquil.”

Double-sided murals

Custom murals on large glass walls in each floor’s conference room are another key part of the building’s artistic environment. Made from layers of semi-opaque vinyl in different colors applied to the glass walls, they give the rooms an inside-outside dynamism.

The murals are all different and full of rewarding detail, made more so by their two-sided nature where one side of the wall bursts with color while the other retains a more monochromatic effect. The one that most appealed to my urbanist sensibilities was on the 4th floor, a work named “Power and Play” by Witt Siasoco. Drawing on the the color palette from Ralph Rapson’s Riverside Plaza, it shows a palimpsest of maps, the river’s silhouette and images of people playing different games.

City of Minneapolis

I also liked Dakota artist Marlena Myles’ two-part mural depicting figures around the sacred space of the falls, and Kao Lee Thao’s mural of a Hmong story cloth artist that adorn the 6th and 5th floors, respectively. They are almost enough to make you want to sit through a two-hour meeting about sewer replacement scheduling.

City of Minneapolis
Getting the technique correct was a trial-and-error and, in some cases, required four prototype tests to ensure the application reflected the artists’ vision.

Sci-fi vibes

Taken as a whole, the new building feels a bit like a science-fiction set, one from films like Her or Star Trek. The new building has “smart” temperature and light controls, and even the artworks hanging from the ceiling seem alive, changing to reveal the humidity or the sunset or the mood of the city itself. But as COVID-safe television screens wait for members of the public, and a robotic but calming female voice calls out “Now serving T-zero seven four two seven five,” I wonder if this fiction is entirely utopian.

I don’t really wish for anyone to have to apply for a building renovation permit or tax assessment variance. But if you do, I recommend savoring your time in the new Public Service Building. Replacing a parking ramp, it well deserves its architectural and design accolades. Walking through the doors onto the large mat, embossed with san-serif CITY OF MINNEAPOLIS lettering, feels like finally stepping into a better future that we all know that city government can one day become.

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