Rescuing Peavey Plaza: is it Too Late For Historic Landscapes?

In recent weeks, Peavey Plaza in Minneapolis has garnered increased attention with growing public outcry over the renovation process. Currently, the city of Minneapolis, in conjunction with the Minnesota Orchestral Association, is slated to destroy and replace this treasured and iconic public space. In a recent article on The Huffington Post, Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, writes about his dismay regarding the events around Peavey Plaza.

For those unfamiliar, Peavey Plaza opened in the 1970s and was designed by landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg. In November 2010, at a public meeting chaired by Mayor RT Rybak, a team (which included Birnbaum) was selected to revitalize the plaza. In the recent Huffington Post piece, however, Birnbaum daylights and decries what followed, noting that the design decision-making process was not public and further writes that the final option—to completely destroy and re-design the space—is irresponsible. He concludes in a note to the City of Minneapolis: “You blew it on the process and you’re preparing to needlessly ruin an important and much beloved landscape. Now is the time to change course and reinforce Minneapolis’s well-deserved reputation as creative and above-board.”

Charles Birnbaum and The Cultural Landscape Foundation are a highlight of our next issue, a set of essays and projects looking at leadership, communication, and technology in landscape architecture and urbanism. In our recent conversations with Birnbaum, we decided to ask him a few specific questions about Peavey Plaza. The following is an excerpt from our interview, as the conversation around the plaza’s renovation-destruction grows hotly in current debate. For the entire conversation, stay tuned for issue two, forthcoming in just a few weeks.

Landscape Urbanism: Let’s ask a broader question about leadership within and beyond our field. How do you reach out, teach, and educate the importance of cultural landscapes, landscape heritage, and design? As a leader in the field, we’re curious to hear more about why you do what you do. What motivates you? And second, how do you teach people to be leaders themselves?

I think one has to have principles and be brave. We can’t be afraid to stand up; but we also have to be strategic and couch our messages in the right way for the right audiences. Very often landscape architects will not take an unpopular position if they think it may diminish their chances of securing project work from a municipality or pissing off a mayor. Not all mayors can be like Joseph Riley in Charleston and value BOTH history and design—but it is our challenge to educate them and other decision-makers to see the big picture.

The Huffington Post blog that I just wrote, for example, about the future of M. Paul Friedberg’s design for Peavey Plaza—a progenitor of the Post-War “park-plaza” in Minneapolis, along Nicollet Mall, raises the question about what should the Target Corporation’s role be here and what can we do to help shape the project’s direction? Just last week Target launched a new wing, the Target Center for Creative Collaboration at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. Where is the creative collaboration at Peavey?

What was your role in the Peavey Park design process?

I was involved in this project along with the original landscape architect Paul Friedberg as sub-consultants to Tom Oslund—the very talented local landscape architect who was the lead. Paul and I thought that we had signed up for such a collaboration. Well, it turns out that after several months the project went in another direction and a brand new design that destroys Peavey was pushed forward. It’s worth mentioning that Peavey Plaza was determined eligible this past June for listing on the National Register of Historic Landscapes. This new plan was only made visible to the public for a single day before a critical vote just this week. The result? This new design will probably move forward because of the political will of the Mayor and the site’s neighbor, the Minnesota Orchestra. The public should be educated in a meaningful way to help guide change. Though there were two public meetings to gauge public sentiment about the existing plaza, the design decision-making remained largely in the hands of an ironically democratic Community Engagement Committee whose membership is by invitation only and controlled by the Orchestral Association. The issue is not whether one likes or dislikes the new design, the question is: is this the right solution for such a historically significant Modernist design?

“Peavey Plaza was determined eligible this past June for listing on the National Register of Historic Landscapes.”

But what about Target? And what should the design (and historic preservation) community’s response be? Target’s “design portfolio” includes National Design Week and the annual National Design Awards given by the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City. What do experts in landscape architecture that have been bestowed a National design award think? Do they make their feelings known to Target? Helllllllooooooooo!!!!! Kathryn Gustafson, OLIN, Julie Bargmann, Michael van Valkenburgh? I say: Man up! This is Friedberg’s most important extant design—I remember visiting all of his New York City projects as a student and even interned in his office—the influence at the time was tremendous and profound. Do we care that an enormously influential maverick of our profession is about to lose his seminal work (Happy 80th Birthday, Paul)?

“This is Friedberg’s most important extant design—do we care that an enormously influential maverick of our profession is about to lose his seminal work?”

What about the Minnesota Chapter of the ASLA? Does the profession care that Peavey Plaza was honored with a Centennial Plaque on the 100th anniversary of the profession—along with the likes of Biltmore or the US Capitol Grounds? I just received a letter signed by seven concerned students from the University of Minnesota who expressed outrage, but the faculty have been silent—Lance Neckar is editing a special volume of Landscape Journal dedicated to Halprin, yet his voice has been absent. The iconic fountain at Peavey Plaza on Nicollet was Friedberg’s homage to Halprin who designed the adjacent Nicollet Mall and Halprin was the first ever Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards recipient in 1991. Is this because the Minnesota program also receives funding from Target? These students are hungry and looking for leadership! Man up, Neckar!

Target should not be allowed to have it both ways, and we should tell them before they sign on as a project lead donor (as I expect they probably will) after the big fat City Council rubber stamp approval vote: both historic preservation and design go hand in glove. We know this from the High Line and Central Park, among other examples. Seminal projects such as Peavey are in deteriorated condition today, but they still have great bone structure. Rather than demolish and rebuild (and face similar problems in later years), a creative solution is possible that accommodates the anticipated programming, provides a dignified accessibility solution, and honors the iconic features and aspects of the original Friedberg design.

 “A creative solution is possible that accommodates the anticipated programming and honors the iconic features and aspects of the original Friedberg design.”

Why did Peavey Plaza become a place to be re-designed in the first place? What are we not doing in our communities for maintaining our public spaces, such that we arrive at a conclusion that we must destroy and rebuild?

The problem is not that we have a run-down space or a bad design. We have a diminished work of historic landscape architecture that has not been maintained and that needs to be carefully edited, preserved, and re-calibrated to fit with current engineering and accessibility standards while also respecting the historically significant qualities of our public parks and plazas. Solutions require a sensitive hand, one that can weave together historic elements and re-capture the original essence of the design while also advancing current day stewardship and management principles. A heavy hand that bulldozes and eliminates historic designs to merely make way for new construction doesn’t solve the problem at hand and, in the process, we lose some of our most cherished and historically significant works of landscape architecture.

It is unfortunate that we create scenarios that are “either/or:” should we restore it or build new? That is unbelievably limited. These landscapes are palimpsests that evolve over time and our community and design response should reflect that.

…As you can see, I have no opinion on this subject.


We agree: speak up, landscape architects, urbanists and designers! To continue following this discussion, stay tuned for landscape urbanism’s fall release of issue two with our full interview covering The Cultural Landscape Foundation, What’s Out There, and more. Many thanks to Birnbaum for taking a courageous stance and sharing his thoughts with us.

Images of Peavey Plaza’s signature fountain, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, FAAR, is the founder and president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in Washington, DC. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and the American Academy in Rome. He has written and edited numerous publications including Shaping the American Landscape (UVA Press, 2009), Design with Culture: Claiming America’s Landscape Heritage (UVA Press 2005), Preserving Modern Landscape Architecture (1999) and its follow-up publication, Making Post-War Landscapes Visible (2004, both for Spacemaker Press).

  • Discussion: (3 comments)
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  1. Rescuing Peavey Plaza: is it Too Late For Historic Landscapes?

    Looking at other photos of the plaza, it seems to extend beyond the water feature shown. The stark concrete surfacing isn’t to everyone’s taste and smacks of a time that some want to leave behind. However the right approach and new concept for this space can revitalize it and bring it into a new modern context. It’s a historic landscape and should be treated as such, many historic parks have modern interventions and materials carefully integrated into them so they retain their original identity but can be read and enjoyed by today’s visitors.

    To demolish it would be cowardly and shows no vision, it would be a travesty.


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  2. Rescuing Peavey Plaza: is it Too Late For Historic Landscapes?

    Perhaps the Mayor and the Council feel righteous because they stand to gain millions of donated dollars to fix the “problem” of Peavey? Typical donors want their name and a fresh design to call their own, instead of honoring our previous public plaza. We need donors who value culture, and have big enough hearts to feel good about respecting history and a plaza who’s design is magical. It’s ironic that the Minnesota Orchestra preserves the culture of music for our enjoyment, but feels no pangs about eliminating the culture of public landscapes.

    Personally, I gave up our orchestra seats a year ago, choosing to boycott the Minnesota Orchestra. Perhaps its time to boycott Target, too?

    Posted at 9:00 am on
  3. Rescuing Peavey Plaza: is it Too Late For Historic Landscapes?

    I don’t know what the hesitancy is for the University, College of Design, but for the local chapter of ASLA (ASLA-MN) it seems that there is a fear of politicking. I have talked to practitioners who say they are concerned with speaking out because they get work from Target, the city of Minneapolis and other entities who may “judge” outspoken people for having opinions and for believing in their convictions. If I was going to hire a landscape architect, I’d prefer one who has convictions and has a passion for their profession and respect for good design.

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