Minneapolis Courthouse Plaza, Minneapolis, MN, USA

Location: Minneapolis, MN, USA
Client: U.S. General Services Administration
Architect: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
Size: 50,000 square feet
Status: Completed 1996
Awards: GSA Design Award National Design Citation 1996, ASLA Merit Award 1999, NEA Federal Design Achievement Award 2000

This 50,000 square foot plaza is located in Minneapolis’s civic center, facing City Hall and in front of a new federal courthouse designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The program required a plaza designed for both civic and individual activities, with its own imagery and sense of place.

The design developed for this plaza, entirely built on a garage roof, refers to Minnesota’s cultural and natural history. Earth mounds and logs, elements of that history, are the plaza’s symbolic and sculptural elements. Within the plaza, these components symbolize both the natural landscape and man’s manipulation of the landscape for his own purposes.

The mounds are intended to evoke a memory of geological and cultural forms. They suggest a Minnesotan field of glacial drumlins, a stylized hill region, or, like a Japanese garden, a landscape that allows a dual reading of scale – a range of mountains or a low field of mounds. Ranging in height from three to nine feet, the tear-shaped mounds are planted with jack pine, a small, stunted, pioneer species common in Minnesota’s boreal forest.

The log benches, evocative of the great timber forests that attracted immigrants and provided the basis for the local economy, tell a similar story. The association of timber with Minnesota speaks to the heart of Minnesotans’ collective memory, and the plaza leaves a strong emotional imprint on the people who visit it. Strong signals in the design help pedestrians move through the plaza to the courthouse building. The linearity of the striped paving pattern guides the pedestrian into the lobby. The drumlins themselves also provide a directionality to the front door.

Minnesota’s strong change of seasons is reflected in the plaza. Each spring and summer, the mounds come alive with perennials. Some mounds are blanketed with white narcissus while others reinforce the paving with stripes of blue scillas. In winter, Minnesota’s heavy snows heighten the sculptural effect of the drumlins.