“We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”Winston Churchill
People are shaped by their buildings. For architects, this shaping goes both ways, involving an exchange of influences between where one is in life emotionally and where one is physically. The same dynamic holds true for organizations including architectural practices.
In a foreshadowing of future connections to the Minneapolis milling history, the first architectural office I worked in was located in the Alfred Pillsbury Mansion. The family had long since moved to the suburbs, the once upscale neighborhood had declined, and the firm leaders bought the house at a bargain price. I worked in an upstairs bedroom where we lit the fireplace on chilly days and conferenced in the grand dining room. With long hair and wide ties, I felt at one with the times in this space. The elegant space bolstered my confidence as it must have the Pillsbury family, while its transformation from home of old money elite to progressive architectural office fostered a sense of rebellion appropriate for the times.
I started my own practice in a small bedroom in my 100-year-old house. As an introvert, I thought the solitude and company of my cats (as well as the free space) would be an ideal place to start. I soon learned that I needed the energy and interactions of people around me, and that convenience, practicality, and economy are insufficient to make a great place to work.
I connected with architect and riverfront pioneer, Peter Hall, who had living space and an office of five people in the Washburn Crosby Mill Complex. We were the only occupants within the 300,000 square-foot mothballed, flour mill complex. The structure offered floor after floor of ghostly quiet among hundreds of wooden chutes, pulleys, and machines that once shook the structure and produced a million barrels of flour a day. A white patina of flour dust covered everything and filtered the sunlight that come through the windows in the stone walls. Out the windows was the Mississippi River and its only once natural waterfall. It was magnificent architecture that offered a sensual experience of space, history, light, material, structure, order, and abandonment. It opened me to a world of existing buildings and possibilities beyond the conventions of modern architecture.
I found a 500 square-foot storefront at the edge of downtown where artists were joining manufacturers and wholesalers in the massive brick and heavy timber warehouses. Here, Garth Rockcastle, Jeff Scherer, and I formed Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. In contrast to the solitude of the abandoned riverfront mill, this location offered a dynamic community of creative people and lively businesses. Behind us in the same building was the New French Cafe, where artists and business leaders dined together. We contributed to and benefited from the creative energy of our immediate neighborhood. Over time, we accreted into every available corner of the New French building. I met Martha, my wife, in the building.
It was time to move to a bigger space. Three blocks away, we found the perfect little brick warehouse to buy. As had become a strength of our practice, here we could explore the relationship of the muscular existing building with the dynamics of post post-modern ideas. The relationship between old and new, flexibility, movable walls, raw materials, and openness shaped the space. The whole office centered around a two-story, sky lit space lined with books, material samples, and photos of our work. The office reflected who we were becoming as a mature office.
Again, we outgrew our space, this time coinciding with the commission to design the Mill City Museum complex—the flour mill where I once shared an office with Peter Hall. Sadly, the mill had suffered severe fire damage with little but the stone shell remaining. We bought the top two floors of the building, which has served as a catalyst to a new urban neighborhood that has developed around us. Here, we enjoy one of the best views in the city of the riverfront, and the building has become a signature of our identity, helping bring us exciting adaptive reuse work around the country.
Once again it is time to move, this time in an effort led by the next generation of MSR leaders. Located in the heart of downtown, the new space is a quiet eddy of daylight surrounded by the flow of streets, light rail, and skyways. MSR will relocate this fall. How will the new space shape MSR? I am excited to find out.