Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Old Guthrie Goes Down

When I heard the old Guthrie Theater building was finally being torn down I had to go see the destruction for myself. The theater, designed by architect Ralph Rapson, opened in 1963. The version of the building that was just torn down looked a bit different from the version that opened decades ago; the facade was removed to expose more of the glass front. I'm not particularly sad about the Twin Cities losing this building. On the one hand, we always seem to regret not preserving important buildings when we destroy them. A look through Larry Millett's photo catalog of destroyed local buildings, the book Lost Twin Cities, is heartbreaking. Will we regret destroying the old Guthrie? Probably. But the people who wanted most to save it haven't been able to come up with the money and the power to preserve it. While official accounts say that no local theater group wanted it, a more accurate story may be that no local theater could come up with enough funding and political momentum to halt the Walker Art Center's plan to build another sculpture park (to continue and complement the one across the street) on the site.But is there any point in saving modern architecture anyway? What was the Guthrie besides an idea, a certain shape of stage, and a wall of glass? What's there to preserve? When architecture is stripped of ornament, it's harder to make the case to save it. It feels like we could just as easily rebuild this wall of glass with its cast concrete shell and spare steel stairways.
And isn't the idea of the building more important than the physical structure itself? What fool would cry over the destruction of one of Barnett Newman's zips? Can't any child just paint a field of color and then apply a stripe of another? The skill doesn't seem to be in the construction or the design anymore, so much as the thought, and the fact that no one had done such work so publicly before. Becoming attached to the thing itself is to miss the point of much of post-war art and architecture. It is because of this that the old Guthrie is so much more interesting to me as it is dismantled. Look inside. You can see how it was put together. You can see the way the stage related to the hill it was built into. The way the audience sat. Who ever imagined what a dump truck would look like sitting in the front row? Who ever visualized such a perfect cross-section? In the era of mass-production and post-modernity, these revelations have more weight than the building's static existence.

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