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Is Frank Gehry’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum A Work ...

Is Frank Gehry’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum A Work of Art in its Own Right?

When the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis began the process of developing a new home for its art museum – originally founded in 1934 – in the early nineties, they knew immediately that they wanted something special. They wanted a building that would bring character, uniqueness, and beauty to the campus. The University commissioned world

The swirling forms of the West-facing facade of the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis rises above you. The many different shapes and forms created are supposed to look like a fish jumping up a waterfall, according to the building's architect, Frank Gehry.

When the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis began the process of developing a new home for its art museum – originally founded in 1934 - in the early nineties, they knew immediately that they wanted something special. They wanted a building that would bring character, uniqueness, and beauty to the campus. The University commissioned world famous architect Frank Gehry to design the new building, knowing from his body of work that he could exceed their lofty expectations.

The West-facing facade of the Weisman Art Museum. On the upper left hand side of the building you can see some of the brick portion of the facade peaking through. On the lower left of the building, the museum's parking garage entrance and exit is shown.

The “starchitect”-designed building opened in 1993 as the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. Sitting high atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Gehry’s design is one of contrasts. One side of the building - facing the Mississippi and downtown Minneapolis - is stunningly wrapped in a curvilinear stainless steel. Meanwhile the opposite side - facing the interior of the University of Minnesota campus - has a much simpler façade, both geometrically and aesthetically as it is clothed with brick, matching many of the campus’s buildings. An 8,100 square foot expansion opened in 2011, also designed by Gehry. The expansion included five new galleries, four of which house permanent additions of the museum’s collection and the fifth, the “Target Studio for Creative Collaboration” focuses on work done through cross-disciplinary collaboration from around the globe.

The Weisman Art Museum's East-facing facade. The Minneapolis skyline stands tall in the distance, while two light-rail trains pass each other on the edge of the Washington Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River.

Currently, the museum houses over 20,000 art pieces in a beautiful white interior that uses natural daylight extensively throughout using skylights and windows. Windows are tucked within the swirling steel forms of the West-facing façade give stunning views of the Mississippi, the University’s West Bank campus, and downtown Minneapolis. According to Gehry the swirling steel is meant to be an abstract image of a fish jumping up a waterfall. It is a truly unique experience to explore this building, whether walking the galleries within or simply staring at its stunning façade from the exterior.

The view from within the Weisman Art Museum's West-facing facade gives terrific views of the Minneapolis landscape. The Mississippi River is seen below, with the double-level Washington Avenue Bridge seen on the left (the bottom level of the bridge is for vehicular traffic and light-rail trains). On the upper right, the downtown skyline of Minneapolis glistens. On the left, several large brick buildings are seen, all a part of the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities West Bank campus. Further to the left, you can see the Ralph Rapson - designed Riverside Plaza residential high rises.

Was the University’s attempt to bring a piece of architectural art to beautify the campus successful? The uniqueness of the building definitely brings a breath of fresh air to the campus. However, just because a piece of architecture is different does not mean that it is necessarily good architecture. On one hand, the building itself is instantly recognizable and is positively one of the most famous buildings on the campus. On the other, there remain some mixed feelings on the Weisman’s design, however, this is nothing new to Gehry’s work.

A close-up of the Weisman Art Museum's North-facing facade. The mixture of stainless steel and brick is beautifully crafted. In the distance, the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities Coffman Memorial Union is seen.

Despite Gehry’s critics, he is a world famous architect whose work is beloved by many and obviously unique. The Weisman would be one of his first buildings to feature the intense curvilinear steel design that was featured later on in his career with some of his most famous works, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Though some may say that his designs are too impractical, for the purpose of an art museum or a concert hall they are brilliant. For the Weisman, the elaborate design makes the building itself a piece of art on display.

In order for a building to be unique does not mean that it has to be beautiful to everyone. For the Weisman, the question of whether it is an attractive building or not is – as with all architecture – subjective. Despite this, it remains as one of Gehry’s many treasured works and is without a doubt one of the most unique museums that you will ever see.

What buildings in your community do you see as works of art? Do you think that this as a positive or a negative thing in architecture? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below. 

Credits: Images by Wyatt Prosch. Data linked to sources.

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Wyatt Prosch is currently a student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities pursuing a degree in the Bachelor of Design in Architecture. Born and raised in Minnesota, his passion for architecture has been encouraged by the incredible design of th...

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