Carleton’s Plans for the Arts Union (Old Middle School)

Carleton College has a terrific informational website for its new Arts Union building (the old Northfield Middle School). In addition to showing floor plans, architectural renderings, and a 3-D “fly-through”, the website also features a “Neighborhood wiki” as a vehicle for communication with the community. The wiki/blog requires registration. Kudos to Carleton for using all the means at its disposal to communicate with and engage the citizens of Northfield.

I have to admit to being undecided about whether the building addition’s architecture is to my taste. It does look striking, but I have a hard time imagining the visual impact the materials and massing will have on Central Park. I wouldn’t expect that any addition to the old Middle School/High School shell would be made in the same style or with similar materials; however, to my mind the proposed design is not sensitive to the context of either the existing building or the location. I’d prefer that Carleton limited its starchitecture to the campus proper, without imposing it on the rest of the neighborhood, but it’s not my call.

However, I reserve the right to change my mind. I might actually become a fan of the new building. I certainly appreciate Carleton’s commitment to keep the original building as a piece of Northfield’s history.


  1. Anne Bretts said:

    This reminds me of the old television clip of Bing Crosby doing a Christmas special duet with a young David Bowie. Great talents, great song, but just not a good match.
    These are two wonderful buildings that look like they have been crazy-glued together. Separately, they are great, but together they distract from each other and present no coherent vision.
    Too bad.
    St. Olaf got it right with the science building, which is strikingly contemporary and yet a graceful fit on the historic campus.

    December 5, 2008
  2. I agree with Anne. Maybe if the color contrast was not so drastic…The contemporary side looks as if it is about to blast off to outer space, straining while tethered to good old mother earth.
    Is there a name for this style of architecture, by the way? If not, maybe we should invent one.

    December 5, 2008
  3. Patrick Enders said:

    Well, that’s certainly… different.

    And I think I do mean that in the Minnesotan sense. The view from the park side particularly so.

    December 5, 2008
  4. john george said:

    When I was in design college, we called this style “American Tourist”, because it was a pretty good rendition of a suitcase. I think Anne has a pretty good evaluation of the example St. Olaf set. Perhaps this is some preliminary concepts. Good ol’ Griff wouldn’t do another faux journalism schtick on us, would he? Remember, GW, ol’ Santy is watchin’!

    December 5, 2008
  5. Patrick Enders said:

    I’m pretty sure the illustrations are not ‘faux news.’ Check out the 3-D flyby video of the building.

    December 5, 2008
  6. John, that must be it! Faux news! Griff’s best and most elaborate fauxity, able to fool even Patrick!
    Seriously, is there really an architectural name for such a strange juxtaposition of styles? I should ask Ed Sovik, the master architect behind St. Olaf’s distinctive, coordinated look, what he thinks…

    December 5, 2008
  7. john george said:

    Pat- If it is “faux”, Griff sure went to a lot of work to pull it off. I guess this is maybe seed for further developement. Once the new addition is on, there will be so much pressure to tear down the old school that Carleton will have the release from the community to do it. Then they can complete the rest of the new complex (this is tongue-in-cheek, so don’t get all riled up!).

    December 5, 2008
  8. david beimers said:

    Actually, I like the design. It’s a nice juxtaposition with the historic school building. It’s also a nice contrast to the typical neo-gothic institutional design that so many colleges feel they must adopt.

    December 5, 2008
  9. Patrick Enders said:

    I agree that it would look fine, in a proper context. But as Griff said, “I’d prefer that Carleton limited its starchitecture to the campus proper, without imposing it on the rest of the neighborhood.”

    This is a late 19th century residential neighborhood, after all.

    December 6, 2008
  10. Patrick Enders said:

    Correction: As Tracy said, not Griff. (I blame John for my confusion on authorship. 🙂 )

    December 6, 2008
  11. I complain about a lot of building design, but I have to say, I love the Middle School plans, for exactly the reason David said. I like that the addition contrasts sharply with the old building, without outshining it.

    St. Olaf’s new science center is pleasant-looking and functional, but I’d trade it for a building the style of this Arts Union design any day. The science building (Regents Hall) is just not very exciting. The Arts Union is a truly bold design, and I commend MS&R and Carleton for it. It was really a shame to hear that the project is on hold.

    December 6, 2008
  12. Obviously, people have different aesthetic sensibilities. I agree that the design doesn’t fit with the nature of residential architecture around it. However, it is also NOT a residential structure. I’m not sure why it has to match up so keenly to homes.

    I enjoy esoteric architecture that stands out. Something people notice and can point to when giving directions to a stranger… “When you get to the spaceship attached to the butt of the ol’ standard school, hang a left.”

    I’m not a fan of architecture conforming to the same appeal across a community. Isn’t that what so many people complain about when discussing suburban development, that it’s all so cookie-cutter and similar in appearance?

    Regardless, it’s loads better than the utilitarian flat-bed structure that occupies that space now.

    December 6, 2008
  13. Holly Cairns said:

    This was funny, Anne, but also right on the money:

    This reminds me of the old television clip of Bing Crosby doing a Christmas special duet with a young David Bowie.

    Can you say “Ugly?”

    What are they planning to do? Post signs in the old part saying “Watch for flying bricks and rodents?” I think goodbye to the old part, and hello to the new part.

    December 6, 2008
  14. Anne Bretts said:

    Look, I love the new section, and I’d be fine with tearing down the old building and making the whole thing contemporary, or adding a new section that really re-interpreted the historic architecture in a new way. I just think that right now the two parts of the structure don’t talk to each other at all.

    December 7, 2008
  15. Anne,
    People would never stand for tearing down the original building (the Fourth Street crowd is upset enough about these plans), and I think the starkness of the contrast between old and new is what will make this building iconic. Or incredibly ugly. Or both.

    I particularly liked the way Brendon described its benefit, though: “When you get to the spaceship attached to the butt of the ol’ standard school, hang a left.”

    December 7, 2008
  16. Anne Bretts said:

    Sean, I never said I thought people here would for once decide not to live in the past, I simply said I was ready to do that.
    And yes, Brendon’s comment is genius.

    December 7, 2008
  17. Thank you, Sean.

    Art always has detractors and supporters. The only difference between art and great art is that great art inspire more impassioned detraction and more impassioned support.

    I’ve certainly seen, heard and read much art across many different disciplines that often gets called iconic or legendary or spectacular, and just leaves me wondering what those other people are thinking. The reverse also holds true. Some of my favorite music, plays, movies, paintings, books make others retch in disgust.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Sean: The fact that the architecture of the addition contrasts so sharply with the old building (on these architectural plans, at least) might be what makes the structure beautiful to many. It will probably be what makes it seem ugly to many others.

    There will never be agreement on aesthetic principles. Why should there be? The constant clash of artistic ideals and visions drives new creation. The moment where everyone agrees on the value of a certain piece of art is the same moment that art stops and product begins.

    I’m leaving my mind open to the possibility that this new building might be remarkable, or it might be horrendous. It’s more exciting that way. Join me.

    December 7, 2008
  18. Jane McWiliams said:

    Carleton was between a rock and a hard place with this project. On the one hand, they got a bargain, buying the property from the school district when the extensive analysis and proposal to make it a live/work/community art center failed and the district needed to get it off their hands. With that bargain came constraints, however – a (tacit?) commitment to respect the historic nature of the building and the historic role the property had played as a public school abutting a public park. Meanwhile the college has had to reconcile various goals within the arts faculty in order to come up with a program and a design for the building.

    I have to believe that the easiest thing would have been for the college to tear down all 3 sections of the former middle school and start from scratch. Instead, the designer has challenged us with the contrasting addition. (I wonder whether anyone complained when the 50’s addition went up – now that is what I would call a really undistinguished structure!) I don’t mind the juxtaposition of two architectural styles as illustrated. As Brendon says, “The moment where everyone agrees on the value of a certain piece of art is the same moment that art stops and product begins.”

    December 7, 2008
  19. Steve Lawler said:

    I think that architecture is most successful when it excites the imagination while integrating itself into its surroundings. I agree with Anne’s assessment of Regent’s Hall at St. Olaf (see ), which fits brilliantly with its surroundings and yet is a modern, functional, environmentally sensitive, and to my eyes, beautiful building.

    When it was built, I imagine the downtown Community Resource Bank building ( ) was felt to be forward-looking and modern. And while we may never get unanimity with regard to the aesthetics of any piece of art or architecture, I’ve never heard anyone refer to that building without immediately bemoaning how out of place it looks.

    With all due respect to my excellent friend Brendon, I’ve not really felt edified by this intense, near universal dislike of a building.

    I’m excited about the Arts Union project, and I’m impressed with Carleton’s openness to community input on it. And like it or not, based on how much work appears to have been put into the architectural drawings and “fly through,” I suspect that this iteration is pretty close to what will ultimately be built.

    December 9, 2008
  20. Bright Spencer said:

    The only view I don’t like is the one above.
    It is all of what the naysayers say. The rest of the new building seems to take the old one in its arms and say, “It’s okay, you’re coming with me now and we’re gonna do just fine.”

    I don’t like the trees all around. It’s great for cooling and color but people need to see out and look at the sky and the sun and the clouds. Trees grow fast and block out the views before you know it.

    I would hope that the students and artists utilize every square inch of the available spaces, many of which look like they are more for show than inspiration or work.

    I also hope that the dozen or so suggestions I sent in a couple of years ago about the building in of recycling systems for art materials, and waste disposal of same were taken seriously. I hoped that this would be one of the first buildings to do so and that a big deal plaque on the wall delineated it all for everyone to repeat in other locations.

    I hope too that they understand that some art is very messy and that walls and floors will be soon covered in plaster, clay, pastel dusts, etc, etc, etc. But, I worry too much. 🙂

    December 9, 2008
  21. Bright Spencer said:

    My thumb hit the bar before I got this out…

    Good luck and best of all wishes to all who visit, learn, teach, strive, create and hope in those college walls, both new and old.

    December 9, 2008

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