As I learn more about writing online, my blog will include short comments like the following piece on Skyways in downtown Minneapolis. Skyways are a big part of life here if you work downtown. Please add comments of your own!
The Minneapolis Skyway system is the largest in the world and offers an architectural experience unique in North America. Winter is a great time to explore it. Most people in other cities don’t even know what a “skyway” is. But Minneapolitans do. If you work downtown, you know that there’s a big difference between working “inside” the skyway system and “off” of it. Working “in” the system means that you rarely enter buildings through street level front doors and stay entirely on the second level for lunch or when moving to other buildings. You rarely consider what happens on the streets below. By contrast, disconnected staff in Class “C” and “D” office space outside the system, have no choice but to go outdoors to run an errand or have lunch. In this act, they have an experience that, like dialing a rotary phone, skyway insiders may recall but cannot place in recent memory.
Eight Miles of Indoor Connection
The Minneapolis skyways currently link over seventy blocks with 8 miles of interior corridors and walkways. The first skyway was built in 1962 between the Cargill and Roanoke Buildings. The following year, a new skyway connected to the Northstar Center, the city’s first mixed-use hotel and office building. The ribbon-cutting included well-dressed representatives from many of downtown’s businesses that the skyway would connect. Fifty years later, this connection over 7th Street remains our oldest skyway.
Today, visitors discover a fully self-contained world with hundreds of small stores, cafes, coffee shops, travel agencies, and just about every other function that used to be on the streets. The skyways are the new sidewalks; and sometimes the cafes will nostalgically evoke sidewalk life by putting outdoor bistro chairs and tables in their entries where the grill gets pulled down every night.
Thanks to the ring of parking ramps developed by the City around downtown and the deluxe garages under elite towers such as IDS and Wells Fargo Center, skyway-workers rarely need to go outside all winter long. Only those who take public transit need to walk to the curb.
Skyways Good or Bad?
Many design critics claim that the skyways drain downtown’s streets of activity and stores—and this is true. But how many of these critics have lived here through a winter. What would have happened to downtown during the great rush to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s had we not had skyways? These are puzzles that we ponder. Regardless of your opinion, the skyways are an experience unique to Minneapolis and worth exploring.
Recently, I helped to lead a tour of architecture and planning students from Winnipeg though the skyways. They were impressed by our skyways’ variety and sheer number. Even colder Winnipeg has skyways too, but only about 15 of them; and they are generally more basic. The Canadian students often stopped to see the view when we crossed over a street; and they took many photos—except in the IDS Center where guards told them they could not because it is “a private space”. That says something about what these new indoor “streets” really are.
The following is a “place sketch,” a verbal picture of my own experience working downtown “inside” the system—which may not be as “public” as we thought. This sketch conveys no single skyway or locale—and is more a story of connection, occasional anxiety, fast walking and adventure….
The highlight of my lunchtime skyway walk (and a good place to begin yours) is the IDS Center Crystal Court, a light-filled atrium designed by Phillip Johnson and deemed by sociologist William Whyte to be the finest indoor urban space in the country. The skyways bring a lot of energy. From all four directions, the system converges here, bringing a constant flow of shoppers and downtown workers. You can see executives passing through and high school truants leaning on the padded skyway level railings from which the entire soaring, light-filled space can be observed.
When walking through the skyways and second level corridors to my bank or the bagel shop, I like to move at a good clip. Being only 20 to 40 feet wide and densely packed with neon signs and storefronts, Minneapolis’s second-level retail world has a penny arcade quality of echoing sound, bright color, and the changing smells of food. There are, of course, many other people walking in my flock, staying to the right, like drivers by unspoken agreement.
Moving quickly through these longitudinal spaces, I imagine myself as one of millions of blood cells racing through a giant body—especially in Baker Center, one of the oldest parts of the system and densely packed with walkers. We move steadily and all at the same pace, lost in thought and staring straight ahead or talking to a companion. Few people seem to look at the stores or window displays. I generally am anxious here.
Having no daylight, most of the second level corridors seem fairly dark, but I am usually woken up when, after passing the last “storefont” brokerage, I am suddenly surrounded by daylight and passing over a street framed by towers and punctuated by other skyways, one for each block. This view is rare in American downtowns—the chance to stand over the street as the traffic flows beneath your feet.
There are other beautiful atria. Besides the Crystal Court, Cesar Pelli’s atrium at Gavidaie may have failed as an urban retail arcade, but its metal railings, skylight, and gold stencil still are very beautiful. The former Pillsbury Center designed by SOM in the late 1970s is also very elegant—clad in travertine marble and centered on an angled atrium with a vista of City Hall. After the tight dark corridors, I generally feel the calmest in these places.
The Great Indoors
In 1979, New Yorker journalist Brendan Gill visited the Minneapolis skyways to write, “Thoughts of a Confirmed Indoorsman in the Great Indoors.” He concluded that Minneapolis was only at the tip of a national trend towards indoor malls, tunnels and other semi-public city spaces. He also noted correctly that, while downtown workers talk a great deal about winter weather, they don’t have to dress for it. Today, the skyways are over twice as extensive. Minneapolitans still talk a lot about winter without dressing for it. On a daily basis, we casually walk through the middle of howling snowstorms and subzero windchills, rarely noticing the strangeness of our cityscape with its sublime sense of danger and safe remove.
Tips for Skyway Tourism
Consider writing a skyway sketch of your own. Where would you give awards for good design? When you visit, you will find that system maps are posted everywhere. There’s now an app (Minneapolis Skyway, available in iTunes) to give you directions and business listings. Warm clothes and rain gear are unnecessary and indeed a hindrance for indoor touring.
The Walker Art Center has a post on the history of the Skyways on their Minnesota by Design site below: