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The Guthrie's big blue box opens Sunday

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The Guthrie Opens
The new Guthrie Theater complex has nine levels and towers over passers-by with enormous signs and images.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Sitting in a lush, red velour theater seat in the audience of the Guthrie's new, ultra-modern proscenium theater, architect Jean Nouvel says he designed the complex keeping the rituals of theater, and the city's history, in mind.

Amber View
The top level of the new Guthrie theater complex offers a panoramic view of the river, shaded in amber. Architect Jean Nouvel says the tinted windows will offer a warmer, sunnier view in the depths of winter.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"I'm someone who fights against all that which is generic, or parachuted in, or uses the same design language repeatedly," Nouvel says. "I look at a design in terms of the identity of the place, the specific context of the time, the local geography and history. And here I find I've really had the means to work with all of these."

Nouvel's first completed building in the United States, the Guthrie Theater complex is situated alongside historic flour mills that have since been converted into condominiums and a museum. 

The nine-story structure is similar in size to the mills. It holds three stages, two restaurants and several classrooms. A cantilever bridge juts out over the river, affording expansive views of the locks and dams and St. Anthony Falls. It's believed to be the largest such public bridge in use in the world. 

Jean's window
Architect Jean Nouvel insisted that the windows of the cantilever bridge be able to open. Artistic Director Joe Dowling argued against the idea, in light of Minnesota's mosquitoes, mayflies and long winters. But the architect had his way.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

The exterior of the building is a bold midnight blue. By day it might be mistaken for Ikea, but by night, the blue recedes into the darkness while ghostly images of past performances light up and appear to float in midair. 

Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, says the interior is just as dramatic.

"The spaces and the light in the building are incredible," Fisher says. "And I think one of the more important aspects of it is that the street in some ways has been brought all the way through the building. You can move deeply into the building, all the way up to the very top, without having a ticket." 

Fourth floor lobby
Architect Jean Nouvel designed the new Guthrie Theater complex so that the drama is not limited to the stage. Each room has its own dramatic element, with lighting, colors and signs that suggest a very modern and bold vision.
Image courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

Fisher says the new Guthrie Theater complex changes the way the theater interacts with its public, giving them access to its restaurants and views of the river, even if they aren't coming to see a show. Instead, he says, they become actors on architect Jean Nouvel's own stage. 

Fisher says it's architecturally the strongest building to go up in Minneapolis in the past several years. 

Artistic Director Joe Dowling says he believes the Guthrie's new home will become an icon for Minneapolis.

"We're positioned vis a vis the river and the city in a way that links the two together dramatically," says Dowling. "I believe that theater and drama have a way of bringing people together from different cultures, from different backgrounds, from different generations. When this building gets really into its swing, its geographical location and the nature of its programming will be a magnet for a large number of people."

Under the cantilevered bridge
Architect Jean Nouvel chose the placement of each window carefully, so as to frame the views of the surrounding area to its best advantage.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Fisher agrees that the building, thanks especially to its cantilever bridge and sweeping river view, has the potential to become a cultural icon. 

"I think it will become memorable in the same way that the Weisman Art Museum has become a kind of icon of the Twin Cities. You see it on postcards in the airports," Fisher says. "The unexpected aspects of that cantilever -- that, in itself, is going to attract some attention globally. I mean, it's kind of an amazing structural feat." 

Theater patrons who loved the old Guthrie Theater, designed by Ralph Rapson, will find the new building somewhat familiar. The legendary thrust stage, for which the old Guthrie is best known, has been meticulously recreated, deviating only to allow for wider seats and slightly better sightlines. Dowling says he hopes visitors will appreciate all it has to offer.

Its openness, its fun, its sense of adventure, and -- jewel among jewel -- we have a lots more ladies restrooms," says Dowling.

Those restrooms will get their first real test Sunday, when approximately 20,000 people are expected to show up for the opening festivities, which include live music, fireworks, family activities and of course, theater.