Will the new Gurthrie Theatre be to Minneapolis what the Guggenheim is to Bilbao? Will French architect Jean Nouvel create a building that is as exciting as the theatrical productions it houses? From the look of things, the answer is emphatically yes, as drawings and models for the Guthrie’s new $125-million facility reveal the kind of architecture that makes people sit up and listen, or at least stop and take a good look.

"The current theatre is on land owned by the Walker Art Museum and they are expanding," says Douglas Stebbins, project director for Fisher Dachs Associates, currently in the design development stage as theatre consultants for the new building (technical systems have not yet gone out to bid). "At present, the Guthrie operates out of five sites around the city, and they will be happy to have everything under one roof," Stebbins adds. The new site is a long parcel of land (currently a dirt parking lot) along the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

A rendering of the river view of the new Guthrie

In keeping with the industrial history of the city, as well as its geographic location, Nouvel’s inspiration for the 255,000-sq.-ft. building echoes the look of nearby grain silos, and has a cantilevered lobby with expansive windows to view the river and waterfalls. In his view, the history and future of the city will come together in this building. Architectural Alliance of Minneapolis, Tom DeAngelo principal, will serve as Nouvel’s local partner.

For artistic director Joe Dowling, the new venue will provide three homes for three kinds of theatre: a 1,100-seat thrust theatre for the classics and especially Shakespeare; a 700-seat proscenium stage for 20th–century theatre; and a flexible 250-seat experimental studio theatre for new plays, readings, and performance art. "The current thrust stage is not appropriate for all productions," notes Stebbins. "The new thrust theatre will almost be a replica of the old one. We took this for granted, and the architect is now onboard with it as well."

Rendering of the view from Second Street

In addition to the three stages, the new facility has ample room for a complete range of production facilities, including scenic and costume shops, as well as offices and classrooms for the Guthrie’s extensive education program. There is also a shared lobby that runs throughout the building. Escalators lead to the theatres, which are perched 36’ above street level, requiring lots of elevators (including one large enough for a tractor-trailer). "The distances were too great to put everything on the ground floor," explains Stebbins. Bridges lead across a roadway to the scene shop located atop a city-owned parking garage.

Two renderings of the thrust stage

"The proscenium theatre will be the surprise," says Dowling. "It is very French, and very frontal. The proscenium opening is the same width as the rows of seats. It is an intriguing concept." In fact, the entire building looks intriguing on the drawing boards. It remains to be seen how successful it is in execution when it actually opens in 2005.