Minoru Yamasaki in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Planned as the centerpiece of a new urban renewal project for downtown Minneapolis during the late 1950s, the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company building stands on a prime location near the juncture of Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues in the city's Gateway District. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki in 1961 (at the peak of his career), the corporate monument is a gleaming white edifice rising, almost triumphantly, from a neatly landscaped park. And sure, it isn't the kind of building you typically associate with an insurance company, but with its rich materials, delicate colonnade, and soaring sense of verticality, the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company building IS unequivocally Yamasaki.
Instantly recognizable by its dramatic white portico, Yamasaki’s design is a modernized temple to American commerce. Turned perpendicular to Nicollet Avenue so the visual line of the street can continue through its open portico to the banks of the Mississippi River below, the office block stands as a synthesis of careful site planning, innovative engineering, and historical detail. Precast concrete columns (more than 80 feet tall) ring the rectangular building and flare into delicate Gothic-style arches as they reach the cornice-like roof. Behind the structural columns, thin slabs of verde antique marble are paired with dark tinted windows, making the delineation of the building's six floors seemingly disappear. From a distance, the office cuts a striking silhouette, the hard, smooth surfaces balanced by a serene park-like landscape designed by Sasaki, Walker and Associates. The firm approached Yamasaki's design as if it were a piece of freestanding sculpture with intimate green spaces and glassy reflecting pools softening the classical form.
At the time it was built, the Northwestern National Life Insurance Company building was meant to house all of the company’s operations, including nearly five hundred employees. To fulfill this purpose, the interior had to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing. Sheathed in white marble and bearing Harry Bertoia's "Sunlit Straw" (completed in 1964), the lobby is surprisingly sumptuous. Spacious executive offices, a boardroom paneled with teak, and an executive floor cafeteria with large arched windows shape the user's sensory experience. Guided by the humanistic principles associated with New Formalism, Yamasaki merged luxurious materials with historical elements and programmatic concerns to create a corporate office building that would appeal to those working within its walls, an office building with real GRAVITAS.
Despite changes of ownership and shifting occupancy over the last few decades, Yamasaki’s Northwestern National Life Insurance Company building remains an elegant expression of the architect's ability to create "serenity, surprise, and delight" (it also might be one of his most successful designs). Today, the office is still in use and is currently occupied by VOYA Financial. You can read more about Minoru Yamasaki here and here.
A version of this post was first published on August 28, 2017.
Image at top:
By MCAD Library from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
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