Riverfront Follies

By coincidence, two relatively new bandstands have come to grace the St. Paul riverfront less than a thousand yards from each other. The Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand is situated on Raspberry Island, a neglected little spit of land in the middle of the river below the Wabasha Street Bridge, while the Target Stage hulks over the southern edge of the broad greensward of Harriet Island Park. One is a work of great poetry. The other is an eyesore.

Created by celebrated architect and designer Michael Graves and bestowed upon St. Paul citizens by the Target Corporation, the Target Stage is the kind of “gift” that, as soon as you see it, you start to look for ways to get rid of it. Implicit in a gift like this, however, is the expectation that the simple folk of St. Paul prostrate themselves with gratitude—not just for Target’s beneficence, but for Graves consenting to give us anything at all. Minnesotans are mortified that anyone might find us in any way “critical” or “negative,” so good manners require us to lap up whatever is set before us. In the face of celebrity, we are not merely bovine, we are cowed, and therefore probably stuck with this monumentally ugly necktie till it rusts away.

The shelves of Target stores are piled high with the fruit of Michael Graves’ approach to design: fun hamburger flippers, twee teakettles, chubby toasters, and toilet bowl brushes with rubbery, turd-shaped handles. All of these objects (there are almost three hundred) whimsically “democratize” design so that now, thanks to the architect’s feeling for the little people, the humblest home in America can have a shot at the elegance of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Graves’ Target Stage is whimsy gone berserk. It consists of a raised concrete platform flanked by a pair of looming steel towers shaped like oil derricks. Suspended by cables between them is a skimpy canopy, embellished at the front with what looks like a piece of cupcake paper or the edge of a shop awning. This wavy bit of decoration is apparently meant to symbolize musical gaiety, or the shape of a sound wave, or a slice of bacon, or the wiggly Mississippi River nearby, or some damned thing. Graves would have done better to suspend a gigantic Target credit card between a colossal pair of shopping carts—it would have been more honest.

The whole thing looks like a gallows, but Graves’ towers are evidently meant to quote the skeletal industrial structure of the old railroad lift bridge a few hundred yards downriver. The bridge’s cross-braced steel towers powerfully but matter-of-factly express or diagram the forces acting on them. They embody the job they were engineered to do. The stage’s reference to them, however, is empty, perfunctory, and visually inept. If you agree with Goethe that architecture is frozen music, then this is evidence that Graves has a tin ear.

The stage’s other salient feature, its apron, is faced with panels of native Mankato-Kasota stone. A beautiful material, it’s applied here like pancake makeup, the words “TARGET STAGE” incised in foot-high, inch-deep letters, staring the audience in the face. As if this were not subtle enough, another panel to the right is carved with a greatly enlarged simulation of the architect’s scrawled signature, putting us all on permanent notice that what we have here is no ordinary edifice, but a signed canvas, a veritable work of art. The Target Stage oppresses the ground it stands on with its clumsy, hamfisted egotism. Let’s hope that Graves’ current project in the Cities, the addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is done with greater feeling for the art it is supposed to shelter.

A quarter of a mile downstream, meanwhile, is the Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand on Raspberry Island, designed by the architect and glass artist James Carpenter. Carpenter was one of the finalists for the commission several years back to design the new Wabasha Street Bridge. His bold proposal for a bridge centrally suspended from a soaring, V-shaped mast was rejected as too daring, too “modern,” too “different,” and probably too expensive; the bandstand is the only part of it that survived. It is owned by the Schubert Club, a non-profit musical group that privately raised most of the two-million-dollar construction cost (the city of St. Paul chipped in a hundred thousand dollars from a state grant). A jewel almost lost in the weeds of redevelopment, its elegance is a rebuke to the pointlessly busy detailing of the bridge that eventually got built, and to the programmatic mediocrity of so much of the rest of the St. Paul riverfront’s redevelopment, from the uninspired, pharmaceutically named “Centex Homes” townhouses upriver on Shepard Road to the blank and sterile faces of the corporate campuses across the river from downtown.

The Heilmaier bandstand is an architectural folly in the best sense of the word, a work of fancy, both ridiculous and sublime. From the standpoint of flatfooted practicality you could say it’s nearly useless, but on another level it’s a deeply necessary thing, a lyric structure that sings to the eye and to the heart; a materialization—a shockingly beautiful one—of music itself. Strictly speaking, it’s more a band “shelter” than a band “shell.” It doesn’t reflect the sound acoustically like the Hollywood Bowl, but it is an acoustical portal, a cornucopia for music to spill out of.

In the language of topology, the overall form of the Heilmaier structure is a hyperbolic paraboloid; in other words, it’s shaped like a saddle. From certain angles, its curves look like the wave patterns on the screen of an oscilloscope. Like the instruments of a chamber group, each material used in the structure has a distinct voice, clearly articulated from the others. The palette is simple—steel, glass, concrete, and wood—but this puts it too simply. The steel is stainless, carefully machined. Each of the sandblasted glass panels is actually a face-to-face lamination of two pieces, which influences how light is refracted. The wood, identified as “ironwood,” is a local species resistant to the weather, like teak. The massive pair of canted, prefabricated concrete buttresses is formed with unusually close attention to the fairness of the curves.

Whichever detail of the structure the eye lights upon, uncompromised workmanship is evident: the precision of the steel fabrication, the finish of the concrete, the way the planks of the stage have been laid, the dramatic cantilever of the benches tucked under the arch, and their boomerang-shaped supports that seem to grow right out of the stage floor. Everywhere you turn, there is a sense of craft consciously brought to bear, and of the pleasure the builders took in their work. That is not to say that the workmanship is precious; it isn’t there for its own sake, but to serve the structure as a whole.

Roofed in glass but open to the weather, Carpenter’s bandstand lets in not only light and air but also water, and in just about every form: rain, snow, sleet, icicles, hail, and the rising waters of the river when it floods. On sunny days, the canopy’s panels of laminated, translucent glass—each one oriented at a slightly different angle to the continually shifting position of the sun—refract rainbows onto the floor of the stage, rainbows that will at certain moments spill onto musicians as they perform.

Former Mayor Norm Coleman used to make it sound as though “bringing hockey to St. Paul” in the Xcel Energy Center just upstream was a feat equal to causing the waters to spring forth and the desert to bloom. The Heilmaier bandstand, meanwhile, surely one of the most beautiful works of public art ever built in the Twin Cities, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle for the puck and the rush to get a Peanuts figure plopped down everywhere you look. Porous to the light—even to the waters that can flood through it—the Heilmaier bandstand, its roof diaphanous as a summer moth, is an embodiment of musica
l fluidity and grace. Strapped for funds, however, the city may be turning to the private sector to take care of it. A proposal is afloat for the same outfit that owns the Wild, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, to complete the landscaping, seating, and lighting, then to take over management of Raspberry Island as a site for music, poetry readings, and weddings. It will be interesting to see if they can do this without slapping the Wild’s logo on everything in sight.