Corporate Collage: The Minneapolis Skyway
Dike Blair

In the winter it's very cold on the downtown sidewalks of Minneapolis. So over the last 40 years, landlords, merchants, developers, and corporations came up with an idea of how to make things more comfortable for Minneapolis' citizens and profitable for themselves. They build conduits - enclosed pedestrian bridges - between the buildings and over those icy streets. It started during urban renewal in the 60s and 70s when adjacent buildings, sometimes with the same owner and sometimes not, were connected by walkways built one story above street level. Part of the impetus for this whole arrangement was a response to the success of the suburban mall. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Southdale, the world's first enclosed shopping mall was constructed outside of Minneapolis in 1956.) With the building boom of the 80s came multiple corporate atria (AT&T Towers, Norwest, Pillsbury Center), cavernous nodes in the downtown area. Unusual and organic alliances (that might only have happened in the friendly and prosperous upper mid-west) were formed and the corporations linked their nodes, rhizome-style and in an improvised fashion, to each other. The result is the Minneapolis Skyway, a privatized network lined with small shops, businesses and restaurants, that allows a pedestrian to navigate most of the downtown center - albeit in a circuitous, non-Cartesian fashion - without ever having to be outside. The Skyway is but one variation of the malling of urban centers everywhere.

Each corporate space tries to outdo the next with their atria but they are basically familiar; tetrahedral glass domed cathedrals with imported flora, or slightly more contemporary spaces with stainless steel curvilinear lobbies bisected by escalators, or ceilings with oversized gridded contrivances. And we know the horizontal tempo of the mall's vending stalls as well; dry cleaner, coffee place, convenience store, coffee place, newsstand (the Skyway has its own weekly, The Skyway News), coffee place.

What's unfamiliar and a little weird is the collage nature of the architectural stylings and textures of the Skyway. We are accustomed to an overriding plan, theme or material that holds all of the incongruities of mall architecture and graphics in place. We're used to the architectural channel hopping between, say, a Footlocker and a Starbucks, but the transitions are smoothed by the mall's theme. Here the transitions are abrupt. One's lead foot will be descending on a worn, maroon and mauve patterned carpet of a pedestrian bridge built 20 years ago, as one's following foot is still planted on the recently installed synthetic marble of the corporate node. Likewise the architectural treatments of access routes to the upper and lower levels (escalators, stairwells and elevators) of the buildings on the Skyway are, many times, awkward and incongruous.

And there's something bizarre about the bazaar-arrangements of small merchant spaces--they're jury rigged into narrow polygons that could not have been conceived in advance. As the skyway reached critical mass (became more popular than the street) businesses, including corporate centers, realized they needed to link up. This leads to some pretty awkward configurations and, from what I heard, some difficult negotiations. Some buildings had little interest in connecting to competitors and certain structures, like large garages with their spiral levels, have led to engineering improvisations. [A French acquaintance of mine remarked on the similarity of the Skyway's circulation pattern and the maps of the Situationists' (postwar European conceptual artists group) 'walks' that took place in the 60's.] Indeed, for the tourist, navigating by the Skyway by its sporadically placed wall maps can be difficult - though more pleasant and fun than the NYC subway maze.

Because the Skyway is open late into the night and most of the "open air" kiosks are designed for the day shift office worker, the Skyway becomes a great catalogue of security gates. There's gridded chain link, sushi-roller stainless steel, accordion aluminum, temporary plywood. And then one encounters the gate free, shallow facade of a sober brokerage outlet with oak stain on maple wood and brass plated oversize knobs. The after hours, ghost town effect of the Skyway is eerie, and it seems wrong that its carpeted turf isn't being prowled by teen gangs. But, then again, one is always aware of being watched. Though discrete, the whole place is polka-dotted with those obsidian surveillance semi-spheres.

What unifies the sensation of the Skyway, other than commerce, is the effect of a uniform levitation one story above the street. It's a strange sensation that is slightly dislocating and intoxicating. It's not a claustrophobic tunnel. The user gets views, especially when passing from one block to another or inside the domed atria, of the street below and the towers above. It is a view of the urban hive from one rung up on the ladder. It brings to mind the antiquated futuristic models of future cities in film, like Metropolis and The Shape of Things to Come. As always, those futures got it wrong (the guiding force is capitalism not socialism) and got it kind of right (the evolution of the city into a metabody through which we flow like corpuscles in veins and arteries). The good thing is that the network is in the air rather than more contemporary visions that have us all in tunnels, like the post apocalyptic subterranean mid-west culture of A Boy and His Dog. So even though you might feel like a glass-sandwiched ant in a horizontal Ant Farm, you're a warm ant (most of the Skyway is a pleasant 68°F), you're inside the hive, there's plenty of things to buy, work to be done, and hot coffee to be had.