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First, do no harm.

Whether you find yourself with a sick patient or an ailing building, Hippocrates’ advice applies equally well. At least that was the working philosophy of the Minnesota Orchestral Association when it took up its long overdue renovation and addition to Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis.

Now complete and hosting its first full season, the surgically precise renovation and understated addition embodies Midwestern pragmatism with a zeal rarely seen in projects of this size and public importance. If only such ambition could result in more gripping architecture.

While the 1974 performance chamber has been admired for its intimacy and world-class acoustics, the user experience at the hall was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Musicians, conductors, staff and concertgoers have had a love/hate relationship with the building since the day it opened.

Designed by the New York architecture firm Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, the new home in downtown was heralded as an improvement over the orchestra’s previous home, the cavernous Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. Facing the head winds of a national recession, the Minnesota Orchestral Association funneled resources into the hall and acoustics, cutting back on the public spaces wherever possible in order to make a tight budget.

“Originally, the lobby was meant to last only 20 to 25 years, with the idea that a later generation of leaders would build a proper lobby,” said Paul Grangaard, former orchestra board president and chair of the recent Hall Renovation Committee.

Or longer, as it turns out. For 40 years the “temporary” lobby remained cramped, the restrooms woefully deficient. Required accessibility fixes were done with the expediency of battlefield medics. The place had insufficient space for the escalating demands of pre- and post-show events, donor programs and revenue-boosting corporate and private rentals.

The renovation, by Toronto-based architects Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg (KPMB), tackles all of the original’s shortcomings, adding creature comforts along the way. The lobby is doubled in size, the heavily used connection to the skyway was improved with fewer level changes and an escalator, bathroom stalls were multiplied (doubly so for women), and seats on the main floor got wider, with more legroom. First-class upgrades, all around.

While a full-scale renovation of the adjacent Peavey Plaza waits in political limbo, KPMB’s design reorients the building with a new double-height event space (christened Target Atrium) away from 11th Street and toward the plaza and Nicollet Mall.

Bumping the addition into the plaza took advantage of an underutilized jog in the property line. The decision creates a visual presence from highly trafficked Nicollet, and anchors a critical corner of the plaza with the light structure and scale of a garden pavilion. The most expressive element of the project, the atrium’s glassy volume is carefully detailed to ensure transparency where it pays off, and is moderated by monumental louvers that keep afternoon sunlight in check.

The expanded lobby occupies a former drop-off lane connected to 11th Street. Showing its street cred, the new floor sits about a foot above the sidewalk and is wrapped by a long band of windows — putting the people inside and out on nearly equal footing. The sidewalk has been returned to the province of the pedestrian, with uninterrupted paving and new street trees.

Parts of equal weight

Once a more dominant player in the building’s exterior composition, the red brick concert hall (with its signature rounded corners) now plays second fiddle to an accretion of glass, stone and metal paneled boxes. Along 11th Street, a wall of Alabama limestone gives the structure gravitas and provides a visual focus to a collage of otherwise equally weighted parts. A single, mammoth picture window punctures the limestone wrapper, a gift from Minnesota taxpayers, who contributed $12 million to the project’s $52 million price tag.

While more than 80 percent of the audience arrives via the parking ramp across Marquette Avenue, a new “front” door faces Peavey Plaza and Nicollet with a broad canopy and thankfully unambiguous signage. This is a responsible, civic gesture that goes a long way to help identify the building, one that easily could be regarded as just another nice office building or an extension of the Target headquarters across the street.

And that’s the rub. For as capable as the architects were in not wrecking what worked, and correcting a laundry list of troubles, they walked away from any big idea or crystallizing image that could help fix the building in the public imagination. The Guthrie Theater has its endless bridge, the Minneapolis Central Library a soaring roof canopy, and the Weisman its crinkled stainless steel facade. Even the Mill City Museum is remembered for what’s not there — the courtyard carved out of the former Washburn Mill ruins.

Inside the new lobby the absence of a collective central space or postcard view continues the lack of ambition. Top-end finishes of gray stone, gray carpeting, white walls and expanses of wood acoustic panels vie for indifference. Bars are hidden away under stairs or back corners. Stairs ascend pragmatically through a forest of round columns. Musically inspired light fixtures float through the lofty spaces with as much purpose or acclaim as puffy clouds on a summer afternoon.

The only way to know you’ve arrived at Orchestra Hall is when you get to your seat, take in the iconic “falling dice” ceiling, scan the gently stepping tiers of balconies (now gray-blue, instead of the old rust-orange) and watch the members of Minnesota’s great musical treasure walk onstage and warm up.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s good enough for Minnesota. “Orchestra Hall was never done with the intent to impress with extravagance. Tasteful, elegant functionality was more consistent with the ethos of the Midwest,” said Grangaard. “It’s done exactly what people wanted it to.”

Phillip Glenn Koski is a Minneapolis architect and writer.











About streetscapes

Streetscapes is a new column devoted to Minnesota architecture. Each Saturday, a variety of writers will critique, explore and explain the built environment, from brand-new buildings to revered older ones. Send suggestions for future topics to claude.peck@startribune.com. Tweets @ClaudePeck