See more of the story

Maybe you don't hear the theme song from "Miami Vice" when you see this building. But you should.

The 701 Building — a 19-story blue, silver and salmon building finished in 1984 — is pure Reagan-era American architecture.

Whether that's a good thing is a matter of taste.

Many of the postmodern towers of the decade seem flabby and cartoony today, with over-scaled "classical" ideas pasted on glass towers like temporary tattoos on a banker's face.

This one, however, mastered something few modern buildings attempt: It respected its site, took design cues from its neighbors, established itself with cheeky confidence, and never grew stale or dated. It wasn't boring then, and it's not boring now.

Why bring it up? Helmut Jahn, the building's architect, was killed in May at the age of 81, hit by a car while biking in a Chicago suburb. The obituaries focused on his Windy City projects and brash Gotham skyscrapers. The big work.

The 701 Building (701 4th Av. S.) was a small project for such a great talent. He could've dashed off anything, and people would've oohed and aahed, because he was Helmut Jahn. But he studied the site, and took time to figure out what worked. It's probably not his greatest building. It's not the architectural equivalent of a Shakespeare play. It is, however, a very fine sonnet.

The 18-story 701 Building under construction in January 1983, on the former site of Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale.
The 18-story 701 Building under construction in January 1983, on the former site of Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale.

Star Tribune file

The 701 Building would go up right across the street from the Lutheran Brotherhood headquarters (later Thrivent Financial), a building known for its cash-register shape. Whatever Jahn designed would have to relate to a big, broad wall of glass that leans back with an angled facade.

His solution: The 701 would have an octagonal core, with an outer layer that stepped back as it rose, winding around the inner layer. The setbacks would echo the profile of Lutheran Brotherhood's angled facade. If the Lutheran Brotherhood building was a door, the 701 was a hinge.

Bonus: The setbacks of 701 would have small gardens, reflecting the broad open lawn of the nearby Hennepin Country Government Center. As designed by Jahn, the 701 is a building that could fit anywhere, really, but it only makes sense where it is.

What makes it '80s? It's not boring.

Post-Modernism, the style most associated with Jahn, rejected the minimalist approach of the early Modernists. Instead of flat roofs, some architects of the '80s added crazy spires, or oversized classical motifs. Instead of rectangles standing on end, they conjured towers that curved and swooned.

Dropping the 701 in the neighborhood of the authoritarian slab of the Government Center and the Lutheran Brotherhood building was like dropping a fast-talking guy from the East Coast in a room full of dour Swedes.

The exuberant experimentation of the '80s gave way to buildings that were less adventurous, but more durable, if only because they were less likely to fall out of style.

The confident classicism of the SPS Tower (333 S. 7th St.) has aged better than the 701. The elegant modernism of the Wells Fargo Center (90 S. 7th St.) makes the 701 look like a frat boy with a turned-up Izod collar and a Members Only jacket.

In many cities, Jahn's work stands out because it's now dated. But it also stands out because it's good — and it's fun.

"It makes no difference," Jahn told Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan in 1983, "whether a building is 18 stories high or 82 or whether we call it a 'high-rise' or a 'skyscraper.' What is important is how that building relates to the street and the people on it."

He was correct. He gave us a building that relates to its site better than most. Whether it relates to the people depends on what the people want from the buildings in the city.

Hennepin County Government Center, left, Lutheran Brotherhood (later Thrivent Financial) and the 701 Building, behind the Admiral Apartments building in April 1985.
Hennepin County Government Center, left, Lutheran Brotherhood (later Thrivent Financial) and the 701 Building, behind the Admiral Apartments building in April 1985.

Darlene Pfister, Star Tribune file

If they want novelty, they won't get it from 21st-century designs. Most of the new buildings rising downtown (most are housing developments) are cautious. They are timeless, but only in the sense that they are inoffensive today and will be inoffensive tomorrow.

It's a mark of Jahn's skill that the 701 still looks fresh and idiosyncratic, almost 40 years on. Compared with the avant-garde projects of modern starchitects, one quick look at the 701 and you know three important facts: It came from an interesting time and an interesting mind. And you know where the front door is.