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In August 2017, a natural gas explosion destroyed two buildings on the main campus of Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Set on the banks of the Mississippi River, the cluster of academic buildings, including the original 1912 red-brick schoolhouse and one built in 1922 (plus an addition that was completed in 1949), had long been a landmark. Their loss reverberated through the community – and along with the physical structures that fell, two staff members lost their lives. 

After setting up temporary facilities to immediately accommodate the 2017 academic year, planning was underway to build anew on the demolished site. From a select few firms invited to submit plans for the project, the local office of Cuningham Group Architecture was selected to design the new facilities. Having established a relationship with the school when they devised a master plan and development of a recently completed STEM lab, the practice was aware of the emotional impact the disaster had had: “There was an overwhelming sense of loss and the community needed help healing,” reflects lead designer Chad Clow. “This was the most emotionally charged project I have been a part of.”  

Throughout the planning, it was paramount to devise a building that would “honour, not replace, what was lost,” says Clow. But it was also an opportunity to look forward and concoct a future-proof and flexible campus that would adjust to potential changes in technology and teaching styles as well as enrolment. 

To that end, the firm designed a “new heart for the school” comprised of a nearly 6,970-square-metre structure that was completed in August 2019, less than two years after initial planning conversations. Positioned at the centre of the campus between the gymnasium and fine arts wings, the new complex features two three-storey buildings linked by a single-level commons area.

The design manages to both reflect its past and be thoroughly of the moment thanks to a considered use of materials, modern amenities and community-minded elements. 

Upon approach, the building nods to its heritage with a red-brick tile facade that feels true to its predecessor. Custom-ordered from Petersen Tegl – a family-owned brickmaker based in Denmark since 1971 – the shade of red chosen for the 40,000 new handmade bricks is a near-perfect match to that of the original facade and presents an authentic textural quality. Contrasting all that brick, copper planks envelope the entrances and frame windows, providing a warm complement, one that will develop a natural patina over time.

While the original buildings were positioned to overlook the river, their very small windows that did not take advantage of the vista. Now, expansive floor-to-ceiling, bird-safe glazing and glass curtain walls – rising to 16 feet in some places – offer full exposure to the surroundings. 

Inside, considered gestures were made to further honour what once stood on the site. At the front entrance, an art installation was created using salvaged bricks from the 1922 building suspended on thin stainless steel cables. Seeming to float in space, the piece subtly reveals glimpses of an archive image of the building those bricks came from. Adjacent to this, a donor wall commemorates all those who contributed to the rebuilding.

In a new atrium at the back, which looks out onto a landscaped interior courtyard, two olive trees stand in an asymmetrical hemlock box under a lightwell. Initially conceived as a memorial for the lives lost, the serene setting, which includes an extra-long hemlock bench, has come to represent a symbol of peace and friendship to the school. On the floor surrounding, salvaged stair treads from the 1912 building are mixed in with locally sourced plank granite tiles.  

Throughout all levels, strategically placed cutouts in the hemlock plank ceiling (the material was chosen for its acoustic properties as well as its beautiful grain characteristics, warm tones and cost efficiency) vary in shape and size to visually signify programmatic changes, respond to the geometry of the two buildings and also provide “a sense of playfulness, art and surprise.” 

Further strengthening the intended sense of community, a fenced-in rooftop terrace (soon to be a green roof) and the back courtyard are accessible to the students and facility but were also designed to support community gatherings, performances and other outdoor events.

In Minnesota, a Striking Academic Building Considers its Past While Looking to the Future

Cuningham Group undertakes a sensitive rebuild after tragedy struck a 108-year-old school that centres on history, community and future-thinking.

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