Nicollet Mall Part 4: The Original Nicollet Mall Design
Nicollet Mall has long been the heart of downtown Minneapolis’ central retail and business district. Its transformation to a pedestrian transit way in the 1960s was shaped in part by Post-World War Two suburbanization and decentralization—trends occurring in cities across North America. Nicollet Mall was developed through a public-private partnership of businesses and municipal groups with the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. While its aesthetic has changed, Nicollet Mall is arguably one of the few successful remaining pedestrian malls in the country. This blog post series serves to reveal Nicollet Mall’s history and define its 1960s design as an intersection of a particular set of circumstances at the metropolitan, state, and national scale. Framed in the context of Post-World War Two retail and urban planning, these posts will speak of the way downtown business, government, and community collaborated to thwart retail competition in the suburbs and bolster civic spirit. More so, the 1960s collaboration between the public and private entities initiated an on-going tradition to maintain Nicollet Mall’s visibility downtown despite dramatic shifts in economy, demographics, and popular culture. In 2015, construction will begin on a redesign for Nicollet Mall. With major changes imminent, this blog post series hopes to capture a process of decision-making and design that can help people learn from Nicollet Mall’s past to perpetuate vital urban public places for future generations.
Don't miss the earlier posts in our series about the Nicollet Mall, The Public-Private Partnership (1), A Collaborative Design Response (2), and Donald Dayton's Nicollet Mall (3).
The Original Nicollet Mall
By the early 1960s, Minneapolis had established its program for city-wide redevelopment. The city’s ills would not solve themselves and the suburbs were not any less of a threat to the economy of the central business district. The next several years would yield a phase of collaborative study, planning, and design to shape Nicollet Mall to be a vital public place, not only economically, but socially as well.
While the business cooperative, the Downtown Council of Minneapolis, certainly emphasized the business prerogatives in their plan for a pedestrian mall, they commissioned a socially progressive thinker and urban designer to also address its social implications. On July 30, 1962, Halprin signed and returned the letter to the Downtown Council accepting their terms of employment for preparing working drawings and supervising construction. Halprin was known for using his progressive urban philosophy to combat “urban undesirables” such as traffic, noise, overcrowding, and racial tension. His prescribed intentions to bring back life to Nicollet Avenue’s pedestrian transit way included cleaning up the streets, focusing on the people, and creating a unified design that emphasized different moments within the landscaping. 
Lawrence Halprin, a graduate of Harvard’s design school and a student of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, was influenced by Moholy-Nagy’s interest in movement and space-time. Halprin combined these factors with an interest in Walter Gropius’ modern architecture aesthetic, and it is evident that Halprin’s background was high profile for a notoriously conservative city like Minneapolis. Author Sharon Zukin points out that hiring an acclaimed architect like Halprin was not isolated to Minneapolis. “Seeking to restore—or create—a vernacular lustre, local interests hire[d] “name” architects, whose reputations should minimize financial risk.” These superstar architects like Halprin often “ mediate[d] the leveling of local and regional distinctions” with their novelty and name.  This idea that Halprin would minimize the financial risk of the project was just what key business owners like Donald Dayton were looking for.
Halprin’s background was also influenced by the west coast; after establishing practice in San Francisco, Halprin acquired a “hippie-ness” in his design palette for his interest in sensations, perception, scale, and environment.  Halprin’s design palette included a choreographic way of approaching design, which was a system he developed with his dancer wife Anna to analyze people’s experiences through time as they moved through space. Halprin used this choreographic method—called motation—in his design for Nicollet Mall. This concept of space-time was important to Halprin’s creation of a mediated landscape or a sense of place on Nicollet Mall. It also raises the topic of the role of a designer.
Does a designer mediate business and the arts? Is design an art for business? In Zukin’s book Landscapes of Power she clarified this relationship by saying, “A landscape mediates, both symbolically and materially, between the socio-spatial differentiation of capital implied by market and the socio-spatial homogeneity of labor suggested by place.” 
The image shows the numerous elements that establish the stage for life to occur on the street. Objects include fixed items designed as part of Halprin’s scheme—kiosks, bush shelters, light fixtures, planters, and benches—while others are variable—people and buses. In this one choreographed segment of Nicollet Mall, the actions and interactions of people with their environment encapsulates a particular sensation of the social life on the street. It is visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory. From this exercise, it is evident that Halprin considered his role of designer as one that could profoundly shape not only what people did on the streets, but also how and why they acted in a particular manner. From the specific placement of street furnishings to the implied paths along the city blocks, Halprin’s motation system seems to clarify how his design for Nicollet Mall married both the notion of economy and culture in space and time.
Halprin took inspiration from other pedestrian malls around the globe, namely in Copenhagen and Stockholm. While these malls had a definite separation of pedestrians and motor vehicles, Halprin compromised in Minneapolis by allowing buses and taxis to have access to the mall. Keeping bus and taxi traffic to two lanes enabled portions of the sidewalk to be as wide as 56 feet, creating spaces for café seating, fountains, and kiosks.
Perhaps the most prominent characteristic of Nicollet Mall was the serpentine curve. Halprin approached the design for Nicollet as a medieval street, characterized by a winding, path-like nature, and changing viewpoints. By de-emphasizing sight lines, a person’s sense of distance would be minimized, thereby encouraging a pedestrian to walk from block to block. As a result, Nicollet Mall was a break from the standard grid of American cities that seemed to be a cacophony of signs for the automobilist navigating the endless sea of blocks. The end of Nicollet Mall held an important terminus, Minuro Yamasaki’s modern Northwestern National Life Building that seemed to frame the street.
Halprin also understood how sculpture in the city square and hubs of activity such as festivals, markets, and other events created nodes of life and places for gathering. The widened sidewalks promoted social interactions and street activities such as art fairs, a farmers’ market, entertainers, musicians, and parades. The micro-architecture Halprin designed for the streetscape—street furniture, information stands, light fixtures, planters, and bollards—fostered gathering and a warm, textured environment. Nicollet Mall had become an attraction.
The Fate of Halprin’s Mall
A person might note that Halprin’s Nicollet Mall looks vastly different than the street today. Nicollet Mall underwent a major renovation in the late 1980s – early 1990s by a local firm BRW. The renovation gutted out nearly all of the existing vegetation and micro-architecture. While arguably Halprin’s mall didn’t age as well as hoped in the harsh Minnesota climate, the BRW redesign brought back a more sterilized streetscape, with few places to linger save the bus shelters. Nicollet Mall is now, some 30 years later, undergoing another redesign process. What can the current stakeholders, both public and private, contribute to the design team Field Operations retained by the City of Minneapolis? Join in the discussion at www.nicolletmallproject.com.
How Halprin’s design for Nicollet Mall influenced pedestrian malls around the country.
- LHC [014.I.B.2978]. “Downtown Minneapolis’ Urban Renaissance.”
- Sharon Zukin, Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 47.
- Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor, Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 181.
- Zukin, Landscapes of Power, 16.
Note: These posts are extracted from a more comprehensive history of the 1960s design for Nicollet Mall, from the author’s undergraduate thesis from the University of Minnesota, School of Architecture. Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.