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Walker visitors build a city, one polyhedron at a time

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MINNEAPOLIS — If you've been to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis recently, you're familiar with the noise of a construction zone. A new entrance is being built, the Sculpture Garden is being expanded and upgraded, and there's road work going on out on Hennepin Avenue. Just visiting the Walker is a bit of a challenge.

But for the hardy souls who do visit, Walker staff members have prepared a special project — and a construction zone of a different, quieter sort. It's called "Paper City."

The Walker's basement Art Lab is slowly being engulfed. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of shapes, many of them brightly colored and inscribed, are piled around the room. Some climb the walls; others hang from the ceiling.

A visitor named Lois, from Shoreview, looked around in wonder. "I knew nothing about this," she said. "Nothing. And I still don't know about it. I don't know why they are doing it. Can you tell me?"

Frannie Kuhs, the Walker's family program coordinator, explained. "Paper City" uses the ideas of inventor Buckminster Fuller to create an interactive art exhibit, exploring the relationship among objects, space and experience.

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"The architect/designer — she doesn't like to be called an artist, but I think she is an artist — is called Noa Haim, and she lives in the Netherlands," said Kuhs.

Haim took Fuller's ideas about building with the three-dimensional forms known as polyhedrons. Then she simplified things. Kuhs pointed to specially prepared cards Haim designed, which sit in piles around the room.

"It's a sheet that you punch out, and there's a way you can fold it to make the polyhedral shapes," she said. "But people kind of make their own shapes."

The cards come with slots and tabs so you can snap polyhedrons together. Then you can snap them to other polyhedrons. But it takes some thought. Visitor Chelsea Miller snapped and popped her card, as she thought about what to do.

"There are endless options," she said. "This is intimidating. And now I feel competitive all of a sudden. I need to look around."

And there's lots to look at. So many shapes, so many colors — so many that "Paper City" has bloomed like a coral reef. Visitors have been adding to it for eight weeks now, and it will keep growing until the exhibit closes Sept. 3.

"It sort of feels like everyone is putting their mark on it, separately," Kuhs said. "But then all together you have this incredible environment."

Across the room, Brandy Lewis and Sam Vilone each worked on their polyhedrons. They had come to play mini-golf on the roof and look around the galleries. Now they were engrossed.

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"I think it's awesome," Lewis said. "It's cool how everyone can make their own and put them where they want to, so it's kind of all unique. And there are a ton of shapes too. It's hard to find the same one. They are all unique to the people that made them, so I think that's cool."

Vilone appeared amazed at what Lewis had made. "I don't even know how she made that," he said. "She's just better than me, I guess."

"You are almost there," she said, encouragingly.

"I'm almost there," he said, but his laugh lacked confidence.

On the other side of the room, Jennifer Jorgensen was also making a shape. She works at the Walker, but this was her first time at "Paper City."

"I really like that it is reflective of what's going on around us at the Walker right now, with all the construction," she said. "I love that we are building stuff in here together, and that it's colorful, cute and creative, and kids can be involved and be more into architecture as a result of it."

But there is something else here. The Walker is looking for ways to get visitors more engaged than just walking through the galleries or the gift shop. Frannie Kuhs has been delighted at how many people have come to the "Paper City" with others to build together.

"There was one family that came through, like, three times throughout the day," she said. "And I felt like every time they were here, they must have spent an hour and a half in here."

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For a family program coordinator, that's pretty much a dream come true.

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