Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Gordon Bunshaft. I.M. Pei. Richard Meier. David Chipperfield. Our photographic tour of 70 years of modern architecture in Iowa’s capital features buildings by luminaries of 20th- and 21st-century design.
By Christopher Hudson
Photography by Morgan Sheff, Pete Sieger, and Peter VonDeLinde
DES MOINES ART CENTER
Eliel and Eero Saarinen building
I.M. Pei expansion
Richard Meier expansion
Like Mia and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Des Moines Art Center features three distinct eras of architecture. It all started when the museum moved a few miles west from an ornate, turn-of-the-century library building downtown to hilly Greenwood Park in the 1940s. Civic leaders commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design the new art center after viewing his competition-winning entry for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—a project that was never built. Saarinen adapted his Smithsonian concept for the park, nestling the meandering, low-slung structure into the leafy landscape. Like his Smithsonian design, the art center was clad in strips of rough-cut Lannon stone, and it partially enclosed a courtyard overlooking a reflecting pool and the green space beyond.
Twenty years later, the museum turned to architect I.M. Pei for an addition that would house a 220-seat auditorium and soaring galleries for the display of large sculptures. Pei responded with a highly textured concrete structure that asserts itself with its Brutalist massing but disguises its height with its placement on the downslope of a hill. For many first-time visitors, the addition’s butterfly-roofed upper gallery and spare, double-height lower gallery—the latter anchored by Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #601—make the deepest impressions.
The final piece of the puzzle, completed in 1985, was a taller, more playful expansion by Richard Meier, who would go on to design the iconic Getty Center campus in Los Angeles. Clad in granite and porcelain-coated metal panels, Meier’s geometrically expressive pavilion was placed nearest the intersection of Grand Avenue and Polk Boulevard, to increase the art center’s visibility. Inside, the bright, white galleries were designed to accommodate large contemporary artworks. The expansion also added a small restaurant to the courtyard, bringing all three eras of architecture together in a single, intimate outdoor environment.
American Enterprise Group (AEG) national headquarters
Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Des Moines Central Library
David Chipperfield Architects with HLKB
You know a building is compelling when it wins the same national design award twice. American Enterprise Group’s national headquarters, designed by famed Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Gordon Bunshaft, won an American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1967, shortly after it opened, and then again in 2016 for architecture firm BNIM’s 21st-century renovation. It’s one of those midcentury buildings whose clean-lined elegance doesn’t scream for attention. But when you do stop to study it, you can’t stop looking—especially at twilight.
The elegance derives primarily from the 90-foot clear span on levels three through eight; those floors are supported at each end by a poured-in-place concrete wall that rests on enormous metal feet. The renovation focused on invisibly upgrading building systems and glazing while opening the partitioned interiors up to those clear-span views. The building is privately owned, but passersby can enjoy the view in the minimalist entry court, where Arnaldo Pomodoro’s Sphere Within Sphere sculpture presides. At night, the glassy lobby becomes a glowing gallery for additional artworks in AEG’s notable collection.
Another twilight gem downtown is David Chipperfield Architects’ 2006 Des Moines Central Library. The centerpiece of a long-term effort to revitalize the western edge of downtown, the sprawling two-story building bridges the central business district and the popular Pappajohn Sculpture Park, completed in 2009. It becomes an entirely different building when the sun goes down.
During the day, you can’t see into the glass-clad building, but you can see out. That’s because the architects inserted a layer of expanded copper mesh between the outer panes of the triple-glazed panels, which gives the exterior an opaque, coppery sheen while allowing those inside the library to enjoy wide views of the park. But at night, the views are reversed, with the active interiors gradually revealing themselves to passersby as darkness settles over the city. Dusk offers a few magical moments when it’s difficult to distinguish the interiors from the surrounding buildings reflected in the glass.
Hubbell Dining Hall
Crawford Residence Hall
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
After World War II, Drake University was thinking about the future. Like many schools, it needed to grow its facilities to accommodate increases in student enrollment, so it engaged Saarinen, Swanson & Saarinen—the noted architecture firm working just a few miles away on the Des Moines Art Center—to craft a new master plan for the campus. University officials sought a plan that would organize the building of flexible, expandable, and, perhaps most important, forward-looking new structures. They chose the Saarinen team in part because of the care it took in harmonizing the art center with its hilly landscape.
Eliel, the elder Saarinen, died in 1950, but his son Eero continued the work by populating the plan with, among other buildings, the 400-seat Hubbell Dining Hall; Stalnaker, Crawford, Carpenter, and Herriott residence halls; and Medbury Hall, which was built for the university’s divinity school but today houses the philosophy and religion department.
The reinforced-concrete structures generally feature brick, metal, and glass in a stripped-down modern aesthetic, and they included amenities still in vogue today—“living rooms” in the residence halls, for example, and a snack shop and bakery with flexible seating in the dining hall. Saarinen protected the grassy ravine below Crawford and Carpenter from student traffic with long pedestrian bridges, and he connected all four dormitories with striking scaffolding-like balconies.
A decade later, Drake commissioned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design a new home for its School of Journalism and Mass Communication on a prominent site overlooking Helmick Commons. The resulting two-story building, Meredith Hall, is pure, minimalist Mies: a steel-frame structure wrapped in glass curtain wall with scaled-down I-beam mullions. The I-beams both express the building’s taut structure and give dimension to the exterior’s uniform geometry.