Concept drawing by Steven Holl

Visual Arts Building Design

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Visual Arts Building at twilight

From Steven Holl Architects website "The new Visual Arts facility for the University of Iowa's School of Art and Art History provides 126,000 sf of loft-like space for the departments of ceramics, sculpture, metals, photography, print making and 3D multimedia. It also includes graduate student studios, faculty and staff studios and offices, and gallery space.

The building replaces an original arts building from 1936, which was heavily damaged during a flood of the University of Iowa campus in June 2008. The new building is located directly adjacent to and northwest of Art Building West, which Steven Holl Architects completed in 2006.

While the 2006 Arts Building West is horizontally porous and of planar composition, the new building is vertically porous and volumetrically composed. The aim of maximum interaction between all departments of the school takes shape in social circulation spaces. 

Interconnection: Horizontal Programs, Vertical Porosity

In a school of the arts today, interconnection and crossover are of fundamental importance. Today digital techniques open up increased interconnection between all the arts. Interconnection between all of the departments is facilitated in the vertical carving out of large open floor plates. Students can see activities ongoing across these openings and be encourages to interact and meet. Further interconnection is facilitated by glass partitions along the studio walls adjacent to internal circulation.

Multiple Centers of Light

Natural light and natural ventilation are inserted into the deep floor plates via the "multiple centers of light." Seven vertical cutouts encourage interaction between all four levels. These spaces of glass are characterized by a language of shifted layers where one floor plate slides past another. This geometry created multiple balconies, providing outdoor meeting spaces and informal exterior working space.

Stairs as Vertical Social Condensers: Corridors as Horizontal Meeting Spaces

Stairs are shaped to encourage meeting, interaction and discussion. Some stairs stop at generous landings with tables and chairs, others open onto lounge spaces with sofas.

Campus Space Definition/Porosity

The original grid of the campus breaks up at the river, becoming organic as it hits the limestone bluff. The Arts West building reflects this irregular geometry in fuzzy edges. The new building picks up the campus grid again in its simple plan, defining the new campus space of the "arts meadow."

Material Resonance, Ecological Innovation

Natural ventilation is achieved via operable windows. A punched concrete frame structure provides thermal mass at the exterior while "bubble" slabs provide radiant cooling and heating. A Rheinzink skin in weathering blue-green is perforated for sun shade on the southwest and southeast."

Steven Holl and Senior Partner Chris McVoy discuss the principal design concepts behind the Visual Arts Building.

Steven Holl Architects investigated 55 different schemes for the Visual Arts Building before arriving at the final shape of the building.

Plan view of the Visual Arts Building
Aerial view of the Visual Arts Building showing the square plan with "light courts" carved into the building and a huge central skylight to bring natural light into the center of the building. The shapes of the light courts and the central skylight are expressed throughout the buildling in furniture, railings, door handles and the exterior sun screen.

Visual Arts Building social furniture designed by Steven Holl Architects
Social furniture scattered throughout the building is in made in the shape of the skylight and light courts.

Visual Art Building's punched exterior sun screen
The exterior punched stainless steel sunscreen uses the shapes of the light courts and the main skylight.

Interior stair railings use the same shapes.
The interior stair railings use the same shape vocabulary.

Professor Kee-ho Yuen holds one the door handles, hand-cast by School of Art and Art History faculty, staff and students based on a design by Steven Holl.
Professor Kee-ho Yuen holds one of the exterior door handles, hand-cast in bronze by School of Art and Art History faculty, staff and students. The handle design is a simplified plan of the building.