While it is rare that an architect is given the chance to build adjacently to a former project, this was the case for Steven Holl Architects’ latest addition to the University of Iowa campus, in Iowa City, Iowa. Not only does Holl’s new Visual Arts Building sit next to his 2006 Arts Building West, together they create one of the campus’s major outdoor quads. For Holl, the challenge was not just to build a great building, but to build one that was even better than his much-loved first addition to the campus.

After the 2008 Iowa floods, a record-breaking, devastating natural disaster, the University of Iowa needed to replace its original 1936 Visual Arts Building. Rather than go directly to Holl to build the new project, the university held a design competition, which Holl won. The approach to the project would be vastly different than that of the 2006 building.

University of Iowa Visual Arts Building

(Courtesy Iwan Baan)

“You have to make it as good or better,” Holl explained. “That is why it took 30 schemes to get it right. We took the approach, as we have done before in terms of historic buildings, of complementary contrast. The first building is Cor-Ten and planar, with the steel structure exposed. This building is volumetric, not planar and concrete, not steel, and a different strategy altogether.”

Comprised of four offset levels, seven vertical cutouts produce outdoor balconies and indoor atria, bringing light deep into the new building. Other apertures lay behind the outer porous zinc skin system, arranged and sized with the Fibonacci sequence. Together, the cutouts and windows allow for studio spaces to be completely daylit. The interior cutouts also provide space for the buildings major vertical social and circulation areas. These communal spaces were at the heart of the project’s design.


University of Iowa Visual Arts Building

(Courtesy Iwan Baan)

“The seven cuts of light vertically penetrate the laminar shifting section,” Holl said. “We give them all equal weight as social spaces. These become places where you take a break and talk to a friend or someone from another department. The formal operation becomes a social operation, and one of bringing in light.” 

The structure of the 126,000-square-foot project plays an important role in realizing the bright, open interior. The floor plates are poured-in-place biaxial voided slabs, or “bubbledeck” slabs. This technique, used for the first time in the United States, allows for integrated mechanical systems, including radiant heating and cooling. With lighter-than-typical floor slabs
and zero ductwork, the interior could be more readily dedicated to programmed space.

The Visual Arts Building will be home to art history, ceramics, 3-D design, metal arts, sculpture, printmaking, painting and drawing, graphic design, multimedia, video art,
and photography.

[As part of our 2016 Best of Design Awards, this project won 2016 Building of the Year > Midwest. Click here to learn more!]

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