Steven Holl Architects University of Iowa School of Art & Art History Building – A hybrid instrument for the practice and analysis of art

Steven Holl Architects announces the opening of the University of Iowa’s School of Art & Art History on September 8th. The building gives form to the innovative interdisciplinary educational model of the school by integrating dynamic spaces within implied volumes and indeterminate boundaries. The new building is a hybrid instrument for the practice and analysis of art based on the idea of ‘open edges and center.’

The University of Iowa has a long history of commissioning inspirational architecture and pioneering art education. The first university to grant credit for creative work in the arts, it gained renown in the 1930s for radically combining its art and art history programs into one school. Seeking to enhance its art program, it awarded the commission for a new building to Steven Holl Architects because of the firm’s particularly sensitive understanding of both the mission and programmatic needs of the art school.

Partially straddling a pond and an adjacent limestone bluff, the building’s assemblage of glass and Cor-ten steel planes is woven into the site, creating new campus spaces, pathways and connections to the landscape. Necessitated by the constraints of the site, an elevated wing containing the library program extends out over the pond, with reading spaces engaging the vertical landscape of the bluff to one side and the existing art building to the other.

The building is already functioning as a social generator for the University before its official opening. An outdoor terrace around the pond has become a popular gathering area for students, faculty and people from the surrounding community. Campus traffic is drawn into the building at multiple points. Within the building, “formless” spaces work as a condenser of people, practice and theory. The 70,000 sq. ft. building houses an auditorium, classrooms, an art library, studios, an art gallery, faculty offices, meeting rooms and a café. A public route follows the contour edge of the pond and extends vertically up into the building’s central atrium by a suspended stair of red folded steel plates.

Main horizontal passageways and meeting areas provide communal spaces essential to the interdisciplinary approach of the School. Glass walls line the building’s interior passages, revealing works-in-progress within studio classrooms and giving views throughout. Roof planes of concrete planks are folded up to diffuse an even north light throughout the art studios giving new expression to the prototypical artist studio skylights. In warm weather studios open up to exterior balconies.

Natural finishes and exposed materials such as concrete floors and ceilings give material character to the new building. Inventive economical construction technologies throughout the building enabled the project to stay well within the budget.

“Steven Holl surpassed our hopes and expectations for the building in every way. Walking into the new building is like walking around inside a work of art – it is truly an aesthetic experience. It is amazing how space can transform how you think and feel about your work,” said Dorothy Johnson, Director of the School of Art and Art History.

A Richard Artschwager site-specific sculpture will be installed on the terrace overlooking the pond.