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The art of engagement: wrapped in a skin of steel and glass, this new faculty building for young artists is a dynamic social matrix.

The historic core of the University of Iowa campus is integrated into the city grid, while across the river to the west, where the grid is disrupted by the natural forms of limestone bluffs, the campus plan is more organic. The School of Art and Art History, designed by Steven Holl Architects, seeks to reconcile these different underlying ordering systems through the concept of formlessness. Inspired by an analysis of modern art by Rosalind Krauss and Yves Alain Bois, the scheme '... explores "formless" geometries in its disposition of spaces and combinations of routes'.*

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Built in 1936, the original school of art is part of a constellation of cultural facilities for the university, including the theatre and art museum, arrayed along the west bank of the river. The university designated a site for the new building that was thought to be the last buildable area in this part of the campus. However, when Holl began work on the project in 1999, design studies showed the difficulty of creating the desired campus connections on the designated site, and they proposed a move to a nearby neglected piece of ground defined by a pond and the overgrown rock face of a former quarry. Here, the building could relate directly to the existing school across a green and, like Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center, could become a node of significant campus circulation routes.

What appears to be a simple L-shaped building in plan is complex in section, with one wing grounded and the other an elevated pier over the water. At the knuckle of the L, the form swells to mark the principal entrance from gently curving Riverside Drive, a major vehicular route on the campus. From this entrance, a public pedestrian path extends through the building on the ground floor, 1200mm above grade, to a second entrance from parking to the west. This internal circulation--flanked by a gallery, cafe, classrooms, the visual resource centre and administrative offices--overlooks a parallel external path that ramps down and widens to create a deck with seating at the water's edge. Combined with a third pedestrian route along the north facade, these paths enable the building to relate to the existing art building and museum across the street and to play a key role in linking the main campus to the east with student residences further west.

Complementing the movement of people at ground level, a toplit void, dubbed the 'forum,' extends the public invitation vertically. The walls surrounding this void serve as an open informal gallery, which is also the foyer for the auditorium, an experimental media theatre and the library on the first floor, all of which are used by the school and others in the university and the broader community. Faculty offices are placed along the north facade. The top level of the building is dedicated to studios for painting, drawing and digital media. The focus of the forum is a dynamic stair designed to be a social condenser. Made of folded steel plate and suspended on rods, this stair energetically shifts and transforms as it ascends, providing generous places to meet, linger and chat.

The spatial and programmatic overlap within the central void also operates to interlock the faces of the building with the campus and the natural landscape. At the outset of the project, to explore the notion of indeterminate spaces and edges, the architects produced studies of folded planes that could suggest, but not completely enclose space. Presented to the art and art history faculty through comparison with Picasso's Guitar of 1913, this strategy was enthusiastically embraced.

The north facade, by the campus path, is the most formally composed of the building's faces with modular bays of translucent glass channels held by thin projecting planes of steel. The south facade overlooking the pond is more contingent, with clear glazing deeply recessed and the projecting planar frames folded in response to landscape. The elevated wing seems at first sight to be a pure cubic volume, but it too is manipulated, rising from the body of the building to its cantilevered end--an adjustment that, like entasis, is an optical correction to lighten its appearance. Folded planes wrap library study areas that look to the limestone bluff and step up to the cantilevered double-height reading room, which frames views in all directions. The roof plane is cut and folded to admit north light to top-floor studios. At the building corners, instead of a volumetric reading, one face is privileged over another by extension and the expression of its thin planar character.

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The building is thoughtfully structured conceptually and physically. Through careful interpretation of the code and the use of sprinklers, the steel structure does not require fire protection. Steel beams run east-west, creating open-ended linear layers that support precast concrete planks, the thinnest possible planar floor. In the grounded wing of the library where stacks are concentrated, this structure works in compression. Rather than being rigidly ordered, beams transform from a straight line in the north through a series of increasingly cranked lines to the south. Like ripples on water, the structure echoes the distinction between the geometric composition of the north facade and the organic order of the south. In contrast, the raised wing of the library is suspended on slender steel plate hangers from storey-height trusses, which are exposed in the digital media classrooms above and supported by asymmetrically placed piers in the water.

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The concept of overlap is reflected in the integration of the building's structural and servicing systems. Instead of the ubiquitous suspended ceiling, the hollow cores of the 300mm thick exposed precast concrete planks are utilised as ducts and conduits for pipes and cables. Specially developed sleeves provide continuity when planks are laid end to end, and the system is coordinated so that air diffusers, sprinkler heads and electrical junction boxes can all use the same 150mm diameter hole, which is site-drilled into the underside of the planks.

The strategy that privileges the planar over the volumetric is reiterated in the thin sheet materials of the building's skin. The translucent glass channels of the north facade, understood conceptually as folded planes, are punctured by operable windows held in steel frames cantilevered from the floor. The gasketed curtain wall system is modified to use slender steel plates internally instead of typical broader aluminium box sections. The 3mm thick weathering steel cladding is designed as an open-jointed rainscreen of 900 x 3000mm modules that have been digitally fabricated. Vertical aluminium channels with pins are fixed to threaded stainless-steel studs welded to the back face of the panels; these are hooked into slotted vertical channels held by cleats screwed to the sheathing of the back-up wall. The decision to provocatively site the building in close proximity to the water and the limestone quarry face is reinforced by this material palette. Glass and steel envelop an assemblage that becomes formless through translucency and reflection, and indeterminate through the patina of weathering. The quarry, exposed by the actions of man, is now once again overtaken by nature. Similarly, the repetitive modules of the building skin, precisely laid up in running bond, are not merely a human construct but also a canvas on which nature is at work, rendering ambiguous the boundary between the real and representation, and between nature and the artifact.

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* Steven Holl, Hybrid Instrument (School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa), 2006, p6.
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Author:Lecuyer, Annette
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1251
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