Iowa Says "you Will Respect My Architectura!", Op/Ed piece
Apr 2 2006, 01:15 AM
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From the Des Moines Register:
Architecture 'elegantly - and appropriately - simple'
March 31, 2006
This state capital in Iowa's cornfields can startle with its flashes of sophistication. Stroll downtown Des Moines' skybridges, and you bump into buildings by the likes of Daniel Burnham and Helmut Jahn. The art museum boasts wings by such modern masters as I.M. Pei. Now Des Moines has something fresh to crow about: A copper-hued Central Library, where London architect David Chipperfield has wrung good design out of a budget that could have produced something dreadful.
The two-story, $32.3 million building, which opens Saturday, is imaginatively conceived as a library in a park, one that should make visitors inside feel as though they are practically sitting outdoors. Its crisply-handled, light-filled interior promises to function well, but doesn't pack much in the way of spatial and emotional punch. Nor is the park itself anything to write home about.
In other words, this is a good building, but not a great one like Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas' Seattle central library, which dazzled with a boldly sculpted exterior and innovative interior when it opened two years ago. But there's still a place for modesty in library design (indeed in all architecture), and Chipperfield is the right man for that brief. He's the anti-starchitect - disdainful of spectacle for spectacle's sake; the purveyor of a serene, if straight-laced, minimalism that fortunately shows signs of loosening up.
Credit for the project also goes to the library's director, Kay Runge, and the associate architects, Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunk of Des Moines, who collaborated with Chipperfield on the recently completed Figge Art Museum in Davenport.
Located near Iowa's tallest skyscraper, a postmodern tower called 801 Grand, the library sits at the east end of a five-block-long park that has supplanted a scruffy assortment of car dealerships and apartment houses on the west edge of downtown. Conceived as a gateway to the downtown, the emerging park is among the far-sighted improvements that visiting New York City architect Mario Gandelsonas suggested to civic leaders here more than a decade ago.
Though much of the park is now barren and unused, it should provide a framework for orderly, rather than haphazard, growth, much as New York's Central Park did as tall buildings swept northward from the original Dutch settlement at the tip of Manhattan.
The move is as sweepingly grand as the riverfront ensemble of Beaux-Arts civic buildings and bridges that Des Moines leaders built roughly a century ago, following the "White City" model of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But it represents a distinctly contemporary vision of public space, one in which buildings interact with their surroundings rather than stand haughtily above them.
Bringing in pedestrians
The library itself sprawls more than 500 feet from end to end, its free-form wings pinwheeling into the park and wrapping around a delightfully eccentric old Masonic temple to its south that's been converted into a lively performing arts center. If you could look straight down at the library from a helicopter, it would resemble a jet, complete with nose, wing, fuselage and tail. Yet this is not an arbitrary, attention-getting shape.
By disposing of the classical model of the block-like temple set atop a podium, Chipperfield endeavors to route pedestrians directly through his glassy lobby. His building becomes a bridge, one that links the dense commercial core of downtown with the open civic space of the park. A fold on the building's north side makes room for a drive-in area, one that includes drop-off and pick-up windows for books, and the entry to an underground parking garage.
The building's unusual contours also carve out intimate outdoor spaces, including a pocket park between the library and the old temple. Far from being incongruous, the stylistic contrast between the library and the temple daringly expresses the tensions of urban life, revealing how architecture makes time visible like layers of geologic strata.
There's a catch, of course, to the promise that the library will become a vibrant center of community. It isn't connected to the skybridges, those climate-controlled but antiseptic tubes that ride over the deserted streets, linking one building to another and making downtown Des Moines feel like a giant indoor mall. To get to it, people will either have to drive or do something really unusual here: Walk along the sidewalk.
However visitors arrive, they stand to be rewarded by the library's architecture, which is elegantly - and appropriately - simple.
Confronted with a budget that verged on the miserly, Chipperfield did the right thing: He made just a couple of moves to generate architectural bang. The first is the building's free-form shape. The second is its unusual color, which comes from an energy-saving skin of copper mesh sandwiched between two large panes of glass. The library also has a so-called green roof, whose plantings will save energy and help the building blend into the park when it's seen from above.
As you draw near, these features separate the library from the banality of the low-slung office buildings it superficially resembles. The building suggests a sculpted wedge of copper - not quite as sculptural as Chipperfield originally intended, but still alluring, its walls gracefully wandering around the park like a metallic curtain. While the walls appear disconcertingly impenetrable during the day, they transform at night into delicately transparent screens, giving the library a presence that verges on the ethereal.
Once inside the library (which has DVDs, videos, fiction and a children's room on the first floor, with non-fiction offerings on the second), visitors are in for a pleasant surprise - and, perhaps, some disappointment if they are expecting grand reading rooms or lobbies.
As if to compensate for the building's money-saving spatial simplicity, Chipperfield arranges things to open up vistas from wherever you are. By some miracle of physics and optics, the copper-mesh walls become utterly transparent, offering views of the park both day and night. Metal book stacks run perpendicular to the walls, allowing additional glimpses into the park. The perimeter is ringed with seating areas, furnished with sleekly modern tables and chairs that complement the architecture. Throughout, the fit between form and function is better than at the Figge Art Museum, where Chipperfield's architecture is better attuned to the site than the art.
Unfortunately, the views outside the library are hardly inspiring, and not just because they take in a porn shop to the building's north. At least in its present state, the landscaping is visually predictable, its broad expanses of grass and curving pathways resembling a suburban office park.
To be fair to the landscape architects, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca of Portland, Ore., and Substance architects of Des Moines, the budget was tight, and the greenery will get better with time, as landscapes inevitably do. Chess tables designed by Minneapolis artist Siah Armajani, due to be installed in the pocket park between the library and the old temple, should enliven the bland space both visually and socially.
Despite the disappointing views, the library's interior manages to be pleasantly loft-like, not harshly industrial. Bright wall colors (kiwi, baby blue and squash) play off exposed concrete columns and ceilings. Sleek black stairwells join the two floors with elan. First-floor meeting rooms and a cafe promote the library's identity as a community center, not simply a temple of learning.
This is the right way to enter the 21st century. Even in today's world, when the two-dimensional computer screen is becoming the dominant form of communication, people still seem to harbor a primal instinct to gather in real, live three-dimensional space. But the new library turns out to be no concrete cave. Chipperfield has creatively harnessed his minimalist architecture to the task of overcoming a minimal budget. Here, at least most of the time, less is more. What more could anyone ask?
BLAIR KAMIN, the Chicago Tribune's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, was a reporter and architecture critic for the Register from 1984-87.
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