The University of Iowa’s replacement for a flood-damaged building contains seven vertical cutouts that create light-filled interior pockets
By Samantha Schwirck
In 1935, the University of Iowa’s School of Art and Art History established its first official home on campus. With a design based on Palladian villas, the building would become an anchor for the university’s expanding arts campus, with several more buildings added in subsequent years, including Art Building West (ABW) in 2006.
Designed by Steven Holl Architects (SHA), ABW received numerous awards—including the RIBA International Award and the AIA Honor Award—only to be damaged two years later by the Iowa Flood of 2008.
ABW wasn’t the flood’s only casualty. The 1935 Art Building took a hit as well. So when the architects finished repairing ABW, they pivoted to its oldest neighbor. The historic building, however, had been damaged beyond repair—at least for the art program’s needs—prompting the team to pivot once again. Instead of repairing the building, SHA set out to replace it with a modern facility that could continue to anchor the arts campus moving forward—this time from a new location more than 2 ft above the 500-year flood line.
L’Observatoire International, New York City, provided concept-design services for the project, proposing a lighting solution that could be sensed in a space without dominating it. The facility would provide 126,000-sq ft of loft-like space for all visual-arts media, from ancient metalsmithing to advanced virtual reality, including ceramics, sculpture, jewelry and photography departments, and also house galleries, faculty offices and teaching spaces. The building was designed to complement the directly adjacent ABW, which is arranged horizontally and defined by a porous aesthetic. “[For the new building], the architects had a vision of vertical porosity allowing for an abundance of natural light while promoting interdisciplinary connection between several departments,” says electrical engineer Eric Bruxvoort of Design Engineers.
To achieve the porous visual, the square volume of the four-level building contains seven vertical cutouts—exterior carvings that, when viewed from above, resemble those of a puzzle piece—as well as a central interior atrium (Figure 1). SHA compares the resulting experience to walking through a sponge. Balconies and glass partitions at various openings enable students to see activity on the other side of each cutout. Further, the design incorporates shifted floor plates at each level, visible within the openings where the layers overlap.
“The geometry and form of the structure assist in encouraging creativity and collaboration among the students and faculty,” says Bruxvoort, whose team was responsible for incorporating proper task lighting without minimizing the architectural effect. “Many tasks within the VAB require high levels of uniform lighting to perform minute and detailed projects, while other tasks require shadowing and contrast dependent on a high level of lighting controls to create the right atmosphere,” Bruxvoort says. “The lighting had to be functional without being the focal point—the inspiring architecture and corresponding works of art produced within the facility were to be the priority.
“The Visual Arts Building has several hidden treasures of curved walls and unique geometry within this clean setting,” Bruxvoort explains. “Finding fixtures that allowed us to meet these goals but still be highly maintainable and efficient was the biggest challenge.” Additionally, the VAB is believed to be one of the first buildings in the Western Hemisphere to use a punched- or voided-concrete material for its structural frame. Large black bubbles cast into the slab cut the weight of the concrete in half. The technique enabled in-slab tubing for geothermal heating and cooling, but also required close coordination when integrating mechanical and electrical building systems, including lighting.
The building’s main circulation space, a winding four-story atrium, is capped by a large skylight with a fixed shading device designed to admit the optimal amount of daylight while minimizing solar gain. Here, Design Engineers added scattered, concrete-formed 3000K downlights and linear asymmetrical 3500K wall-wash fixtures to “create a contrasting style of pools of light on the atrium floor versus evenly illuminated walls for displaying art,” Bruxvoort says. All of the atrium fixtures are accessible for maintenance, and downlights contain simple screw-in LED lamps for quick change-outs.
Translucent glass partitions along walls adjacent to the atrium enhance connections among the various spaces. Integrated cove fixtures uplight the dividers with gentle, refracted light. “This was another way to help bring the feel of daylighting into the interior in a natural and soft way,” Bruxvoort says.
The lighting strategy shifts in classrooms and studios, where continuous linear luminaires with 90% (down), 10% (up) direct/indirect distribution maximize footcandles at the work surface and provide uniform illumination for tasks. “Lensed fixtures were selected for the dirtier workshop areas, but also installed in a linear fashion to be cohesive with the studios and classrooms,” Bruxvoort adds. “The robust lens allows for wiping down or rinsing and protection against accidental damage.” Both fixture types are 3500K to blend with daylight.
Track heads complement linear fixtures in studios and common spaces, making every wall a gallery. “The 3000K LEDs better match traditional art
and museum incandescent temperature,” Bruxvoort says. “Two wattage sizes were selected dependent on ceiling/mounting height, and multiple lens insert options allow for user adjustability.”
Lighting levels automatically change based on available daylight, with a networked system enabling local and remote programming. “The networked control gave [the university] a high level of flexibility for time control and/or occupancy sensor control depending on what made sense for each space,” Bruxvoort says. “There are several layers of lighting: art display, pathway, classrooms/workshops and private studios or offices. Nearly all the areas have multiple levels of control to allow for the users to meet their individual needs.”
Fixtures that turn on when daylight vanishes provide more than task lighting for students working inside. During the day, the building’s exterior looks windowless due to a perforated zinc screening that covers windows to modulate southern light entering studios. That changes at night, when interior illumination shines out through the screens, transforming what appeared to be a single sculptural volume into a series of glowing rectangles that SHA likens to “fuzzy Mark Rothko-like light paintings on the façade.”
The building exterior also includes 450 linear ft of handrail lighting and 10 bollards with a color temperature of 4000K, the university’s standard for exterior fixtures. Both contribute to safety without distracting from the nighttime scene, while warmer cove lighting on fritted glass makes the main entrance inviting. “Multiple lengths allowed the fixtures to efficiently follow the curve of the glass, and a 10- by 60-deg beam spread provides even illumination in both horizontal and vertical directions,” Bruxvoort says.
While the university still hopes to preserve the 1935 Art Building—and potentially adapt it for a different use—the new Visual Arts Building has proven a worthy replacement. Since its opening in 2016, SHA has again received numerous awards for its architecture and in 2018, Design Engineers and L’Observatoire earned an IES Illumination Award of Merit for its lighting design.