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I.M. Pei Architecture in Des Moines

posted on April 2, 2010 at 1:37 PM

I.M. Pei is one of three high-profile architects responsible for the Des Moines Art Center. This is the story of how he was selected for that job, and how his design was received at the time.

The 1960s list has one more major building that made a big impact on its community. It's an addition to the Des Moines Art Center that allowed for indoor displays of larger modern sculptures. Once again, the Art Center decided to look for a nationally or internationally famous architect.

Building committee chairman David Kruidenier said the selection of I.M. Pei came easily, and they were glad of their choice from their first meeting.

David Kruidenier:

He looked at some photographs we had and we explained the material that the original Saarinen building was made out of and showed him a floor plan and he said, "Well I'm going to put some tracing paper over this, these blueprints and here is where this building should go and here is the kind of material it should be made of and here is the way it should look, it shouldn't try and repeat exactly the earlier building but it should reflect some of the same material that is in the original building."

And so he ground up this stone and put it into an aggregate and so on. All of this in a matter of just a few minutes. I couldn't believe it and I walked out of there pretty much with the plan of the building as it was built, very hard to believe.

The Pei addition is considered a work of art in its own right.

Dan Naegele: In the 1960's when they wanted to add onto the building they hired IM Pei who was probably at the high point of his career at the time. He went on to build many famous buildings in the 70's and early 80's but I think that those buildings are very conservative compared to the buildings that he did in the 60's.

The Des Moines Art Center is one of those buildings and a wonderful large, poured in place, somewhat brutal gallery space that was the kind of space that would have been very appealing to abstract expressionist artists from America at the time. That addition was really a kind of high point of architecture at the time, a very, very prominent piece.

The Pei wing faces a park with rolling hills along with a rose garden. Some say that there's a secret message in the building's south windows.

Kate Schwennsen: Oh, well that's probably not a very good one. But one of my favorite interior spaces -- the Des Moines Art Center I'm sure you've heard is a favorite of many and it is a favorite of mine also, particularly the Pei wing, the sculpture wing that backs up to the rose garden.

The elevation of the outside that spells his name but he says no it doesn't. When you stand in the rose garden and look at -- nobody else has told you this? Oh, you have to go stand in the rose garden in Greenwood Park and look at the Pei wing at the elevation and see what you see. It's like a giant sign but he has always said, no, I didn't put my name on that side of the building.

Either way, the architect was so well respected that some comments he made during his time in Des Moines have been having an impact on civic leaders ever since.

David Kruidenier: Well, I got well acquainted with IM and he come back to Des Moines and one day we were walking around downtown and he said, where is the gathering place for this town? Where do people collect for public events? Where do things start or stop?

And I said well, I don't know, the only thing I could show him was the grass in front of the Polk County Courthouse. Well, he and I knew that that was no answer. He said, every great city in the world has an open public space, Hyde Park in London and Central Park in New York and so on.

And so not too many years later when we were doing the Civic Center and I was chairman of that I said, here is a time to put in a public space. And selling that was not easy because we were taking important commercial space and putting trees on it and grass and water and there were some people who had trouble understanding how you could do that. But we prevailed anyway and that is how it happened that we have Nollen Plaza.

Tags: architecture buildings Des Moines design history Iowa