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I.M. Pei and the Des Moines Art Center Design

posted on March 20, 2010 at 11:03 AM


Three of the world's most famous architects lent their vision to the Des Moines Art Center: Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier. Saarinen led the group with the first building in 1948.

Wes Shank: Eliel Saarinen was a world known architect and Finn by birth had built noteworthy buildings by the turn of the century in Finland. When the Des Moines Art Center was being planned there was a discussion on the board as to whether they should have a design that is good and competent for the time or something forward looking. And the latter viewpoint prevailed and that was the reason for bringing in Eliel Saarinen, who by that time had left Finland and he was, had settled in Michigan and he was part of a school of design in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Eliot Nusbaum: They invited him to submit a design for the museum and he came up with a very modest, very low slung building that was very quiet, not the kind of building you would think is going to have a profound effect on architecture in Des Moines, but it did.

In the 1960s, leaders of the Des Moines Art Center wanted additional room for indoor displays of large 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 IM 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.

I.M. Pei was famous at the time of his selection, and also designed the Pyramid addition to the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, among others.

Dan Naegele: He 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.

In the 1980s, the Des Moines Art Center expanded again, and once again chose an outside influence for its design. The architect this time was Richard Meier. His design's bold white curves and numerous windows added a whole new dimension to the area.

David Kruidenier: I was chair of the selection committee for that addition and a little more formal organization that it had been for the Pei wing. And we drew up a list of top-notch architects, really some of the very best and they were all eager to participate because the combination of Saarinen and Pei was such a great thing for an architect to be connected with that they were eager to get the commission.

Dan Naegele: That addition was really a kind of high point of architecture at the time, a very, very prominent piece.

The Meier complex is itself vertical, it goes into an almost sunken basement level and has a tremendous vertical space in it, very particular kind of gallery where light is really the essence of the interior environment, light coming in from very different angles. And I think the scale of that addition is quite wonderful.

It holds very, very beautifully the kind of artwork that is installed there now. Of course, that is a selection on the curator's part but I think that the museum is of the right size, the interior spaces are crafted in such a way that they show off the pieces to their greatest advantage but at the same time there is a sort of magnificent interior daylight to this...

It's vivacious, it's alive, it changes all the time, which for me as I go back time and time again to that gallery is wonderful because I never see the same thing twice.

Eliot Nusbaum: In the end I think it's proven to be a wise choice and certainly Meier's stature in the world, specifically museum design, is pretty unparalleled.

Different as the styles of the three wings of the Des Moines Art Center are, they work together as a whole.

Paul Mankins: The Des Moines Art Center is not just one masterpiece but a collection of masterpieces by master architects in Des Moines. Really Iowa is lucky to have that as an architectural resource and I think virtually any architect in the United States, that's a good test, if he doesn't know the Des Moines Art Center, not to be trusted.

Dan Naegele: I think the Des Moines Art Center is a kind of pilgrimage place for architects. It's some place that architects come to when they come to Iowa.

Tags: architecture art Des Moines design education Iowa