Visual Arts Building, University Of Iowa


Iwan Baan

Juxtaposing the University of Iowa’s classical architecture, the Visual Arts Building by Steven Holl Architects is a beacon of contemporary design, and a thoroughly unique addition to the city’s urban landscape.

Af Finn MacLeod

At first glance, the humble state of Iowa, located in the heart of the American Midwest, might seem an unlikely location for the work of starchitects. Home to just over three million residents spread across a handful of small cities, the state is one of the least populated in the United States. Largely driven by agriculture and academia, the state has maintained a relatively tame architectural landscape-until now.

In recent years, Iowa has drawn the attention of starchitects from all over the world, with the 2016 completion of an Iowa City arts center designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli, and a Renzo Piano-designed corporate headquarters for Kum & Go, a local chain of convenience stores, now under construction in Des Moines. Curiously, the design competition for Kum & Go’s modest five-story Iowan headquarters attracted a handful of internationally renowned practices: Bjarke Ingels Group, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Morphosis, Safdie Architects, SOM, and Renzo Piano.

Enter Steven Holl Architects, designers of Iowa’s latest architectural gem: the recently-opened Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa. The capstone of Steven Holl Architects’ fifteen-year relationship with the university, the Visual Arts Building is the firm’s second addition to the campus and its most striking yet. Opened in late 2016 and located adjacent to Holl’s first arts building for the university, which opened in 2006, the new Visual Arts Building completes the university’s vision for a creative nexus on the campus. A pixelated, ethereal silver cloud, the building appears as if materializing from a receding fog.

Asymmetrical, jagged, and vibrant, the building is everything its predecessors were not. Replacing an outdated 1936 temple-like visual arts building, the building ushers in a new era for the university, injecting energy into the campus while reinforcing the institution’s role as a progressive, visionary academic leader in the region. Clad in a facade of translucent panels, the building glows like a lantern with windows placed strategically to optimize views of its lush surroundings. Composed of a myriad of volumes reaching in all directions, the building activates its surroundings while remaining modest on the subdued campus. Eschewing tradition in favor of stark futurism, the building establishes an exciting precedent for designing and programming academic buildings tailored to the creative arts.

Designed using Holl’s hallmark porous style, the building takes on an unlikely shape to create a sense of animation and connectivity between spaces. A sponge-like design, the building is made unique by seven strategically placed subtracted spaces incorporated to bring daylight to every corner. Described by the designers as creating “multiple centers of light,” the spaces serve a dual role as nodes of activity in the building’s far-flung recesses. Outside, the subtracted spaces become public terraces, simultaneously facilitating the building’s subtle natural ventilation system.

Anchored by a soaring five-story atrium, the building emphasizes circulation while offering ample opportunities for spontaneous working and casual conversation. Conceived as tangents to the building’s core, unprogrammed spaces are its lifeblood, offering unlikely venues for creative expression. Described by Holl as “vertical social condensers,” the building’s sweeping staircases serve as the centerpiece of the design, envisioned as places to host more than just movement between floors. A thoroughly flexible facility, the visual arts building responds to the practical needs of students and educators while encouraging its constituents to devise new uses and commandeer its nooks and crannies.

Introducing dozens of purpose-built spaces to accommodate the ever-expanding arsenal of media used by visual arts students, the building includes bespoke areas for everything from ancient metalsmithing techniques to the most advanced virtual reality technologies. An architectural wunderkammer, the building accommodates ceramics, 3D design, metal arts and jewelry, sculpture, printmaking, painting and drawing, graphic design, intermedia, video art, and photography. Further addressing the ever-changing needs of visual arts education, the building encourages collaboration between disciplines through its interconnected plan designed to foster mixed-media artwork.

As creative as the artists it serves, the Visual Arts building strikes a delicate balance between beauty and practicality through its unique use of material and texture, daylight integration, and programming optimized for decades of creative endeavors. Challenged to respond to and program for a creative practice constantly in flux, Steven Holl Architects have realized a multi-tool and future-proof building befitting of the university’s growing visual arts curricula.

Country and City

Iowa City


Steven Holl Architects


BNIM Architects