Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories at the University of Iowa, by Frank O. Gehry Architects
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories at the University of Iowa, by Frank O. Gehry Architects

American campuses include the most significant contributions this country has made to the storehouse of architecture. The creation of a world apart that, in the best examples, is still open to the human-made and natural environment around it; one that architecture helps to define as a place of learning, reflection, and community, is a powerful model for how we could build better places. Last week, I commented on two modern examples of such campuses, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Drake University. However, what concerns me is that, with rare exceptions, the movement now is away from such texture buildings and towards objects.

The good news is that some of those stand-alone monuments are quite beautiful, and have their own lessons to teach. After we left Colorado and Nebraska behind, Richard Quittenton and I visited the University of Iowa in Iowa City. There I had a chance to see a project authored by Frank Gehry, FAIA, and completed in 1992, the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories (IATL). Designed right when the architect was experimenting with the stack of forms that would lead him to the triumph of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao a few years later, the IATL is a (slightly worn) sprawl of metallic boxes spreading out towards the river.

Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories at the University of Iowa, by Frank O. Gehry Architects
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories at the University of Iowa, by Frank O. Gehry Architects

The main part of the IATL's composition consists of a stack of rectangles that develops from tall and vertical at the top and rear down to horizontal by the river. Flanking this pyramid are a darker, curved volume on one side, and a “bottle” form on the other, all glued together with more volumes and held together to the rear by a long, thin, stone-clad backbone. What makes the whole work is not just the masterful balance of this building-sized still-life, but also the detailing of the metal skin—which Gehry and his team developed from fish scales—and the proportions of each piece and even each window, which seems to stretch and push so that everything about the IATL just looks a bit grander.

The complexity of the whole preserves the human scale even while the IATL reaches towards making an argument for the beauty and importance of science, but the interior has few of these qualities beyond a few well-placed windows and slots of space. This is partially the result of cost cutting during the construction process, but neither Gehry nor the University had much interest in the inside spaces to start. This was to be and is a monument to the institution’s ambitions, which just happens to house equipment and the people who work with that machinery.

School of Art & Art History, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy Aaron Betsky School of Art & Art History, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects

A decade and a half later, Steven Holl, FAIA, created a very different kind of monument across the river from the IATL. The School of Art & Art History, finished in 2006 (and flooded in 2008, causing severe damage) is in many ways as complex as the IATL, though it is in many ways also its opposite. Here the bits and pieces—while also made out of metal and glass—are as dark and as jarring in the way they meet each other as the IATL is silvery and slick. Holl has made a building that shows all of its pieces as purposefully out of scale and form with each other. The classrooms stack up to a saw-toothed line of skylights above the studios, but the lecture halls and offices curve and contort themselves, while the library leaps out in a cantilever parallel to the river and a rock outcropping behind the School.

Windows cut and slide the volumes even more, and roofs and pieces of wall continue past the volumes. It is clear that this is a building that wants to open up and question its own being. That exuberance and imbalance continues on the interior, where staircases corkscrew up and beyond the library, windows let in light and view at unexpected angles, and volumes curve past bits and pieces of structure.

School of Art & Art History, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy Aaron Betsky School of Art & Art History, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects

Next to his original School of Art, Holl is designing a second building for the arts faculty, the Visual Arts Building. It was not quite finished when I visited, so all you can see is the ways in which Holl, in his latest mode of designing, has created a block he then carved away to create a sliced, tortured block of translucent glass. It promises to be a compact version of his earlier effort, though it is not clear what the interior effects will be.

Visual Arts Building, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy Aaron Betsky Visual Arts Building, University of Iowa, by Steven Holl Architects

Richard asked me what I thought these three buildings meant. My glib answer was that the Gehry design exploded the solid forms that usually enclose academic structures, the first Holl building picked up the pieces and started to reassemble them, and the second Holl effort put them back into the box, but one now tortured and contorted by the difficulty of containing both function and ideas in a simple form. It is perhaps too neat a line, but I was struck by the fact that we still want to make form, however difficult that might be. I wish we would make more texture, more pattern, and more interventions and additions rather than new forms.

“But they are beautiful, aren’t they?” Richard asked.

Yes, they are, and if the American campus, with whatever funding and devotion to excellence it has left, can still produce such beauty, there is hope it will soon break those boxes again and now continue the task of building a true campus.