New University of Iowa Visual Arts Building inspires creativity

$77 million space helping take art making to new levels

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IOWA CITY — Collaboration is everywhere these days.

Engineers are working with artists. Graphic design is merging with informatics. Cinema and dance and printmaking and painting are becoming linked in a way unprecedented until now.

And at the center of this unification of ideas and skills and education across the nation is the University of Iowa’s new Visual Arts Building. Nothing about the creation of this 126,597-square-foot space and its five floors serving nine academic programs and 1,600 students was haphazard.

The windows, screens, floors, walls and doors of the meticulously-modeled studios, workshops, galleries and classrooms all serve a purpose.

“Because this is a purpose-built building for the production of visual arts, it’s probably the best visual arts building that’s been made in the last 50 years just about anywhere,” said Steve McGuire, UI art professor and director of the Studio Arts Division in the School of Art and Art History.

The $77 million Visual Arts Building is among a handful of massive UI building projects that have come online this summer and fall after being devastated during the 2008 flood. Like the new Hancher Auditorium and Voxman Music Building, the campus’ Visual Arts Building debuted in August and already has received national attention for its inspiring architecture, green design and experimental spaces expected to inspire breakthrough work and ideas for years.

“One of the things that I think is important to understand about the value of this building, historically, is it comes at a time where undergraduate and graduate students are rethinking their composition of a university education,” McGuire said.

A decade ago, about 10 percent of UI students were double majors, he said. Today, more than 70 percent have declared two majors, and McGuire said they’re often combining science and nonscience programs.

“This building has to perform for a curriculum that enables students who have this new kind of hybrid interest and background,” McGuire said.

That means incorporating new technology into familiar visual arts techniques.

“This is, hands down, the most complex mechanical building on campus,” McGuire said. “More complex than the hospital.”

The building, for example, includes 15 kilns capable of reaching up to 2,000 degrees along with a foundry, wood shop, spray booths — all of which have to be tied into the overall ventilation system. And that system, as part of the building’s LEED silver certification status, includes an energy-recovery wheel that picks up a lot of the heating or cooling exhaust before it exits.

Also behind its elite energy-efficiency status are 67 miles of tubing filled with 20,000 gallons of treated water used to heat and cool the building, which also features 100-percent thermally active, radiant slab flooring.

The building boasts a 16,000-square-foot green roof with vegetation capable of limiting runoff during heavy rainstorms and filtering that water before it hits the river. The vegetation — which is self-maintaining — additionally provides insulation for the massive space below.

And, McGuire pointed out, “It’s a great space to paint and draw,” as some of the building’s drawing classrooms step out onto the green roof.

“What we tried to do was give freshmen students the penthouse experience,” he said. “So freshmen students take their first drawing courses in these drawing classrooms.”

Natural light, McGuire said, is “critical to the production of art.” That’s why the architects and designers worked so hard to filter that light throughout the building’s wide-open center and in the individual classrooms and workshops.

Nearly every room, in fact, receives direct sunlight. Some soaks in through screens. In other places, it pours through squared windows that conform to a specific and tested sequence.

At the center of the building’s ceiling is a massive skylight covered by a giant honeycomb-patterned sun shade that took six months to create.

“The light needs to be controlled,” McGuire said. “It can’t be direct. So the sunshade brings in the right kind of light.”

Sophie Isaak, a 26-year-old printmaking student pursuing her master’s degree, worked on a print in one of the building’s studios Wednesday without any artificial light. A friend recently photographed some of her work in the building.

“And she didn’t use any lighting of any kind,” Isaak said. “She just used the natural lighting in the building — just because it doesn’t distort colors as much. It’s more true.”

Isaak said she feels fortunate to be working in such an advanced and specifically designed space, and McGuire said he believes the building is going to benefit the university in recruiting new students to campus and its visual arts programs.

“In this building, we are able to execute art making at a level that we have not been able to as long as I’ve been a faculty member — and that’s been 27 years,” he said.

Looking up at the dynamic and seemingly flowing staircases and walkways, McGuire also commented on the aesthetic importance of the structure.

“This building needed to be a place, that when students walked in, inspired them,” he said. “It couldn’t be just a building. It had to be itself a work of art that inspired the creativity that was going to take place inside.

“And the building is exactly that.”

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