A Tour of Space(s) between Chicago and San Francisco

On the morning of DAY 7 I visited the Joslyn Memorial; the 1994 addition by British High-Tech architect Norman Foster is his first built work in the United States.

The memorial is a fortress-like art deco block similar in character to Kansas City’s Nelson Atkins museum, but smaller. Like the Kansas City museum, the museum has a comprehensive curatorial mission, and represents a surprisingly diverse cross section of arts and sculpture from America , Europe and Asia .

Foster’s addition is located asymmetrically to the north side of the main building and clad in the same pink, vibrantly veined stone as the original building–one presumes from the same quarry given the quality of the match.

There is a single level of tall gallery spaces capped with north facing skylights, located above a single level of café, bathrooms, service areas, and loading. As an addition the spaces were quite successful and gallery spaces pleasing. The beautifully glazed multistory atrium/link which separates/connects the two structures appears however to have been junked up by the museum staff in subsequent years to a level that is as regrettable as it is hard to imagine

The only curatorially successful result of this is an appropriately grandly scaled glass sculpture by the spectacularly overexposed (and in the opinion of this humble reporter, monumentally overrated) Tacoma, Washington based Glass Artist Dale Chihuly, whose work I hope never to have to see again. I was repeatedly assured however by the museum staff in Omaha that this piece was “truly remarkable” and really “came to life” at night.

The museum is in the process of building a new exterior sculpture garden on the east front, not designed by Lord Norman Foster, but by his associate architects for the addition. One hopes that the results will be as compelling, but given the state of construction during my visit, remained difficult to tell.

A long drive followed, arriving at the outskirts of Des Moines around 2pm, where I was soon at the infamous Des Moines Art Center with its rambling assemblage of buildings by three architects at three distinct time periods. It is a remarkable collection/intersection of both art and architecture. Arriving around 3:30pm, I had less than 90 minutes to see the entire complex.

The original building was built from a design by Finnish expatriate Eliel Saarinen, who emigrated to the United States after having placed as a finalist in the Chicago Tribune tower competition. He was subsequently named director of the Cranbrook academy in Bloomfield Hills , Michigan . The museum made the decision when hiring Saarinen to hire the best architectural practioner of the time. This philosophy guided subsequent commissions for expansions of the Saarinen building, first by I.M. Pei in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and later by Richard Meier in the 1980’s. Each building is an exemplar of the guiding architectural paradigm of their decade, but of the three, it is Pei ’s work which steals the show. It is the starkness of the space which resonates, not only with the minimalist sculpture displayed within, but with the structural and material reductivism which limits the building’s material palette to only concrete and glass. A dramatic roof and expansive views out to the surrounding park make this building the paradigm of a trio of his works from this period, including the Herbert F. Johnson museum at Cornell University and the Everson Museum in Syracuse , New York .

Having viewed the remarkable collection of art in all of the galleries, I headed downtown to visit David Chipperfield’s Des Moines Public Library.

The building is a dynamic lightning bolt in plan, rendered entirely in a unique triple glazed window wall, within which is laminated a screen of bright copper mesh to mitigate direct solar gain. I imagine that such a bright and shimmering apparition as the building is in the day has the potential to be even more compelling when lit from within at night when it must “glow like a lantern”. Disappointed not to have been able to go inside, I headed to nearby Drake University to see three other buildings, which I also could not enter.

One was a classroom building by Mies van der Rohe (shown above); the other two were a classroom/chapel and dormitory by Eero Saarinen, son of Eliel.

The classroom/chapel is a relative of his work at MIT, in which a top-lit brick cylinder is placed in opposition to a larger, more elemental building block, here with fewer sectional gymnastics through which to admit light.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

    Loved this post. This is a trip I must take.

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