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

On DAY 8 the first stop was another building by Mies van der Rohe, the Catholic Pastoral Center, formerly the Home Federal Savings and Loan building.

Downtown Des Moines is organized by a continuous network of skywalks that connect all of the buildings at the second level. Walking through it on a Sunday morning was not unlike being a small child alone in a giant house–-I saw not a single person on a six block walk through eight or more buildings. Unfortunately, the Catholic Pastoral center was closed. The building itself is a rather petit confection, which is as compelling as a religious building (the ubiquity of the international style) as it probably was when it was used as a bank, with the sole exception of the drive through for which a practical use would appear not to have yet been found–see below.

I noticed a vintage building by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill just two blocks away. Partner Gordon Bunshaft designed the American Enterprise Insurance headquarters in 1971, and the building still looks as fresh today as it did then, the only exception being the addition of still more noteworthy exemplars of 20th century sculpture.

The building is an elevated box glazed only on its short ends, and is flanked by a pair of long side walls which taper in section as they rise, signifying the increasing structural load path to the ground, and the diminishing mechanical load rising to the top. The air handling system is fed from below, and uses the wall cavity as the vertical distribution plenum.

The immaculately landscaped site, stellar art collection, and heroic modernism worked well as an ensemble, with particular praise given to the entry courtyard, whose monumental Arnoldo Pomodoro sculpture and white marble benches combine to create a placid dignity.

Leaving Des Moines, my next stop was one of America ’s smallest, but best known, buildings among architects – the 1928 Merchant Savings Bank in Grinnell, Iowa by Louis Sullivan.

Grinnell is a small town with a nearby college, but along its five or six square blocks, Sullivan’s bank is the only building which commands attention. While the bank no longer functions–the building is now a visitors center–it dominates the street corner. I regret visiting on a Sunday morning and not having been able to see the interior, which I suspect would have provided additional context to the interiors of the courthouse in Sioux City .

The exquisite relief surrounding the ocular window on above the main entry does not disappoint. Sullivan designed a collection of these small buildings, many of them banks, late in his career after he had famously become bankrupt, lost his office and home, and had taken up residence in a dining room of Chicago’s Cliffdweller’s club on Michigan Avenue. The buildings are scattered throughout the Midwest , but among them, this one is the most notable.

The thought had occurred to me that the trip was coming to a close and I had not visited a single house by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose residential works in America, especially in the Midwest, are so well known and have become such a boon to the publishing and gift industry. Researching what buildings of his were open to the public in Iowa , I found that only two Wright buildings are open to the public, both of them houses.

The Lowell Walter House, known more commonly as “Cedar Rock” is located outside the town of Independence above the banks of the Quasqueton river. After seeing the visitors center, which was overcrowded with basswood models of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Iowa built by students at a local architecture school, visitors are taken by tractor-pulled-open-trailer down a long driveway to the house, which is sited on a bluff with a nearby outdoor lawn suited for parties and a nearby combined boathouse and guesthouse (Figure 8.8).

Belonging to the “Usonian” phase, the house purported to be of a type intended to be affordable to all Americans and able to be built for a more modest budget than those of his more wealthy clients. The house plan is a long bar, characteristic of all of the houses of this type, with no garage, overhanging eaves, a tiny bedrooms with built in furniture, and a taller, more extravagant living room whose configuration, furnishings, view to the river, and scale, lend themselves more towards collective gathering. The house was willed to the State of Iowa after the Walters’ deaths.

The final architectural stop of the trip was at British architect David Chipperfield’s other American building, the Figge Museum, in Davenport, Iowa, just across the river from Illinois on the state’s westernmost border in an area known as the “quad cities” (Rock Island/Davenport/Moline/Bettendorf.)

Arriving 30 minutes before closing left only the briefest time in which to visit the collection, which was displayed in a building of enormous proportions. The floor to floor heights in the museum were so large I wondered if an additional mezzanine floor had been squeezed vertically between the gallery floors. Configured as a vast glazed vitrine, the building’s exterior glass is the covering of a second interior skin that is alternately transparent (more glass) or opaque (perforated metal, drywall) depending on the programmatic functions contained within.

It is successfully sited with a view of the river, and is set across from a large park and–somewhat crassly–an enormous riverboat casino complex. A sloping entry plaza leads visitors from the land side into a public lobby, which opens out onto a terrace and grand stair descending down to the park level. An active railroad track just to the east of the building contributes to the working industrial character of both the building and its riverfront context.

The tower on the riverside contains the travelling exhibition gallery, and is connected via monumental staircase to the main exhibitions on the piano nobile. Ascending and descending this staircase, with its views of the river, of Illinois , and of the vast interior with its lofty ceiling height, is the project’s most outstanding and memorable spatial experience.

I struggled to comprehend why the building itself was so large, and have yet to find a more convincing notion than: “Build it and they will come” (and we will eventually grow into it.) Physically one assumes that the institution will one day fit perfectly within. Perhaps the Figge’s trustees opted to distribute their limited construction budget across a larger volume rather than more costly finishes. The galleries and public spaces express a preference for the merely functional over the ceremonial or extravagant.

I arrived in Chicago at 9pm having traveled 358 miles that day. The long, tall skyline clearly and dramatically marked the conclusion of my eight day journey.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

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

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