Holl does not shy away from the firm’s signature style in the Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa. The building, designed in collaboration with sustainability specialist BNIM, comprises spaces for interdisciplinary learning of the visual arts, as well as galleries, faculty offices, teaching facilities and an outdoor rooftop studio. Steven Holl Architects’ new design adds to the university’s ‘arts quad’ alongside the 2006 School of Art and Art History, also designed by the firm. This is matched by the volumetric composition of the new Visual Arts Building.

The firm cites five key aims as responsible for the architecture of the new building: interconnection between arts disciplines; multiple (seven, to be precise) ‘centres of light’ that punctuate the building; vertical and horizontal circulation, with stairs as ‘social condensers’ and corridors as meeting spaces; the effectiveness of material usage; and the shaping of the overall campus in combination with the existing university building.

The construction is open and connected both physically and metaphorically. ‘The aim of maximum interaction between all departments of the school takes shape in social circulation spaces,’ explains the firm. ‘Interdisciplinary collaboration is facilitated by the vertical carving out of large open floor plates, so that students can see activities ongoing across these openings and are encouraged to interact and meet.’ Interconnection is also achieved through glass partitions along the studio walls and, of the course, the visual link with the existing School of Art and Art History.

The firm describes how the cuts through the structure also provide the ‘centres of light’ that are so important to the overall interior atmosphere. ‘The seven vertical cut-outs are characterized by a language of shifted layers, where one floor plate slides past another.’ Natural light and ventilation reach into the core of the building through this method, the result of which gives an underlying appearance of a building that has been discreetly opened up to examine different perspectives of the space. The project is somewhat reminiscent of Holl’s 2004 design for the NYU Department of Philosophy, which also focuses on channelling light into the building. In fact, it is a signature style of the firm to cut holes in the exterior fabric in order to direct natural light into the circulation spaces of the interior. Naturally, this illuminates the studio spaces, giving a proficient setting for artistic activities and study.

Diagram – Centres of light
Floor plans

Elevation – Northwest

Elevation – Southeast

Location 150 Art Building West, Iowa City, Iowa