flyover manifesto I–iowa and its architecture

Keynote Address to Building Technology Educators’ Society Annual Meeting,

Des Moines, IA, June 2017


iowa map

Iowa, 1842.  [Library of Congress]

There is evidence of human settlement in Iowa going back more than 13,000 years.  Corn has been a staple of agriculture here for the last millennium.  This area, where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers meet, was inhabited by Pawnee and Ioway people when French explorers led by Marquette and Joliet explored the Mississippi River in 1673.  Lead on that river’s banks, and furs from forests farther inland meant that European settlement here was about trading natural resources from its earliest days.  Briefly under Spanish control, Iowa was ceded back to France under Napoleon in 1800, and then sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  The state was mapped and plotted in 1805 and its flat geography has made it a paradigmatic example of the “Jeffersonian Grid’s” reach and relentlessness.  The state was opened to European-Americans in June, 1833. Those bound for California sought adventure and fortune, but Iowa’s settlers were the pragmatists who crossed the Mississippi, found tillable soil, abundant timber, and a more or less tolerable climate and sought nothing further.  If Utah’s foundation motto is “This is the Place,” and California’s is “Eureka,” Iowa’s might well be “This Will Do.”  (In fact, it’s “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” which is close).

grant wood

Grant Wood, Breaking the Prairie Sod.
Parks Library, Iowa State University.  1935-37. [Iowa State University Libraries].

Those founding pragmatists were Congregationalists and Puritans, and they brought with them a sensibility that saw good works not as a means of salvation, but rather as the fruits of it.  This spiritual value placed on work translated well in an environment that demanded constant effort and attention; with floods, tornadoes, and blizzards, Iowa has three deadly seasons that behoove an awareness of the horizon and preparation for the worst.  While Iowa’s soil is some of the world’s most fertile, the state’s vast size and sparse population meant that these settlers had to be self-reliant and fluent in carpentry, blacksmithing, animal husbandry, and other crafts.  Dwellings were plain but well-constructed, compact to keep heat in the house during winter, but able to open up to the warm summers and to brief but appreciated autumns and springs.  For Iowa’s first decades as a Territory and then, in 1846, as a state, there was little besides agriculture to drive the economy.  Subsistence farming soon gave way to commercial enterprise, though, due to progressive, scientifically-based county and state fairs that spread knowledge to the state’s far-flung population.  Education was promoted as the best route to improve agricultural practices and quality of life—Iowa was the first state to take advantage of the 1862 Morrill Act, which used a gift of federal land to expand “Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm” into what is now Iowa State University.  Iowans were also progressive regarding social issues.  The Territory’s first supreme court case, in 1839, established freedom for anyone who set foot in Iowa.  John Brown’s abolitionist March in 1859 received support across the state, and an Underground Railroad route through Iowa freed hundreds of enslaved Missourians.  Iowa sent more recruits per capita to the Union army than any other state, leading Ulysses S Grant referred to the state in 1864 as “the bright Radical star.”  Iowa’s emancipatory stance blended Lincoln-era Republican values—thrift, discipline, and a generosity and tolerance toward others—with those of the Progressive movement, which stressed modernization, equality, and a growing belief in science-based solutions to socio-economic problems.  While the state’s politics have shifted to the right, they are still defined by this tension between conservatism and progressivism, a tension moderated by our first-in-the-nation caucuses, where we cast our votes in public after open debate with our neighbors.

Iowa’s greatest boom came with the railroads, which provided the means to transport the state’s bounty to commodities markets in Chicago; our population doubled during the rail decades of the 1860s and 1870s, to over a million. This growth slowed in the early 20th century, and the Depression and the 1980s farm crisis both caused extensive damage to the agricultural economy here.  Today, agriculture accounts for just a quarter of the state’s economic output, trailing manufacturing, but it comprises over 90% of the state’s land area.  Agriculture is celebrated annually at our iconic State Fair, which boasts an attendance every year of roughly a million, a full one-third of all Iowans.  But the state has seen constant demographic shifts in the last decades that have eroded its farming population while building strong urban centers.  Rural counties in the south and west have seen precipitous drops in population as corporate agriculture has replaced family farms, but Des Moines has seen robust growth—indicative of Iowa’s changing economics, but also of a pragmatic city government here and partnerships between public and private entities that have transcended politics and built a genuine hub for the state.

dsm skyline

Des Moines Skyline
Des Moines Register, Nov. 25, 2015.

An aggressive masterplan begun in the 1990s rejuvenated Des Moines’ downtown, but where other cities “renewed” by displacing poorer residents, Des Moines displaced blocks of auto dealerships and light industry, creating an urban axis that has become the symbol of the city’s changing culture.  Along with healthy markets in insurance, finance, and agricultural industry, Des Moines has nurtured a community of designers and entrepreneurs who have in turn built an entertainment and arts culture that is homegrown and remarkable in its depth and quality.  The Des Moines Social Club, which opened in 2014 in a disused fire station on downtown’s southern edge, has been just one catalyst for this resurgence.  80/35, an annual music festival that takes over Western Gateway park for one weekend each summer, is another—after appearing in 2013, David Byrne returned to Des Moines often enough to become an honorary resident, and he’s blogged regularly about our bike paths, the Social Club, and how, in his words, Des Moines is a “hugely encouraging” example for arts and music communities nationwide.  Downtown’s population has gone from under 1000 twenty years ago to over 15,000, and the city, which has always made top ten lists for young families and retirees, now regularly sees itself being named one of the best cities for starting a career, for job opportunities per capita, for foodies, for LGBT-friendliness, for farmer’s markets, for general quality of life, and even for urban millennials:  “Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible,” advised The National Journal three years ago. “Move to Des Moines.”[i]


HABS Barnhard Farm


Iowa’s founding citizens built generations of serviceable but unpretentious structures during the state’s first decades.  “Putting on airs” has always seemed decadent and coastal, and farming does not often produce the capital required to build ornate palaces.  But among Iowa’s early carpenter’s gothic houses, commercial storefronts, barns, and monuments, the State Capitol, built in 1871-1874 to designs by Chicago architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, was a work of gilded excess that stamped Des Moines and Iowa with a sumptuous statement of political and cultural ambition; Piquenard asserted that the design was influenced by then-new wings for Paris’ Louvre Palace.


State Capitol, Des Moines, IA.  
John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, 1871-1874. [Library of Congress]

The Capitol was the first of many fine Beaux-Arts buildings throughout the state; the firm of Proudfoot and Bird designed high schools, government buildings, banks, and University buildings that imprinted Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, and other towns throughout Iowa with monuments that marked the importance of civic engagement and education.  These structures were erected alongside Iowa’s vernacular buildings, which relied on local materials, especially timber and a characteristic yellow sandstone, to produce more modest structures invested with care, attention to detail, efficient planning, and budgeted ornament.  While the Arts and Crafts “style” was endemic to California and Boston, actual craftsman houses were native to Iowa and to other states throughout the Midwest.  “American Four-” and “Six-square” homes still make up much of our historic town centers.


Woodbury County Courthouse, Des Moines, IA.  
Purcell and Elmslie, 1916-18. [HABS/HAER]

These two traditions, of Beaux-Arts monuments and restrained craftsman houses, were reflected in our 20th century architecture, which balanced tradition with progressive ideals.  In a region rooted in building crafts but with grand civic aspirations that inspired Proudfoot and Bird’s work, it is not surprising that the President of small merchant bank in Grinnell would have thought to call on Louis Sullivan, for instance, in 1914, resulting in a church-like building there that would prove to be one of Sullivan’s final and most detailed works.  Or that a developer in Mason City, a small though well-off town in northern Iowa, would hire Walter Burley Griffin to design houses for plots on a wooded site at the town’s edge, creating the largest collection of Prairie School houses in the country.  Iowa never embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s bombast and heroics—he built just a handful of buildings here.  But houses influenced by Wright can be found throughout the state, and our greatest Prairie School monument, the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, designed by Purcell and Elmslie and completed in 1918 is a tribute to his style.


Des Moines Art Center
Eliel and Eero Saarinen (1949), I. M. Pei (1968), Richard Meier (1985). [DMAC]

The postwar era redefined Iowa’s approach to architectural design, and one complex in particular put Des Moines on the map and ushered in several decades of true Prairie modernism.  In 1946 the city was left substantial funds by local banker J.D. Edmundson for a new arts complex placed well outside the then-industrial downtown.  The city selected Greenwood Park, and hired Eliel Saarinen as the architect for what would become the Des Moines Art Center.  This building was not called a “Museum,” nor did Saarinen attempt to design a monument.  The Art Center instead adopted a rambling, S-shaped plan, aligned with the park’s terrain and enveloping an axial rose garden; Saarinen’s plan gestured toward the city and to Grand Avenue not with grand steps, but rather with a one-story “education wing” containing public classrooms and studios.  “Here is a building to be made use of,” the Museum’s opening announcement stated, while others noted that it was far from the “Sunday afternoon show place” that had characterized American museum design.[ii]  Clad in regional limestone that matched the city’s commercial and residential architecture, the Art Center was praised as “the finest designed small museum in the country” by Andrew Ritchie, director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.  It set a high bar for the architectural and cultural communities in Des Moines over the next decades.[iii]


Oreon Scott Chapel, Drake University
Eero Saarinen, 1955.  [substance architecture]

The Art Center itself saw a bold expansion by I. M. Pei in 1968 (and a less successful one by Richard Meier in 1984), creating an enclosed courtyard for the Carl Milles sculpture, “Pegasus and Bellerophon,” and framing the rose garden’s axis with a sculptural ‘vessel’ that remains one of Pei’s most compelling and underrated works.  Eliel and Eero Saarinen built a long, productive relationship with Drake University, designing two classroom buildings, a dormitory complex, and a dining hall in the 1940s; after Eliel’s death in 1950 Eero continued to work at Drake, designing the Theology School in 1952.  This project included the Oreon Scott Chapel, an intimate cylindrical sanctuary for ecumenical services that was contemporary with Saarinen’s larger chapel design for MIT.  Scott Chapel is much smaller, and it eschews the Cambridge project’s liturgical axis for a straightforward central plan focused on a toplit travertine altar—a stunning, resonant space that is enriched by a complex, seven-sided timber structure supporting its iconic oculus above.


Federal Home Loan and Savings
Mies van der Rohe,1962; 
renovation, Dirk Lohan/BNIM/Harboe Architects, 2018. [Library of Congress]

Other national figures working in Iowa included Mies van der Rohe, whose Home Federal Savings and Loan Building downtown is a distillation of his skyscraper principles into a humanely scaled, three-story structure that offers generous pedestrian space along with its uncompromising tectonics.  Mies’ office also designed Meredith Hall, a classroom building that emphasized Drake’s commitment to architecture.  Harry Weese contributed dormitories and classroom buildings to the campus in the 1960s and 1970s.  Gordon Bunshaft’s iconic American Republic Insurance Building exemplified SOM’s reputation for honed structural expression when it was completed in 1965—a six story, post-tensioned concrete “file cabinet” filled with comfortable office space and an impressive corporate art collection.  American Republic is the only structure to have won an AIA honor award twice—when it opened in 1967, and last year, for BNIM’s sensitive renovation.  Iowa City has built campus buildings by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Cesar Pelli.

kum n go

Kum’N’Go Headquarters
Renzo Piano Building Workshop/OPN Architects, 2018. [RPBW]

More recently, Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park, which we’re now in, was masterplanned by Agrest and Gandelsonas and has become an outdoor museum for sculpture and architecture; it includes the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and David Chipperfield’s Public Library, and it will soon see Renzo Piano’s new corporate headquarters for the iconic Iowa convenience store chain Kum’n’Go.


C.Y. Stephens Auditorium, Iowa State University
Ray Crites/Brooks, Borg, & Skiles, 1968. [Iowa State Center]

These nationally-recognized monuments have been paralleled by a local design culture that has developed a consistent regional approach as well as strong individual voices.  Two leading figures in our architectural history who deserve more attention in the 20th century canon—Ray Crites and Charles Herbert—were inspired by global movements to produce locally inflected interpretations of Case Study modernism and heroic Brutalism that grace our landscapes, cities, and college campuses.  Crites expanded on his modest residential practice to design C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State in the late 1960s, a building that spoke to the University’s desire to grow beyond its agricultural origins into a cultural center for the state.  The result, a 3,000 seat venue with near-perfect, hand-calculated acoustics and a diagrammatic plan and section expressed in an iconic flying roof, was named Iowa’s “Building of the Century” in 2004, beating out Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and others to honor a structure unknown outside the state.  Herbert’s work includes the monumental Des Moines Civic Center, a piece of lush concrete minimalism that forms the backdrop to Nollen Plaza’s urban stage.  In the 1990s Herbert’s firm was rebranded as HLKB, which designed the Meredith Corporation Headquarters in 2000—a literal gateway to downtown from the west—and the Pappajohn Center that we’re in now.  HLKB won AIA Firm of the Year in 2001, and its alumni have gone on to form substance, which for the last ten years has led Des Moines’ architectural resurgence.  Substance’s café and pump station, at the intersection of the Court Avenue district and the Des Moines River, have won awards for massaging two very different programs into an eastern downtown gateway, welcoming automobile, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic while integrating heavy-duty flood control pumps and urban art by Jun Kaneko.  The hub connects to the Principal Riverwalk, a 1.2-mile promenade completed in 2013 that links to Iowa’s 2,000 miles of hiking and cycling trails.  Other firms have also produced thoughtful, integrative work here.  BNIM, whose Des Moines office is run by tomorrow’s keynote speaker Rod Kruse, has produced elegant and functional buildings for the state’s Utilities Board and Iowa State, among others, while winning AIA Firm of the Year in 2011.  Iowa City-based Neuman Monson has transformed that city’s downtown with new residential and commercial towers that have added crisp glass prisms to what can now be called Iowa City’s skyline.

pump station

Principal Riverwalk Pavilion and Pump Station,
substance architecture, 2013 [substance]

These projects all combine civic aspirations with thoughtful, nuanced solutions and a concern for building craft.  They focus on experiential depth rather than attention-grabbing visuals, and they exemplify this region’s traditions of modest, diligent, but nevertheless inspired and engaging design.  There’s a willingness throughout to let function, construction, materials, and space speak for themselves—plainly but elegantly—and to see what can be coaxed from these basic design elements.  That the results are often engaging, and that Iowa has developed a genuine appreciation for good architecture and urban design, suggests that there is an underlying philosophy here that is worth examining.


[i] The Atlantic, Oct. 16, 2014.  Online at:

[ii] Print ad, The Des Moines Register, June 1, 1948, and Print Ad, Des Moines Register, May 30, 1948, n.p. 6. “. . . the word museum is avoided . . .” “Art Center,” Architectural Forum, July 1949, 66-

[iii] “Praises Design at Art Center.” Undated, unsourced clipping. Scrapbook in box marked “1940-1950,” Archives of the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa.


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