renzo piano in des moines

IMG_8008Des Moines has a long history of hiring international-caliber architects and getting superb work out of them–there’s a standard tour of outstanding buildings by both Saarinen’s, I.M.Pei, Gordon Bunshaft, Mies van der Rohe, and David Chipperfield that never fails to impress.  And that’s alongside great work by homegrown talent, too.

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A combination of international and local talent is building this elegant bit of flying steelwork at the moment.  When regional convenience store/gas station chain Kum’N’Go announced that Renzo Piano would be designing its headquarters in downtown Des Moines it made a huge splash here and, from the looks of things, it should make an equally big splash nationally when it’s finished.  Downtown Des Moines is a rare success story in contemporary American urbanism, and the decision to relocate their headquarters from the suburbs back to downtown by the chain is a huge vote of confidence that the core’s recent history of inspired development and civic engagement is likely to continue for a while.

IMG_8032Piano’s design will connect to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which has become not only a gateway to downtown but also a symbolic open space.  The massing of the Krause Center is going to be oriented toward that space, with a ground level plaza and public interior that will be complimented by terraces on upper levels that will offer raised outdoor space for employees, and views over the Raccoon River’s valley, south of downtown.  To emphasize these connections, most of the building is glass in the north-south direction, and Piano’s office has gone to extraordinary lengths to minimize the number of columns and walls that will support these upper floors–some of the lower floors’ corners are actually suspended from above to maximize the building’s transparency.  The top floor is skewed, reflecting the change in grid from the city’s general E-W axis to one that’s perpendicular to the Des Moines River, a few blocks east.  Here, too, the structure has been packed into long-span girders and a few dense columns to open up views along both axes.  The result, even in the jumble of a busy construction site, is remarkably airy and open.

IMG_8031That glass is being set in place by local cladding company Architectural Wall Systems, sort of an MVP of a business here.  A few weeks ago I ran into ISU grad Ryan Smart, who’s working for AWS on the project, and he suggested that we organize a field trip of the job site for our grad students.  Which we did, and I think the afternoon was as inspiring as it was cold.  Two other ISU alums–Ryan Larson and Joe Feldman, who work for the contractor, Ryan Companies, and the local architect, OPN–joined the tour, and treated us to an in-depth look at some of the structural gymnastics it’s taking to realize the airiness of Piano’s vision.  The rigor and discipline is evident, too, and they described the challenges of realizing 28-foot tall insulated glass panels without intermediate supports, packing steel and mechanical systems into a vanishingly thin floor sandwich, and finding precasting companies who could pour monolithic corner pieces up to 6′ x 6′.  (Hint: you have to go to Canada).

IMG_8015Whenever a small city like Des Moines gets an opportunity like this, the questions are always whether they’ll get the superstar architect’s best work and whether the local team can keep up with the expectations of that architect.  We saw ample evidence–both in the construction so far and in the warehouse full of interior mockups–that Krause Center is going to be an extraordinary building–“the job of a lifetime,” as one of our alums told me, grinning wildly.  What’s interesting is that it’s definitely going to be a Piano building, but it looks to be unusual in that rather than the details and materials driving the design, it really appears to be the sense of the wide open spaces that will connect to the city around it that have driven it.  And that means that the structural discipline that we’re used to seeing in Piano’s work has been replaced by some truly breathtaking spans and spaces–something pretty new in his oeuvre, and exciting to see in its nascent form.

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Many thanks to AWS, Ryan Companies, and OPN for showing us around.  An inspiring afternoon, both for the architecture and for the chance to see former students out in the world and doing really amazing work.

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