This semester’s studio is sticking close to home–we have 20 architects, landscape architects, and interior designers taking on one of the bigger urban and architectural questions facing Des Moines today.
Ordinarily, demolishing a 60-year old landmark of postwar modernism would be controversial enough–the city tore down the Wetherell and Harrison designed structure in October, 2015. But a recent tussle involving the location of a new federal courthouse has added to the (still Iowa-polite) discussion ever since. The GSA and the courts would like to build a replacement for their outdated 1928 building on the site. It’s generous, it’s visible, and it relates well to Des Moines’ City Hall across the river, and to the Civic Center, diagonally to the southwest. The city–equally understandably–wants commercial and residential development on the site, since it’s squarely between two very lively districts that have been crucial to the city’s renaissance. The city has won so far, and the GSA is looking at a site about four blocks south, across the river in a formerly industrial area that is ripe for redevelopment but fairly far off the beaten path. But even that’s not a final decision, at least not yet.
Last fall I found myself talking about the controversy with a prominent DSM architect (admittedly at a social event with an open bar) and wondering what would happen if you mashed-up the expectations that the city and the feds had–in other words, if you wedged a courthouse in between commercial and residential programs. You’d have a pretty solid Integrated Studio program that presented some serious circulation and structural issues on an important civic site. I’ve constantly looked for situations like this for our ARCH 403/603 studio, and it seemed worth trying out for an option studio this semester.
We’re three weeks in, now, and we’ve done a site visit, toured the existing courthouse with the help of their project architect and the Deputy U.S. Marshal for Des Moines, and heard from architects at Neumann Monson, the firm that will serve as the local architect for the new courthouse along with Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam about the precedents they’ve looked at, and the issues they’re facing in the new design. Security is, as you’d guess, the biggest worry, and it’s the reason that the current generation of courts buildings have a reputation for fortress-like, anti-urban appearances.
“So,” one student asked after our courthouse tour, “the program is basically impossible, isn’t it?” Yes and no. It’s difficult, for sure, but even in this early stage we’re finding that there may be really interesting synergies between the urban programs of commercial and residential space, and the civic programs of the courts themselves. Teams have settled into a couple of basic approaches–either wrapping the courthouse, geode-like, in a security blanket of apartments and shops that, we think, would present a less desirable target; or pulling the whole program in from the surrounding streets and building up instead of out.
I’m always impressed and slightly humbled at how diligently and seriously students take public projects like this, and yesterday’s pinup had plenty of animated discussion about not only the mechanics of getting judges, juries, defendants, and the public around safely and securely, but also what it means to build on so prominent a site, what the Des Moines River and the accompanying River Walk have done for downtown, and how best to relate to a collection of neighboring buildings ranging in scale and style from Beaux-Arts city beautiful structures (the old Public Library to the south, now the World Food Prize headquarters, or the aforementioned City Hall) to what I think of as the warm brutalism of Chick Herbert’s Civic Center, to two blocks of frankly suburban scale townhouses across the street. We may, in fact, find that there are good reasons to segregate urban and civic programs, but I’m guessing that as teams get more and more fluent with their programming and circulation planning we’ll see some genuinely provocative schemes emerge. And, we hope, some of this will leak out, and maybe help to influence the final decision about where to put the courthouse, and how to articulate it to the rest of the city…