A New Space for Creativity

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Imagining a relocated UI arts campus.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (May 13): 19A.

A few days ago I went to the ArtsFest open house at the University of Iowa’s Studio Arts Building on Highway 6. Wow! There I saw a stunning example of how banal space (Menard’s big empty box) can be reconfigured to facilitate interaction and creativity among previously disconnected people.

As many of you already know, the Studio Arts units (Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, etc.) used to be located in separate parts of the Arts Campus. Forced to relocate, Arts faculty and students now find themselves sharing one large space, feeling stimulated and inspired by one another’s work, and experimenting with creative new collaborations.

What would happen if we extended Studio Arts’ lesson to the University and the city as a whole?

One exciting way to facilitate creative new interactions on campus and in the city would be to relocate Hancher Auditorium, Clapp Recital Hall, and the Voxman Music Building (HVC) to Burlington Street immediately south of Old Capitol.

On this point I take inspiration from my colleague Dr. Marco Giliberti. Dr. Giliberti studied architecture and wrote a dissertation about campus planning while at the University of Venice. This spring he has been teaching a course about that topic for our Saturday and Evening Classes Program.

In brief, Marco imagines that an appropriately designed new HVC on the south side of Burlington could physically and spatially integrate diverse parts of the campus with one another and with the surrounding city.  With its main entrance located due south of Old Capitol, it could provide an unfamiliar yet powerful view of and connection with that iconic structure. Designed appropriately, it could also visually reach across the river toward Boyd Tower, the Old Gothic campus, and the medical complex.

When combined with the already existing connection between Old Capitol and Boyd Tower, the new Hancher complex would weave the campus into a more coherent whole. But it could also take advantage of the site’s location and sloping terrain to establish a strong visual connection with the County Courthouse, and thereby weave the campus more seamlessly into the urban fabric of the city.

One way to accomplish this weaving would be to incorporate a tall vertical element (a “Green Tower”) into the new building, which could simultaneously evoke Boyd’s neo-Gothic Tower, Old Capitol’s dome, and the Richardsonian Romanticism of the County Courthouse. Skillful application of nighttime lighting could further enhance the ensemble’s collective sense of place and identity.

Marco imagines that this new Hancher would have a very contemporary design while judiciously incorporating local materials (e.g., yellow sandstone on the south side and whiter limestone on the north) and forms found in the iconic buildings with which the new complex will converse. Moreover, designed to be LEED certified (perhaps Platinum), the new Hancher could be topped by at least three levels of green roofs landscaped with different kinds of native vegetation. It could include a gazebo, benches, tables and chairs, and space for receptions. Natural daylighting could be harvested by providing south-facing glazing.

By reaching across the river, and yet being well above the 500-year flood plain, the new Hancher could also accentuate the University’s connection with the river while saving it from damage when the next severe flood strikes. Moreover, memory of the flood could provide the leitmotif for decorating the main façade of the new HVC complex. One possibility would be to install a mural or statute recalling the thousands of volunteers who helped sandbag around buildings in early June.

Yes, important questions would need to be answered. Can the streets handle the additional traffic? Would available parking be sufficient? Would the current owners of the proposed site be willing to sell at a mutually agreeable price? Can renters be helped to relocate? I believe these questions can be answered quite satisfactorily.

I find myself feeling quite excited by the idea of placing a new Hancher complex at this site. But my excitement extends well beyond physical design. As Studio Arts’ experience suggests, reconfiguring space to bring musicians into the ordinary spaces of the city’s core has the potential to dramatically alter the whole vibe of the Near South Side. Nearby property would become far more valuable, and the new structures on Court Street would become far more enticing for retailers and residents. Moreover, I can easily imagine people coming by Amtrak from the East, getting off at a renovated station, and quickly being escorted only four blocks north to the bold new Hancher.

What other “music” might derive from reconfiguring space to facilitate creative interaction? Re-tune your own imagination and see what appears.

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