The first thing you notice as you walk up to the University of Iowa’s new Visual Arts Building is the light, how the sun reflects off the stainless steel and zinc exterior so the building looks like a cloud floating up the hill from Riverside Drive.
Then you go inside.
There, enormous amounts of light pour into the building through dozens of exterior windows, some clear, some translucent, creating a pillar of light in the five-story central foyer. The light turns the gently sloping stairs that wind around the pillar gold or blue or white or gray, depending on the angle and intensity of the sun.
And it’s not just the central lobby, either. Nearly every room in the building—the studios, classrooms, offices, seminar rooms—receive direct sunlight. The intention is to provide an abundance of the single most important resource to a working artist—natural light.
“As architects and artists, light is our favorite material,” says Chris McVoy, who designed VAB with internationally renowned architect Steven Holl of Steven Holl Architects. “One of our goals was to let the language of light unfold as you move through the building.”
The light shines through multiple centers—square windows that conform to the Fibonacci sequence, floor-to-ceiling translucent windows that bring a diffused light into offices and light courts, and skylights that blanket the central foyer.
“The amount of light filling that gigantic space in the middle, that visual wedge of air and the different levels of light, are just amazing,” says Monica Correia, associate professor of art and director of the Undergraduate Program in Studio Arts. “The building is a piece of art in itself.”
And when the sun goes down, the process is reversed, so the light coming from inside shines through to the exterior. Windows otherwise hidden under a stainless steel screen during the day are revealed and turn VAB into a beacon for the west side of campus.
“It’s especially beautiful at night,” says MFA student Yingjie Chen.
Steve McGuire, professor of art and director of the Studio Arts Division in the School of Art and Art History, says everything inside VAB was built specifically for art and artists, and to facilitate teaching about art production: the classroom designs; the rooftop classroom terraces; the cutting-edge, environmentally friendly heating and air conditioning system; the ventilation systems that keep the air in foundries and woodcutting studios clean and safe. It’s designed for the 21st-century artist, one who is as likely to be a scientist or an engineer, who’s as adept with a band saw or a lathe as a paintbrush or camera.
“The facilities will help us incorporate technology and engineering into our art,” says Chen, who is studying 3-D design. “Design is not just about art; it’s about making life easier and pleasing people. It’s about different strategies, different materials, incorporating engineering into the art. What we have here in VAB will help that.”
The building’s stairwells and open spaces also are designed to serendipitously bring together artists from different departments and different media to discuss, share, and create in happy artistic accidents. Traffic patterns make it inevitable that sculptors and painters and metallurgists will meet and discuss their work.
“There’s a freedom of discovery on each floor in the building,” McVoy says.
Even in its first weeks, the building has inspired students. Correia and Chen, her teaching assistant, assigned students in a product design class to design a lamp, and several came in with prototypes that treated light the same way as VAB’s translucent glass windows.
“I don’t think they even realized their lamps look like the building,” Chen says.
Robby Scott, an MFA student from Decorah, says VAB has had an impact on his painting.
“I can’t help but be more creative,” he says. “I have my own studio with windows with a great view, I’m on campus, and I’m near downtown. This will probably be the nicest studio I ever have in my career.”
Scott says he completed 12 paintings in his first two months in the building, well above his usual output. The only pressure he says he feels is to create art that’s good enough to live up to the building it’s created in.
“The building is awesome. It’s as simple as that,” Scott says. “It’s going to change art at the university, and it’s going to be exciting to see.”
Editor’s note: The University of Iowa will dedicate and stage an open house of the new Visual Arts Building on Friday, Oct. 7. For details about that event and a video tour of the new facility, visit inspire.uiowa.edu.