AABP Award 728x90

Architecture experts must be right – mostly


“A Century of Iowa Architecture” describes the Ruan Center this way: “It is a study in simplicity, with high quality minimal detailing and careful material selections that take a thoughtful viewing to appreciate.”

That explains it. After almost 30 years of viewing the building that Rust-Oleum forgot, maybe I’m only a few days away from true appreciation.

Of course, it’s tough to get a unanimous vote when it comes to architecture, just as it’s hard to please everybody when the subject is fashion, movies or the least objectionable presidential candidate.

The members of the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects deserve praise for naming some of the state’s noteworthy buildings. (They didn’t invite even more of this nitpicking by using the word “best”; they’ve got enough problems just figuring out where to place doorways.) It’s an interesting list and they turned it into a handsome book. But they had to know all along that some of their choices would zoom over the heads of non-experts.

Which group do you fall into? If you have realized that the Polk County Convention Complex “expresses the shift in the downtown street grids,” as pointed out in the book, you probably should have gone to architecture school instead of just drawing little three-dimensional cubes on your notebook during Distributive Studies classes. If you’re unclear about the difference between the terms “Streamline Moderne” and “fixer-upper,” you might not understand all of the AIA’s selections.

Different Iowans are going to have different opinions about building design, that’s all. In a small town, “great architecture” refers to any building with a date carved into its cornerstone.

In my neighborhood, a really outstanding building is one with a door big enough to drive a combine through.

And on the larger scale, we simple folks are always going to be impressed by ornamentation. That’s why you see us spending so much time at craft stores, low-priced jewelry counters and tattoo parlors. If we could duplicate a building’s shape with Legos, we figure the architect was just some guy with a T-square and time to kill.

Or if a building is tall or expensive-looking, we’re impressed; it’s kind of like the way we pick Miss America.

The architects chose C.Y. Stephens Auditorium in Ames as the building of the century, and that seems like an opinion most of us can agree with. Any time you get a building that appears to be sailing along close to the ground, you’ve got a keeper.

They also singled out quite a few downtown Des Moines gems: the Equitable Building, the old public library, the EMC building (which would fit nicely into George Lucas’ Cloud City) and the art deco U.S. Bank building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street. Walk into that place, take the escalator to the second floor and you start thinking, “If they could put this thing together in 1932, maybe all that stuff about the Great Depression is a typo.”

But they also included a bank in Urbandale that looks as if somebody got a real good deal on poured concrete.

And they had high praise for the stack of bricks known as the Riverfront YMCA. To which we non-experts can only say: Really?

broadlawns web 100123 300x250