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The Elbert Files: DM’s fifth ‘Pritzker’


The Pritzker Architecture Prize was awarded earlier this month to London’s David Chipperfield, whose works include the Des Moines Public Library, completed in 2006, and Davenport’s Figge Art Museum, completed in 2005. 

The $100,000 international prize has been awarded annually since 1979 by a jury of experts in the fields of architecture, business education, publishing and culture. It is a lifetime achievement award and is considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize. 

Chipperfield is the fifth Pritzker winner to have designed a building in Des Moines. Renzo Piano, who received the award in 1998, designed Des Moines’ Krause Gateway Center, which opened in 2018. (A list of other winners who worked in Des Moines is at the end of this column.)

The bulk of Chipperfield’s public buildings have been museums; Des Moines is his only library. 

To understand the unique shape and structure of the Des Moines library, it helps to understand its setting. 

Western Gateway Park, where the library is located, “was conceived as a grand entrance to downtown Des Moines, both in space and time,” said Princeton University’s Mario Gandelsonas, author of the city’s 1990s Vision Plan, which inspired the park and other downtown development.

The park was created from nine blocks of low-value commercial buildings between Locust Street and Grand Avenue west of the downtown core. 

Today, the park’s southern edge along Locust Street includes “upgraded and repurposed remnants” of early 20th-century car dealerships that merge into “a neutral frame” of modern office buildings, Gandelsonas explained.

To the north, he added, are Wellmark’s massive insurance headquarters and Piano’s Krause Gateway Center with its unique rooflines that make the building appear to levitate. 

On the west the park is framed by a skywalk across Locust Street connecting Meredith Corp.’s 1920s headquarters with a 1998 addition, designed by the late Cal Lewis, creating a “symbolic gate to the downtown area.”  

Gondelsonas described Chipperfield’s library with its copper-in-glass skin as “a glazed object” that anchors the east end of the park. 

The library’s unusual wall configuration reflects sunlight, causing the building to glow during the day; at night, the walls become nearly translucent, exposing the building’s interior.  

Chipperfield told the Des Moines Register he chose the unusual sheathing to complement the park setting. He said he wanted to “break down the threshold between people inside and outside the building, … to be connected, to get the sense that you can look out the window and see life going on.”

The two-story, elongated building spreads across much of two city blocks and was designed to also serve nontraditional purposes. It included a coffee shop (now closed) and public meeting rooms, which are popular among a wide array of groups. 

Chipperfield described the shape of the building as “organic” with a footprint that resembles an airliner, complete with nose, tail and wing, splayed across the open park. 

The Pritzker jury described Chipperfield’s architecture as “subdued yet elegant,” which is an apt description of the Des Moines library. 

The jury added that his buildings demonstrate a “reverence for history and culture while honoring the preexisting built and natural environments, as he reimagines functionality and accessibility of new buildings.” (The Des Moines library has ramps, elevators and underground parking.)

In addition to Chippefield and Piano, other Pritzker winners who designed Des Moines buildings are: I.M. Pei, awarded the Pritzker in 1983, who designed a 1968 addition to the Des Moines Art Center; 1984 winner Richard Meier, who designed an Art Center wing in 1985; and 1988 honoree Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who was responsible for American Republic Insurance Co.’s 1965 downtown headquarters.

Other well-known architects who have designed Des Moines buildings include: Hemut Jahn, who designed Principal Financial Group’s “Z” building in 1995; Eliel Saarinen, who designed the original wing of the Des Moines Art Center in 1948, and with his son Eero Saarinen designed several 1940s and ’50s buildings at Drake University; and Mies van der Rohe, who designed a downtown bank (now the Diocese of Des Moines Pastoral Center) in 1962 and Meredith Hall at Drake in 1965.


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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