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Elbert: Gateway architecture


Des Moines’s Gateway Park neighborhood holds a remarkable collection of 21st-century architecture. 

The 13-acre park was conceived during the 1990s as much-needed green space. A main feature is the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which includes 31 sculptures by 25 renowned artists valued at around $50 million. The artwork has become Des Moines’ most identifiable feature, attracting art connoisseurs from all over the world.    

In and around the park are six corporate and two public campuses that contain 11 noteworthy buildings with more than 3 million square feet of space. Most have received design awards; three were created by world-famous architects. 

All are in an area of roughly 120 acres that is smaller than the 146-acre National Mall in Washington, D.C.  

The most celebrated buildings are the Des Moines Public Library, which opened in 2006 and was designed British architect David Chipperfield, and the Krause Gateway Center, which opened in 2018 and was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. 

Both are exemplary works by premier designers at the peak of their powers. The buildings have many similarities, including grass roofs and nontraditional designs that focus on transparency. 

But they are also opposites in many ways, including purpose and price. 

The library is the most public building in the Gateway area, while the Krause Center, as a corporate headquarters, is private. 

The library cost $32 million to build, one of the lowest price tags for any major Gateway property, while the Krause Center cost $160 million, or roughly $1,000 per square foot – more than triple the construction cost of other nearby corporate headquarters.

A commonality of the Chipperfield and Piano designs is their emphasis on visibility. 

Chipperfield wanted library patrons “to feel like they were reading a book in a park,” and the building’s transparent, copper-and-glass skin creates that effect. Sunlight passes through the copper-glass panels during the day, allowing people inside the library to view the park. At night, the effect is reversed with interior lights allowing outsiders to see into the building. 

Piano used 29-foot-tall panes of glass – the tallest in the world at the time of construction – to create similar see-through experiences. His extensive use of glass and supporting steel is what drove up the cost of the Krause Center, which weighs four times as much as similar sized structures.  

The shapes of both buildings are unique. Seen from above, the library resembles an airplane with wings, fuselage and tail, while the design of the Krause Center invokes the image of a ship leaning into the wind

The ship image is created in part by a 16-degree off-center shift of the roof, echoing a change in the street grid as it shifts from a plane created by the Des Moines River to a true north-south orientation outside the downtown area. 

After the Public Library and the Krause Center, my favorite Gateway building is Wells Fargo’s Northstar Building at 801 Walnut St., a few blocks south and east of the park. 

Northstar was designed by Des Moines native Jon Pickard. Now living in Connecticut, Pickard has designed some of the world’s tallest buildings. His mother always wanted him to do a building in his hometown, and the Wells Fargo commission provided the opportunity.

When Northstar was completed in 2007, Pickard said it was an “everyday office building” that spoke to the well-known, high-tech leadership of the bank’s Des Moines-based consumer finance division. 

To honor that leadership, he created a jewel box design with exterior LED lighting – new at the time – that caused the building to glow at night. 

The five other campuses in the Gateway area are for media company Meredith Corp., the Federal Home Loan Bank, Nationwide Insurance, health insurer Wellmark Inc. and the Pappajohn Education Center. 

I’ll tell you more about the buildings on those campuses in the future.

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