Guest Commentary

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March 24th, 2011 |
by Kent Carlson


Style over substance


It’s been nearly 15 years since talk of a new central library in Des Moines began in earnest. In 1997, it was projected that a new facility would cost $21 million. Later, David Kruidenier, the Cowles Publishing heir and former president, publisher and chairman of The Des Moines Register, offered to kick in $5 million for the project. However, there were caveats to the deal. A “partnership” crafted by former city manager, Eric Anderson, was formed between the private library board and local government that effectively gave control of the project to the private interests involved.

Kruidenier pushed for a hot new design for the new central library. In the end, British architect David Chipperfield won the commission. Though he had never designed a library before, his “amoeba-shaped,” 145,000-square-foot behemoth caught the eye of Kruidenier and the library board. Ironically, Kruidenier was effectively blind by this time.

The project grew from the original $21 million to more than $32 million, shrinking Kruidenier’s contribution from 23 percent to 16 percent and expanding taxpayer responsibilities. The somewhat gimmicky dirt roof came and went, and eventually reappeared again on the finished plan. The building was opened to the public in April of 2006. The polarizing design was met with controversy since its inception. Those enamored with minimalist architecture consider the structure a welcome addition to Des Moines’ urban landscape. Others consider the stark design cold and sterile.

Aesthetics aside, perhaps the most troubling aspects of the project are the engineering failures. In January 2007 I first wrote about glass breakage in the building. While researching the cause, I learned the triple-glazed, 4- by 14-foot expanded copper mesh widows had inclusions that caused them to shatter without warning. To date, 40 windows have imploded… far greater than the statistical odds estimated by the manufacturer, Okalux of Germany. In 2009, a settlement was reached with Architectural Wall Systems, Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture and EMC insurance which agreed to pay for 55 of the $8,000 windows. However, taxpayers still ended up getting stuck with more than $50,000 in legal fees.

While the city was battling over broken glass, the library’s boilers were self destructing. In 2008, major components of the boiler already required replacement. At the time, an agreement was reached with those who had been involved with the mechanical engineering and installation of mechanical systems. City Manager Rick Clark didn’t have the names of the companies available at the time he was contacted. However, Arup, a UK mechanical engineering firm; KJWW, a U.S.-based company with local offices; and Proctor Mechanical, a respected local mechanical contractor, were involved with the engineering and installation during the original construction. In February, according to a report by Des Moines Public Library Director Greg Heid, there were “thermal stress fractures caused by wide temperature variations created when the boiler unit starts from cold, heats up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit then suddenly shuts off.” Heid said the boilers cycle an average of 280 times a day. That means the boilers have been cycling nearly every five minutes. One has to wonder why the Central Library’s building manager didn’t discover that anomaly long before there were damages to the boiler… again.

All this is more perplexing if you were to believe what has been written about the building. Green Source…The Magazine of Sustainable Design published a case study stating: “The exposed concrete ceilings and columns contribute significantly to the building’s thermal mass, which helps to stabilize indoor temperatures. It’s hard to move [temperatures in] that building… Based on nine months of utility bills, it appears that the library’s electricity and gas usage savings for its first year will exceed predictions by about 23 percent.”

Nobody said “Penitentiary Chic” was cheap. Adding to the irony, the project won a $42,650 “efficiency incentive payment” from MidAmerican Energy.

Eric Anderson moved to Tacoma 10 months before the Central Library opened. David Kruidenier died three months before it opened. Though Richard Meier was sued when his Art Center addition sprung leaks, it appears David Chipperfield is the only one who isn’t in hot water with the exception of Central Library patrons, of course. CV

Kent Carlson is a native Iowa artist interested in preserving Iowa’s architectural heritage and the common sense of its leaders. And he writes a few columns for Cityview, too.