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Celebrating architecture with tape


Three distinctive buildings designed by three brilliant architects

New York artist Heeseop Yoon works on a scene of discarded items on a wall in the Des Moines Art Center. Photo by Connie Wilson.

The Des Moines Art Center boasts three distinctive buildings designed by three brilliant architects at a pivotal point in their careers. The original building was built in 1948 by Eliel Saarinen after he won a major competition to design the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Congress refused to fund that project, and the architect’s drawings landed him the Des Moines commission. Saarinen’s warm Wisconsin limestone is layered on the outer walls, hugging the landscape.

Twenty years later, the Art Center needed a new building that accommodated larger works yet did not dwarf the Saarinen building. I.M. Pei solved the problem by building his concrete construction on a down slope behind the original building. Its height nearly matches that of the Saarinen where the two met. It also attracts abundant light from the Rose Garden. A butterfly roof provides a dramatic entrance softening the severity of Pei’s style.

By 1982 the art center had assumed a larger and more contemporary collection. Trustees wanted a new building that accommodated that kind of art while also reaching out to the general community. The Pei building was barely visible to people driving down Grand Avenue. Richard Meier’s new building was a porcelain playhouse that was right in their face. It also included a restaurant and large staircases.

Together the three buildings are Des Moines’ finest experience in architecture. To keep in the spirit of celebrating the center with the general public, curator Alison Ferris decided to mount an exhibition that related to each building in a different way, all with artists who work with tape. Ferris, a direct descendant of the inventor of the Ferris wheel, knows how to show people a fun time.

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The Art Center’s newest exhibit, “Drawing in Space,” plays through Jan. 21. Three artists and one artist collective each built works made from tape in a different room of the museum. Each tape structure explores concepts of the architecture. Ferris said that Dave Eppley of New York loved the lines of the Saarinen building and tried to maintain their basic design with his installation on the floor of the main lobby. He also accommodated the gold filling in the crack in that room’s floor.

Heeseop Yoon, also of New York, created a scene of discarded items repurposed. “These are things that people might stash in the garage or the attic, not in the trash. I love how these artists transform the simplest materials,” Ferris said.

The work, which looked like an ink drawing from a distance, is contemporary. Pei’s mammoth building needed something much larger. “The Pei wing made me think of Numen/for use,” Ferris said. Sven Jonke, Christoph Katzler and Nikola Radeljkovic do not call themselves artists.

Numen/for use installation. Photo by Connie Wilson.

“We are engineers more than artists. It’s interesting how the process evolved. I was asked to suspend light bulbs in the air for a theatre. I played with the idea of building pillars to give dancers a new set. Then one day I built this cocoon in my place out of tape and people started crawling through it. That led to tape shows in Paris, Yokohama, Melbourne, Vienna, Innsbruck, Berlin. This is our first show in the US,” Katzler said.

Ferris added that the cocoon in the Pei building should support 1,200 pounds safely, so people will be able to crawl through them. Holes that Pei built in his walls anticipated this kind of event.

Monika Grzymala of Berlin will also present in the main gallery of Saarinen, but she was not willing to discuss her project at press time.


Scott Charles Ross and Sarah Grant will be featured at Moberg beginning Oct. 13. Both artists moved from Olson-Larsen, where their work was usually shown only in large group shows. This will allow them to work bigger. ♦

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