As the permanent collections of the Art Center grew and began to include very large-scaled contemporary works, the need for exhibition space especially suited to these works became clear. In 1982, five internationally prominent architects were invited to a competition to design the next building for the Art Center. In addition to providing additional and more appropriate space, the members of the building committee saw this project as an opportunity to reposition the relationship between the institution and the community. The new building could increase the visibility of the building in parallel with its increasing cultural visibility. Richard Meier’s winning approach appropriately stood in contrast to both the horizontality of Saarinen and the humility of Pei. Meier’s building is an extroverted sculptural form against the backdrop of both the existing building and the natural site. The porcelain-coated metal panels defy the elements, and the sensuous massing contradicts the long-held belief that museum and gallery design should be subservient to the art housed within.
The Meier building is both more complex and pragmatic than it may at first appear. It is composed of three parts: an iconic pavilion pushed out to Grand Avenue with permanent collections and temporary exhibition galleries, a courtyard restaurant, and a service area on the west. This division allows for seamless functioning of the facility and keeps the scale of these parts in balance with the earlier buildings. In addition, the courtyard restaurant creates a fascinating conversation between the work of three architectural masters. The Meier is the foil to Saarinen and Pei, setting up a tension between architecture as background or foreground, gallery as neutral or dynamic, building and site in harmony or in contrary juxtaposition. In their totality, the buildings of the Des Moines Art Center create an experience that is unmatched.
Written by Tim Hickman