Some of the most influential architectural proposals in American history have been for buildings that were never realized. One such proposal is Eliel Saarinen’s 1939 winning competition entry for the Smithsonian Gallery of Art—never constructed due to Congressional failure to fund the project. Drawings of his proposal were shown in Des Moines in that same year, and this exhibition led directly to his Art Center commission. The Des Moines Art Center is the clear offspring of Saarinen’s groundbreaking Smithsonian proposal in that both emphasize a harmonious relationship to their site. In addition, both designs feature low stone masses that hug the ground, with a courtyard focusing on a reflecting pool (both including a proposed sculpture by Carl Milles) and beyond to open space. Saarinen’s insistence on the connection of his architecture to its surroundings was furthered in both designs by the view afforded from the courtyard: to the National Mall in the case of the Smithsonian and to Greenwood Park in the case of the Des Moines Art Center.
Saarinen’s building utilizes a warm limestone cladding quarried in Wisconsin known as Lannon stone. The stone is rough-cut and laid in a random pattern for the exterior walls, with an elongation and refinement of the stone at the moment where the walls meet the sky or where visitors enter the building. Along the public front the building is quite solid, pierced by the transparent entry’s walls and canopy which sweep outwards to welcome visitors. The mass of the building snakes across the site enclosing a dramatic courtyard which, before 1968, opened southward to the rose garden over a tranquil reflecting pool.
Saarinen’s vision for the facility always balanced the physical prominence of the site with the cultural status of the building, protecting the integrity of each. Upon its completion in 1948 it represented innovation in American museum design as well as a new type of institution—a blend of museum and education center—an Art Center.
Written by Tim Hickman