My Own Private Iowa

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An architectural appreciation.

By Daniel Naegele

Iowa is not beautiful or even picturesque. At one time the eastern half was woodland, the western half prairie. In the 19th and 20th centuries it was divided into 99 counties, scraped and flattened for farming, and 30 percent of its arable land was underpinned with drainage tile. Its greatest asset and the essence of its farm charm is its big sky.

Everywhere I go, I look for architecture. I’ve gone to Iowa for 18 years now. Its haystacks interest me as much as its needles. High architecture can be found here, although the works are not always the best examples of their architects. Low architecture—barns, bridges, farms, silos, cemeteries, water towers, and fields of wind turbines—is found throughout the state. Without a refined palette or an aesthetic theory to guide their formation, these sites and structures tell us about the nature of building buildings, about the Iowa society that built them, and about the order of the space in which we live.

Victorian House & Silos, Otley
Often in Iowa odd juxtapositions work to clarify the nature of forms and to underscore the values that brought them into existence. Here, muscular silo drums have been grown on the North Lawn of a delicate Victorian house with a cute corner bay .

Dairy Farm Cleavage, County Road D-36, east of Lytton
A gable-roof house wedged in the cleavage of Postmodern silos looks at us over the skirt of a wide metal roof, a roof that separates the world of the house from that of the black cows gathered in the shadows of their shed. Gates and fences reinforce the symmetry. Brazen frontality such as this is often found on Iowa highways. Alone and under a big sky, it encourages contemplation

Decorated House, Pella
A sign carved in stone next to this place reads, “Erected to the Glory of God and Country with prayers for the ultimate victory over malice scorn hatred envy criticism judgement bigotry prejudice intolerance and apartheid • the antichrist • found lurking in the church.” The new siding is just one of many additives in a palette that includes a long beam extending from a runaway wall. A street light, a wagon wheel direction indicator, a moving TV antenna, and multiple old house parts are clipped on for sheer delight. Each addition seems to indict moves made in all seriousness by architects through the ages. If Robert Venturi had a sense of humor (and maybe he did), he might have designed this renovation

Closson Physical Education Center, Graceland University, Lamoni
John Shaver (1918–2010) was an exceptional yet hardly heralded architect from Kansas. His wonderfully odd, three-beached-whales 1967 gymnasium is utterly utilitarian, yet surreal and poetic against the Iowa sky. In this virtually faceless structural tour de force, as with so many exquisite structure-architectures of the 1950s and ’60s—Candela, Fuller, Nervi, Saarinen, Tange, Otto, Le Corbusier—Shaver’s roof becomes his walls. 

Roadside Cemetery, State Highway 30, 10 miles west of Marshalltown
White fence, cross, silhouetted tree, all under a big sky and complete with a farm that sits on the horizon line, and lots and lots of highway pavement. Many Iowa cemeteries are like this, offering the deceased an eternity of the Iowa life they’ve left.

Daniel Naegele GAr’93 Gr’96 is an architecture professor at Iowa State University and author of Naegele’s Guide to The Only Good Architecture in Iowa, from which this is adapted. Copyright © 2019 Daniel Naegele.

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