Cool & curious buildings at the University of Iowa. Its basketball led me to its architecture!


IOWA CITY, Iowa, March 24, 2024 – My Iowa Writers Collaborative colleague Macey Shofroth, who writes “The Midwest Creative,” told us in a delightful column last week that the University of Iowa women’s basketball team “is full of incredible athletes – and artists.”  The Hawkeye women, she added, play “stunning, creative, impassioned, artistic basketball.”

I agree.

I’ve been here for a dozen games in the last year, and around them, I’ve had some artsy experiences, too.

After a Saturday game in January 2023, my wife Mary Riche and I toured the university’s new Stanley Museum of Art in downtown Iowa City. It’s exceptional.

And now because of all our walks and drives around the campus, I have a new interest in – or at least curiosity about – architecture.  There are so many cool buildings.

Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa. What do you see when you look at it?

Two that I’m most curious about right now are the fantastic Hancher Auditorium for the performing arts and the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.

You probably know that this is a second-generation Hancher, located just beyond the bank of the Iowa River, west of Dubuque Street in the north part of the city.  The original, located very close to the Iowa River, opened in 1972 and was then ruined in the 2008 flood.   In fact, much of the university’s low-lying Arts Campus was devastated then.  The recovery seemed to take forever, but it’s been remarkable.

The $132 million replacement Hancher, which opened in the fall of 2016, is one of the most distinctive buildings in the state.

“The University of Iowa chose a location at a high point along the Iowa River for the new Hancher,” according to the website of OPN Architects, which has offices in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “A building without a backside, Hancher’s seamless sinewy lines respond to the adjacent Iowa River and is orientated so that all public areas offer a visual connection to the University of Iowa campus. Parallel forms cantilever at the south end of the building, creating overhangs for the lobby and a second-level terrace. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls below the cantilevers offer views to the campus and the river, and can be seen from Hancher Bridge and points south.”

The wavy retaining walls of the Hancher gardens. And how about those fish sculptures?

But here’s what I’m most curious about the Hancher of today: Was it possibly built to resemble a cruise ship, or maybe a riverboat, docked along the Iowa River?

And note that in the gardens out front of the building, on its south end, there are low-standing concrete retaining walls, of varying heights, that look like waves.  And along the sidewalks through the garden, there are blue-green colored sculptures of fish.

I love all this.  But what I really want to know is about the serious discussions that surely must have occurred between the architects, the builders and university officials.

Who knows?  Who’ll tell us?

The north end of Hancher. Do you see the stern of a cruise ship? Or possible the back of a riverboat without the big paddlewheel?

I think the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences must also have interesting stories about its design. It’s located along Newton Road, just down the hill east a few blocks from Carver-Hawkeye Arena.  That library was built in 1974.

Check this picture of it.

I can’t be the only person who thinks it looks like Herky the Hawk.

Was it planned that way by the Chicago-based architects Skidmore Owens and Merril?  If so, that’s another long-ago conversation I’d be interested in hearing repeated.

I’ll get back to you in another column with whatever I learn.

Meantime, does anybody offer architectural tours of Iowa City?

And go Hawks!

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2 thoughts on “Cool & curious buildings at the University of Iowa. Its basketball led me to its architecture!

  1. Dear Chuck,
    As a historic preservationist, I am always delighted to see how new designs fit into the old landscapes and the urban/suburban worlds of our lives today. This is a marvelous fit for a riverside property for sure, and worthy of distinction. It would be fun to take a look our from the interiors!
    Best to you both,

    • City - Deerfield Beach
    • State - FL
  2. I agree with Marcy Shofroth. Go Hawks, we will be watching them tonight.
    It’s been quite a while since you have been to Audubon. We haven’t met your wife but have enjoyed reading your columns about her. Sam still cutting hair but has cut back.
    Best regards.

    • City - Audubon
    • State - Iowa

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