The Des Moines Art Center, designed in 1948 by Eliel Saarinen, consisted of a U-shaped single-story gallery paired with a double-height gallery and a two-story annex. In 1965, I.M. Pei added a block to the south facing a public park, thereby closing the original U-plan to create an internal sculpture court. Meier Partners’ addition dramatically increases the Art Center’s gallery space while respecting the overall design of this historic complex.
Because the Saarinen building is visible from the downtown approach, the challenge was to avoid interfering with horizontal profile of the center. In response, the addition occupies a series of separate volumes, which accommodate the required expansion without producing a single large mass that would detract from Saarinen’s design. A new courtyard pavilion strengthens the east-west entry axis of the existing museum, housing a restaurant that activates the previously underused court by opening it to the patio in warm weather. A glass-enclosed link running along the north-south axis connects to the new northern addition, which houses most of the additional gallery space. The largest of its three levels is located entirely below grade with slots admitting natural light into the temporary exhibition gallery, providing ideal viewing conditions for art while leaving the iconic views of Saarinen’s building unobstructed.
The overall plan of the addition derives from a nine-square grid, a compositional strategy that allows the buildings designed by Saarinen and Pei to be amplified and complemented by three discrete additions of different sizes.