Hawkeye Urbanism

Sioux City, Iowa, is betting that architecture and design can help revitalize its downtown. Instead of courting big-box stores or rushing to encourage new “loft” development, the city and its chamber of commerce are helping an architecture school open a satellite program. The project’s supporters say that the school, a branch of the Iowa State University (ISU) College of Design, in Ames, will help to invigorate the city’s nascent arts district.

With a grant from the state’s Great Places program, the school is taking over an abandoned steam-boiler facility adjacent to the town’s now busy historic district. The 7,800-square-foot building will house a lecture hall, administrative offices, and exhibition and studio space for 20 or more students. Nathan Kalaher, an ISU graduate and a designer with the Sioux City firm M+ Architects, helped initiate the project, and he believes that the area is a perfect learning environment for students. “When most people drive through Iowa, they think it’s all countryside, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Kalaher says. “Nearly all of the land has been designed by humans for agriculture. No other place offers such a saturation of design intervention on the landscape. If you rethink Iowa, it becomes a playground for design research.”

Mark Engelbrecht, dean of the ISU College of Design, envisions the satellite program in Sioux City as much more than just additional studio space. When students arrive this fall they will become contributing members of the community, working with Kalaher and others on any number of projects, from an upcoming highway expansion to a proposed redevelopment of the stockyards. “Many of our students have a great passion for working for their hometowns. I know this will resonate with them,” Engelbrecht says.

Drawing the school into the community was the goal from the start, according to Debi Durham, president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber Foundation, which will own the building, has been pushing to create a cultural hub around the city’s historic district, a three-block-long stretch of newly restored stone-and-brick Richardsonian Romanesque landmarks from the 1890s, when Sioux City was known for its vast stockyards. The new studio space is only a half block away from the strip—now home to bars, restaurants, and shops on the ground floors, and apartments behind the large arched windows above. “We’ve developed a new vision for an arts, culture, and entertainment district downtown,” Durham says. “The beauty of this school is that it helps us realize that vision. Not only will we have the intellectual capital of the students coming through, but by doing projects here they will leave their mark on the community.”

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