Following his acclaimed School of Art & Art History opening in 2006, Steven Holl returns to the University of Iowa with one more project – the school’s brand new Visual Arts Building. Located right next to the Art & Art History departments, Visuals Arts was designed to sit in harmony with its older sibling.

The campus’ latest addition – and home to the departments of ceramics, sculpture, metals, photography, printmaking and 3D multimedia – spans four levels of student and staff studios, offices and gallery space. The sleek new building replaced an existing one that previously housed those departments, but was damaged by floodwaters in 2008.

Enter New York-based Holl and his team, who crafted a confident new design for the school. A strong three-dimensional composition of stacked concrete-frame boxes creates a carefully articulated façade of interlinked volumes, as well as seven courtyards. These, together with several minimalist square openings that dot the façades, ensure plenty of natural light and ventilation inside, bringing sunlight deep into the structure's generous floorplates. The perforated Rheinzink (zinc) cladding also works to this end. At the same time, its pattern adds texture to the external appearance and lends the building its cool, steely grey hue.

Inside, a clean white interior matched with polished concrete floors is structured around a system of interlocking ramps and staircases that forms the building’s main circulation system. Featuring generous landings and occasionally opening up to lounge areas, the ‘stairs are shaped to encourage meeting, interaction and discussion’, explain the architects.

Translucent curved walls flood the studios with soft light, also marking the courtyard areas with a beacon-style quality and creating a subtle shadow play against the patterned zinc panel theme that continues inside.