A last-minute change in orientation has proven to be fortuitous
The Levitt Center for University Advancement anchors the northern edge of the Arts Campus. From this vantage point, the site offers impressive views of the Iowa River and the University. Given its outreach-related functions and work that stretches beyond the borders of the campus, the building is well situated near the Dubuque Street exit from Interstate 80. The facility named for Richard S. and Jeanne S. Levitt, two of the UI’s most generous benefactors, and houses the University of Iowa Foundation and the University of Iowa Alumni Association, the University’s primary fund-raising and alumni relations programs, respectively. Accordingly, the Levitt Center was funded with private gifts. Its outreach mandate is also reflected in the imagery of the building, which declines the guise of academic halls in favor of an aesthetic more attuned to corporate headquarters.
This look was achieved using a combination of limestone and powder-coated white metal panels for the rain-screen form of wall cladding, along with a variety of glazing – including glass block, a trademark of architect Charles Gwathmey. The use of glass adds to the building’s nighttime luster, when the rotunda shines as a beacon to guests approaching the Center and visitors coming to performances at the adjacent Hancher Auditorium. During the day the solar baffles on the south façade add to the contrast between light and shade. The east-west-oriented main corridor of the rectangular block houses offices on its three middle levels, while level one of the rotunda along with the fourth level of the office block are the showplace locations for meetings, banquets, and other assemblies serving advancement activities for the entire University. The fourth-level rotunda terrace opens up to provide vistas of the Arts Campus and beyond. One of the small twelve-inch-square windows on the fourth level perfectly enframes Frank Gehry’s Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories building in the distance, as Gwathmey acknowledges. The orientation of the building is the product of a last-minute change: the entire building was rotated 180 degrees on the chose site late in schematic design. Rather than marking the corner of a street intersection, the rotunda came instead to signal the entrance of the original axial approach to Hancher Auditorium to the south. How fortunate was that decision, since the new Hancher – located immediately adjacent – could take the Levitt rotunda geometry as design cue, with the cylinder of one generating the cube of the other.
The use of glass adds to the building’s nighttime luster, when the rotunda shines as a beacon to guests approaching the Center and visitors coming to performances at the adjacent Hancher Auditorium
From the outside, the curve of the glass-block cylinder recalls the rotundas of Schaeffer and Macbride Halls, but inside it offers a towering, light-filled atrium. Le Corbusier makes his influence felt here, with superimposed pilotis forming the interior wall structure. The graceful ramps and stairs with linear guard rails recall details inspired by a trip Le Corbusier took on the ocean liner Normandie, a ship he referred to as the paragon of the machine and the epitome of the machine aesthetic he later incorporated into many of his buildings. The sinuous quality of the atrium, with both interior balconies and the curve of the stair, reflect that source. The profile of a domeless drum rises above the rotunda. The reference here is to another architect, the eighteenth-century visionary, Etienne-Louis Boullee, whose idea is best represented in the United States by the nineteenth-century Ohio state capitol. But, in a surprising and perhaps unique design idea, the Levitt Center drum houses an inverted dome, which dramatically covers the boardroom at the top of the rotunda.
Editor's Note: "Architecture 101" is an introduction to the architecture of the University of Iowa campus and some of the history of a handful of its buildings. New chapters will be added weekly beginning in mid-June and through the fall. All installments of Architecture 101 are excerpts from the second edition of the book, "The University of Iowa Guide to Campus Architecture," by John Beldon Scott and Rodney P. Lehnertz. The guide was published for the Office of the President by the University of Iowa Press and will be available for purchase in late summer/early fall 2016.