by Gigi Wood

UNIVERSITY OF IOWA – It has implications for the University of Iowa, the greater community and the state.

Many are watching the progress of Hancher Auditorium, which was irrevocably damaged during the 2008 floods. Sitting empty, it is also a very visible representation of the flood’s ongoing effect on the UI campus.
Hancher is an icon of the university and the first impression of campus when visitors approach Iowa City. When it was built 38 years ago, it was ahead of its time.

“There will be technological advancements that will be in this new Hancher that the older Hancher may not have had, although I realize that when the existing Hancher was built it was one of the first performing arts centers that had computer lighting,” said Mitch Hirsch, a principal with New Haven, Conn.-based Pelli Clark Pelli, the architecture firm hired by the UI to design the new Hancher. “It was on the cutting edge when it was built, and we hope to put it on that same edge this time around, as well.”
UI officials announced Sept. 14 it hired Pelli, known for its design of performing arts centers, including the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, the second-largest performing arts center in the country by size after the Lincoln Center in New York Center. The company also designs smaller projects such as the Grinnell College’s Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, completed in 1999. The firm is led by Cesar Pelli and Fred Clarke, who are known internationally for designing some of the world’s tallest buildings and major urban landmarks.

Hiring the architect for the new Hancher is an important step in the UI’s flood recovery, said Rod Lehnertz, director of design and construction for UI’s facilities management, who has been part of most flood recovery projects on campus.

“This is a signal to people who support Hancher that we are now in effect off and running with the design of the new, future Hancher,” he said. “It’s important because while we have a lot of damaged buildings on our campus, none of them sort of speak to the larger community or to the state like Hancher does.”

It will likely take several years to complete the new Hancher.

“Because of the scale of the Hancher replacement project, it is likely to be one of, if not the final, projects completed, and so we began with this design and bringing on a noted architect. And as we finish this, I think it will mean more than just opening the doors on a new Hancher, but it could mean, for the most part, closing the doors on recovery of this campus,” Mr. Lehnertz said.

The UI’s pause for celebration is brief, he said. UI officials are working on the reconstruction of several buildings across campus, including a new studio arts and music buildings.

Pelli Clarke Pelli

Pelli was not hired for the size of its projects, but for its knowledge of Hancher, the UI and the community.

“They just blew us away,” said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director. “They did their research; they really focused in on Hancher. They really wanted to see all the information they could find. I really feel working with them, we’re going to build something that is very unique to Hancher.”

While the future 144,770-gross-square-foot, $125 million building will be impressive from a design perspective, UI staff will work with Pelli to ensure Hancher is functional, as well.

“We do want both. We want something that is iconic, something that’s really going to work, but something where people say, ‘Ah, that’s Hancher,’” he said.

Hancher will continue to bring diverse programming to the community, Mr. Swanson said, but the technical needs of performers and audience demands have changed with time. The new Hancher will likely include digital technology and other modern features and will be designed to bring audiences closer to performances.

“I always talk about Hancher as a dance house because our tradition, our history, is presenting everything, but dance, I’ve always felt that is our niche,” he said. “So we certainly want another nice, big stage, big wing space, great dance floor, those types of things that attract the finest dance companies in the world.”

For the past two years, Hancher has continued to organize performances, which have been hosted in venues across the area.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, it really has been, and now we can actually sit down and roll our sleeves up and start some real, serious planning,” he said. “Our staff has done a great job with ‘Can’t Contain Us’  (relocating shows to other venues), but we eventually need a home.”

The UI received 59 applications from architecture firms around the world that wanted to design the next Hancher. That list was pared down to 11 and then to four. The four finalists visited the UI campus on more than one occasion for interviews to present concept plans.

“Cesar Pelli, he’s a rock star, but he was there, and that’s not why we chose them, but he’s done some great things, he and Fred Clarke, both,” Mr. Swanson said.  

Hancher’s placement

The new Hancher will be built near the flooded Hancher, outside of the flood zone. It will be constructed either to the east or south of the Levitt Center for University Advancement. The new building will be designed to complement the Levitt Center, Mr. Swanson said.

Mr. Hirsch, who will serve as design team leader for Pelli’s work on Hancher, said siting of the new building will be one of the first steps it takes in the design process.

“That is understanding the boundaries of the site relative to issues of the flood and the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) issues of building to the 500-year-flood plus 2 feet, so that sort of narrows the site down,” he said. “And we believe whatever is built needs to be a very good neighbor to the Levitt Center.”

Pelli will also explore how the new Hancher will connect visually to the UI campus and arts campus, to the Iowa River and the community.

“It’s understanding the site, understanding the program or the Hancher as it exists and how one might manipulate those variables on the new site,” Mr. Hirsch said.

UI facilities management will manage the project for the school and will initially focus on the mechanical, electrical, engineering, acoustic and other needs of the building.

“We will make sure the building is a 21st century model for function related to a performing arts center,” Mr. Lehnertz said.

Most projects Pelli designs take three to six years to complete.

“One of the first things we need to do is collaborate with the university and their stakeholders to put together a big-picture schedule,” Mr. Hirsch said.
OPN Architects in Cedar Rapids will be the local architect of record. Mr. Hirsch said Pelli will collaborate with OPN in every step of the design process. Pelli will work on the Hancher project from its New Haven office.

Hancher’s demolition

A team is also working on demolition plans for the former Hancher building. Because the structure has historical significance, FEMA is requiring a specific process, called memo of agreement, to take place before the demolition can begin. Public forums will be hosted by FEMA to determine the best solution to respect and recall the history of the building once it’s gone, Mr. Lehnertz said.

“There may be assumptions that we are just sitting and waiting when in fact, while FEMA does pay 90 percent of the costs to minimally maintain that building, those efforts cannot happen until FEMA completes its memo of agreement process,” he said.

Substantial planning work will also go into the actual demolition.