Hancher: The collaboration of a lifetime

Hancher Auditorium, Location: Iowa City, Iowa, Architect: Pelli Clarke Pelli

Daniel Thies stood near the grand staircase on opening day watching the public walk through Hancher’s front doors for the first time.

Susan Bowersox drifted through the back hallways, listening to comments as the community wandered through spaces where dancers will stretch, singers will flex their vocal chords and musicians will tune their instruments.

Brian Lindgren sat in one of the teal crushed velvet seats in the performance hall, soaking up the oohs and ahhs as visitors moved through the main floor and up to the balconies, testing vantage points for future performances.

And Justin Bishop watched as children pranced around on stage, imagining bright lights and applause.

“This is what it’s all about,” says Dan, OPN Architects’ CEO and a principal at the Cedar Rapids-based firm, which served as the architect of record for the $132 million replacement of Hancher Auditorium, which opened in September 2016. The original was destroyed by flooding of the Iowa River in 2008.

“Watching people come in, it’s as if it’s finally alive. It’s a really special time to watch their reaction.”

Not every professional is afforded such an opportunity.

Surgeons might have minutes to reflect on a successful procedure before moving to another patient. It can take years of writing in solitude before an author’s work is public, and then, it is often enjoyed and discussed most in private by strangers. Teachers only occasionally follow their student to adulthood to witness their success.

Architecture is an exception. An architect’s work – particularly civic buildings – is on public display, open to commendation and criticism. The gratification, though, is far from instantaneous. In this world of immediacy, designing a building still takes time. Years, in fact.

In the case of Hancher, six years passed between Hancher’s opening celebration and the day in 2010 when Dan decided to ignore the rulebook and throw OPN’s hat in the ring for consideration by the University of Iowa for the architect-of- record selection.

“We chose to pull out all the stops. Why not? It was a huge opportunity. This was going to be a legacy for us,” he says. “I just had this funny feeling that we had a really good chance.”

As turned out, of course, Dan’s instinct was right. OPN’s then ongoing work with William Rawn Associates on the new Federal Courthouse in Cedar Rapids as well as collaborations with other national design firms like Ellenzweig and ZGF, bolstered our case that we could deliver work with design partners in complicated and lengthy projects of regional importance. OPN was selected in 2010 as the local architect for the replacement of Hancher Auditorium. As such, we were part of the team that selected the design architect. The day the proposals arrived in the offices was “like Christmas.”

The architects who submitted to the university’s request for designers read like a who’s who of the profession. Their tomes lined our bookshelves. We studies their work in architecture school. We revered their vision.

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Cesar Pelli

Ultimately, OPN and the university selected Pelli Clarke Pelli. The Hartford, Conn., firm, led by its namesake Cesar Pelli, is internationally acclaimed for many of the world’s most recognizable buildings, including the World Financial Center in New York, the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, and the International Finance Centre in Hong Kong. They’ve built a reputation for designs that capture the essence of their client.

Hancher is no exception.

Cesar Pelli was taken by the site for the performance hall.

While a majority of his work has been urban, confined to just a few city blocks. The University of Iowa chose a location at a high point along the Iowa River for the new Hancher. A building without a backside, Hancher’s seamless sinewy lines respond to the river.

A jewel in the park, Hancher is orientated on the site so that all public areas offer a visual connection to the rest of the art buildings and the campus as a whole. It respects the original building’s design as well as that of the adjacent Levitt Center. Designed to complement, not compete, Hancher is scaled to relate to its neighbor.

Hancher is Cesar’s vision. As the architect-of-record, though, it was OPN’s mission to bring that vision to life.

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Every six weeks from schematic design to design development, the team met alternating between Iowa City and Connecticut. For OPN, the experience was akin to a talented local musician afforded the opportunity to tour with and play on stage with a legend like Mick Jagger.

A true working studio, the OPN team was struck by how the architects immersed themselves in their craft. Pieces of models covered every surface.

“We were exposed to a unique way of working – less drawing, more modeling.” Susan says. “They were methodical in their design, hands on.”

There was never a doubt as to which firm’s vision was guiding the design of Hancher, yet “we were part of the entire process. They were very gracious to work with,” Dan says.

From the day the team at Pelli Clarke Pelli passed them the proverbial baton, OPN’s designers championed the design as if it were their own. A good design, after all, is only successful when the details are executed well.

“We understood the intent and fought for it,” says Justin, who led the team tasked with executing the design of the building’s skin, or exterior.

With a design as intricate as Hancher, a change of just 1/8-inch had broad ramifications.

“The curve of the exterior, the ribbon changed. It was no longer a perfect tangent, the patterns of the panels, the mullions. Everything changed,” Justin says. “We asked the right questions and kept the designer’s goals in mind with every decision.”

University of Iowa, Hancher Auditorium

The result is an “extraordinary piece of architecture,” Dan says.

“You can’t help but smile when you walk in that building,” says Brian. “You can’t not say, it’s beautiful. You try to appreciate what you’ve accomplished.”

That’s a feat easier said than done when a project has consumed six years of your professional (and sometimes personal) life. Susan’s daughter was 1 when design started on Hancher. She started second grade this fall. Justin and his wife have become parents twice over.

And while this design team was steadily focused on Hancher, their colleagues at OPN were celebrating other milestones – the re-opening of Paramount Theatre and Cedar Rapids Convention Complex, the new Cedar Rapids Public Library and Federal Courthouse, among dozens of other private and public projects. OPN expanded to Madison and grew to 120 employees.

Now, though. It’s their turn. It’s Hancher’s turn.

“This is a pinch-me moment,” Dan says.

”We did this. We did Hancher. There’s nothing we can’t do. Nothing we can’t handle. We have this experience now, you can’t take that away.”