Design students create prairie-inspired project for Iowa Arboretum in Madrid

Iowa Arboretum design-build

Sarah Schneider, fifth-year student in architecture, works an afternoon shift recently to help finish this spring's design-build at the Iowa Arboretum in Madrid. Photo by Joseph Kastner. Larger image.

MADRID, Iowa – Head to the Iowa Arboretum and you’ll see hundreds of painted wooden poles resembling the bluestem tallgrass that once dominated Iowa’s landscape.

It’s the result of a semester of design and construction in the Iowa State University computation and construction lab, an initiative of the architecture department.

“Each semester we think about ways in which digital fabrication and design can be used to help nonprofits consider design in their space,” Shelby Doyle, assistant professor and the Daniel J. Huberty Faculty Fellow in Architecture, said of her annual spring studio, Fabricating Potentials.

Fabricating Potentials created the light pavilion at the Flyover Fashion Festival in Iowa City last summer, and the kinetic pavilion at the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines the year before. The interdisciplinary studio involves students from across the College of Design, this year including interior design, landscape architecture and architecture students.

This spring, the students’ client is the Iowa Arboretum in Madrid. Sarah Schneider, fifth-year student in architecture from Ames, connected Doyle with the arboretum’s executive director: her father, Mark Schneider.

“As an organization, we’re always looking for new, interesting things that can either help us in a functional or artistic aspect that would draw people to the arboretum,” Schneider said.

With input from arboretum staff, Doyle’s students got to work brainstorming designs. The studio joined forces with a construction engineering class on concrete and steel construction, led by Cliff Plymesser, senior lecturer in civil, construction and environmental engineering.

“We use different languages,” Plymesser said as he watched his engineers work with the designers. “I wish we could do this every semester.”

Earlier this semester, groups tested preliminary designs by pouring Rockite cement mix into scaled-down, 3D-printed formwork to mimic larger concrete pours.

“Usually there’s no interaction between engineering and design. A square building is best – and then they bring in these curves,” said Michael Harriman, senior in construction engineering from Council Bluffs, chuckling as he pointed at his design peers’ curved prairie pothole design.

Brainstorming ‘Bluestem’

With funding from Doyle’s fellowship, Steve Sanda, an ISU architecture alumnus; and Dave Stasiuk, both from digital design agency Proving Ground, led a workshop teaching students how to integrate advanced computational methods into their designs for the arboretum. 

Iowa Arboretum design-build

From left, fifth-year architecture students Anna Bednarko and
Sarah Schneider, and fifth-year landscape architecture student
Dominick Florer, work on construction of the "Bluestem" installation
at the Iowa Arboretum in Madrid. Photo by Joseph Kastner.
Larger image

“The students came back March 7 and blew us away,” Schneider said. “It’s great when students can connect with someone outside the classroom, because the process is just as important as the project.”

Students narrowed several iterations to a final design: “Bluestem.”

It tells the story of Iowa’s history as predominantly prairie. Bluestem is composed of 200 wooden poles, each 8 feet tall, towering above visitors to make them feel part of the ecosystem. The poles go into the ground through PVC pipe at various angles, creating a sense of movement similar to grasses swaying in the wind.

Shades of magenta and aqua define the lengths of the poles, while light pink marks the top, signifying the seed heads of the grasses. Colors that match Iowa’s native grasses emphasize wayfinding and create “rooms” within the installation, complete with concrete stepping stones the students designed and poured.

Bad weather this spring forced delays and some last-minute logistical changes to the project, “but it’s still an invaluable learning experience,” Sarah Schneider said. Up until the opening this Friday night, the students are working long hours to finalize the project, from pouring concrete on site to spreading gravel and mulch to pounding piping into the ground with sledgehammers.

“We wanted this to be responsive to both Iowa’s history and the arboretum’s history,” Sarah Schneider said. “We also hope it brings in new and different clientele.”