Although a performing arts center was included in the 1930s plan for the Arts Campus, it was not until the 1960s that funds for that purpose were obtained. The succeeding campaign led ultimately to the October 30, 1972, dedication and opening of Hancher Auditorium. Since then, it has been a magnet for performing artists. The building is named after Virgil Hancher, fourteenth president of the University of Iowa (1940–1964).
Max Abramovitz was famous as a designer of skyscrapers, but his buildings on the UI Arts Campus are emphatically horizontal. The broad sweep of Hancher Auditorium’s façade is made possible by structural bravado and by the building’s plan, with the broad base of the triangle facing the approach and the narrowing point turned toward the stage. Hancher’s dominant slab roof with dramatically cantilevered end sections recalls the monumentality of Main Library’s south façade of a decade earlier. Unlike the library’s formidable brick walls and dark-tinted glass, however, Hancher features greater and more welcoming transparency. A sweeping glass-curtain wall folds back at the corners to emphasize the cantilevered wings of the roof, as if it were about to take flight.
Two massive piers, canted toward the viewer, do the muscle work to support the roof, but, in a design refinement, the top of each pier stops short of making direct visual contact with the slab above. The actual support member is recessed in shadow, but the effect is something like levitation. Both the cantilevering and the spanning of the impressive foyer inside are made possible structurally by the three- dimensional steel grid, known as a space frame, that covers the entire building—exposed on the interior but masked on the exterior by the slab’s revetment. A secondary slab—thinner, lower, and recessed, but also visible on the exterior—corresponds inside to the foyer balcony level. With the intention to achieve a starker contrast between surface and shadow and thereby to heighten the drama of juxtaposed forms, Abramovitz added ground white quartz to the concrete of which the exterior cladding panels are made.
The ensemble’s expansive curtain wall with giant support piers for the projecting roof is reminiscent of Eero Saarinen’s design for the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York (1963; now Lincoln Center Theater). Abramovitz knew it well since his Philharmonic Hall (1962; now Avery Fischer Hall) is its neighbor. The idea of the inte- rior-exposed space frame elevated on piers and standing forward of the enclosing glass-curtain wall, however, seems to owe even more to Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery in Berlin (1968).