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A Spotlight on Simplicity

Architect embraces his agricultural roots, showcases metal's kinetic drama

Growing up in Iowa, architect Brent Schipper, AIA, LEED AP, seriously considered being a farmer. He considers it to be "the most noble of vocations," one that was the livelihood of this grandparents. But his career direction shifted when he developed a real interest in buildings, especially agricultural metal buildings, from drawing sketches of them and being around them.

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He says, "I really learned I had the knack for designing buildings, not farming." The farm crisis of the 1980s made architectural school an obvious second choice, as did stacks of meticulously designed and drawn farm plans. "I realized that my knowledge of sun angles and wind directions-keep livestock east of the house for odor control, and allow shade from south sun and protection from northern winds for cattle-could be used for buildings with all human occupancy also."

He studied architecture and business at Iowa State. He has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in architecture, a minor in housing, but did not complete his MBA. "I am currently a poor architect with a passion for housing … and they say education doesn't matter," he says.

He interned for a professor in his private architectural practice. "I considered myself his 'studio chief;' he considered me his driver," he says. "The lessons have lasted a life time. He most importantly modeled passion and impatience." His first real job after college was drafting livestock confinement buildings: aka barns. "They were prefabricated metal frames with metal siding," he says. "They were not architecture, but a lesson in building, speed of assembly and longevity."

Firm experience

Since graduating from architectural school, Schipper says he has only worked "in three firms and two of them had my name on the door." This gave him years of responsibility, but also years of creative autonomy. "I have found that metal grants our buildings a connection to this place in which we practice," he says. "The use of metal on our city halls, community centers and court houses does not visually connect someone to a barn, but maybe an intuitive association of the rhythms in panel lines or shingle patterns, and often be impressed by the budget consciousness of the final result. These are the underlying principles of a Midwest vernacular that our work strives to embrace."

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Schipper is currently one of two founding partners in his Des Moines, Iowa-based architectural firm ASK Studio. "My current role is head cheerleader," he says. "My partner Mike [Kastner, AIA, LEED AP] is the head coach. It is an ideal situation for me. I get to push and exalt, while Mike pokes and teaches. This works with our personalities. I prefer clapping my hands and Mike prefers wringing his hands. Mike does the redlines and is more exacting about everything on a drawing. I am the guy who asks, 'Why doesn't the roof edge extend further? That looks like something I've seen before, why doesn't it look like something I haven't seen before?' Sometimes I feel guilty because I have the more fun role. It sounds strange but it works for us."

In terms of dealing with clients, and "what works" to bring mutual success, he believes the partnership with the client is much more than communication. He stresses that at his firm, "If we simply communicate size, shape and color, the client does not understand the design," he says. "They will only understand the building as shelter. We must convey to our client how we are making the building speak. The client must be the impetus of the message and the architect must find the buildings' voice. It is truly shared passion."

Schipper believes Victorian era art critic John Ruskin's philosophy of "We want two things from our buildings. We want them to shelter us. We want them to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of" is embodied in his firm and his ideals.

Metal's kinetic drama

Schipper feels that metal inherently has a kinetic drama. "It is strong and light," he says. "We build ships and planes out of metal. They have the drama of scale with limited mass, movement and even flight. Our buildings can have the same drama even though they are anchored to foundations. That is the magic of architecture with a big 'A.'" Schipper embraces metal's simplicity and believes that too often "we can lose sight of its simplicity," he says. "I think we too often try to reinvent and complicate materials. Materials have inherent qualities that should be respected, even exploited. Metal is strong, light and economical. If your design speaks of these attributes, then the results will be simple and I believe beautiful. Economy is the key. When you don't exploit economy, then you will create something akin to jewelry rather than architecture. Jewelry is good, but it has a limited clientele and they don't live in Iowa."

Simplicity of design

One of Schipper's most favorite successes with metal is the Iowa Prison Industries Showroom in Des Moines. The project won a 2012 Metal Architecture Design Award, one in which judge Mark DeWalt voiced it was "a simple, elegant solution." It was designed as a simple structure with an elaborated façade. Standard metal components form the body of the building. This structure serves as a wholesale showroom of products made by prisoners in the State Prison system. First and foremost, Schipper wanted the building to serve the needs of the client, but moreover, "exemplify beauty in simplicity." It is set in a neighborhood near the State Capital complex. The surrounding buildings are very colorful, and have storefronts and sidewalk cafes.

Working off the client's limited budget of $700,000, the project had a limited time frame of six months from the first design meeting to the end of construction. Schipper knew the project would be daunting, but his firm took the challenge as an opportunity to maximize how beautiful architecture can be in its simplest form, using standard materials. In addition to time and money, the client was adamant that this building be windowless, due to vandalism associated with the prison system.

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"Because the street side of the building is oriented north, we knew we had to take advantage of the diffused light," Schipper says. "With a little convincing that metal-framed, polycarbonate panels would be hard-to-hit targets, and that it is important to engage the adjacent street with apertures, the client became receptive to taking the building's aesthetic from dark warehouse to a light-filled showroom."

In the end, it all came down to careful attention to the client's needs, site context and neighborhood culture. To do this, "Metal became the frontrunner material in terms of making a simple, efficient and economical form that could also relate to the context of the neighborhood," Schipper says. "It is due to metal's versatility that we were able to design such a simple form with varying textures and planes. These textures and planes were used as an antithesis to the color seen in the surrounding context. We believe that this complements, instead of fights with, the other colors."

Another one of Schipper's favorite Ruskin quotes is: "No architecture is so haughty as that which is simple." As long as there is metal around, Schipper will continue to embrace it and its simplicity. "It is a material of few limitations. It is the material of every machine shed in the Midwest. Its possibilities are equally legendry. It is why the Gateway Arch stands, shines and speaks. Somewhere in between I'm comfortable making architecture."



Arch Connect

What is the best advice you ever received as an architect?

My best advice as an architect came from a farmer: my grandfather. He told me beauty was in the simple things. Looking to where his finger guided my gaze, I learned to see beauty in straight, clean rows, well-tended fences and green hills punctuated with cattle.

What's on your iPod while you work? The National, M. Ward, Gillian Welch and Miles Davis

What do you do on weekends? Think

What is your favorite book? "The Stranger" by Albert Camus for words, and "The Life and Love of Trees" by Lewis Blackwell for pictures.

Where is your favorite place to vacation? Until last year I swore I would never waste time sitting on a beach. I subscribed to Phillip Johnson's creed, "I hate vacations. If you can build buildings, why sit on the beach?" Phillip has obviously never been to Isle de Madres.

What historical figure would you most like to have dinner with and why? Jimmy Carter, because he is a kind and brilliant man. I'm sure I could better understand what went wrong if I could just speak with him. If Jimmy is not available, then Genghis Kahn for the opposite reasons.

What advice would you give to future architects? Make it last.