By Jim Caufield
It is probably fair to say most of us take space for granted. It is what it is, as people say of things today.
But it turns out there is a poetry of space and a philosophy of space and, more recently, a history of space, and the group of 21 Iowa State University design students exhibiting work in Art on the Prairie’s White Spaces show have put a lot of time into space.
The students are part of the new Bachelor of Design Program at ISU, a kind of hybrid degree produced by crossing the art department with the architecture and design departments.
As a kind of capstone to their coursework, their drawing class came to Perry and toured the old Citizens State Bank and Dillenbach buildings at 2nd and Warford Streets, properties recently bought by Des Moines architect Kirk Blunck, who intends to restore the century-old structures and make them attractive additions to Perry’s growing downtown art-and-culture mix.
James Spiller, ISU lecturer in architecture and a faculty member in the Bachelor of Design program, explained the reason for the tour.
"Part of the purpose of the Design Program is learning how to observe and experience the world and translate those experiences into visual forms and images," he said. "Abandoned spaces or spaces in transition prove to be very fertile for the imaginations of art and design students."
And the Citizens State and Dillenbach buildings are nothing if not in transition or, until recently, abandoned.
"The two really feel like one big building," Spiller said, especially the upper story, which is one long hallway with offices opening off each side." The mid-century business offices seem to breathe "the spirit of Dick Tracy," he said.
"There’s not much information or documentation on the previous occupants, so we’re trying to be detectives and drawing out the past through historical observation. We look at the textures, the marks on the walls, even the empty safe in the old dentist’s office."
Spiller calls such spaces "places of invented narrative," and he says the art students’ reactions to the old buildings were "very visceral and intensely imaginative."
The assignment called for each student to produce three or four drawings that figure or give shape to their experiences and feelings about the Perry properties. These drawings, Spiller said, originally inspired by the Citizens State and Dillenbach buildings, will now hang in the buildings during Art on the Prairie, Nov. 9-10. Many of the design students will also be on hand during Art on the Prairie to discuss their drawings.
Gaston Bachelard, whose 50-year-old book on the poetics of space still holds a prominent place among artists and architects, wrote, "It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality."
If his claim is right, then Spiller’s students have picked the right state for impermanence.