Tectonics, Tolerances, and Time: Examining Eero Saarinen’s and Mies van der Rohe’s Buildings at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa

Whitehead, Rob
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Due to the unprecedented expansion of postwar enrollments at colleges and universities in America, campuses nationwide expanded rapidly and embraced the efficiency in construction, performance, and expression offered by Modern architecture. The resulting buildings favored a language of simplicity and honesty, eschewing traditional means of material expression and construction in favor of an expressive, elemental language featuring exposed assembly systems and tight dimensional tolerances. Unfortunately, time has revealed the inherent fragility of this approach.

Campuses nationwide, including Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, face massive challenges in the preservation and remediation of these buildings. After WWII, Drake added sixteen new buildings in twenty years, nearly all by celebrated architects, including extensive work by Eero Saarinen and a building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. This paper examines the forces that shaped the creation and eventual modifications of three projects on Drake’s campus by Saarinen and Mies, including the role of Drake’s visionary, highly influential leader during this era, President Henry Gadd Harmon. Specifically, the research examines how the weaknesses in the major building envelope systems were created by a combination of the architect’s tectonic expressions, minimal allowable construction tolerances, and inherent limitations of material performance.

When the essential components of a building’s structure and skin are simultaneously the sources of failure and the means of expression, fixing these problems without changing the building’s design is extremely difficult. The preservation and restoration of these projects present profound challenges, not only because of the notoriety of the architects but because of certain initial decisions made in the design and detailing of the projects.


This article is from Preservation, Education & Research Journal 2 (2009): 27–40.