Snøhetta uifies Vesterheim Cultural Campus in Iowa with New Commons

Vesterheim Commons

Unifying a Campus
Snøhetta and Vesterheim have unveiled a new building and landscape for the storied Vesterheim campus in Decorah, Iowa. A new 8,000 square-foot building, known as The Commons, and collection of outdoor spaces, establish a dynamic new entry point and gathering space for a cultural campus containing a museum, folk art school, and other community-oriented facilities. Aside from anchoring the site, the new Vesterheim Commons project threads together Vesterheim’s Heritage Park with Water Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Marked on the street by a soaring wooden canopy, the new building’s public reception lobby mirrors the cozy and sheltered outdoor rooms of the surrounding park. Flexible upper-level galleries, including state-of-the-art digital facilities and a new production studio, create spaces where visitors can explore a rich collection of artifacts and artworks. The lobby is bathed in light from above by a wood oculus while a flexible event space and new circulation areas create interior connections to the Westby-Torgerson Education Center and Vesterheim’s Folk Art School.

A second-floor gallery feeds the new digital workspaces and offices, including a new study room for the focused observation of Vesterheim’s astounding collections. Taken together, the project allows Vesterheim to draw in local residents and visiting groups from around the country so that new stories can be told through multicultural experiences bridging time and place. Elevation showing how the new Commons building will respectfully integrate into downtown Decorah’s urban streetscape along Water Street.

An Evolving Woodland Park
Snøhetta’s master plan for Vesterheim, completed in 2019, set in motion a unified campus composed of historic structures, outdoor classrooms, and revitalized commercial buildings set within a wooded landscape. In addition to offering a new public green, Vesterheim’s Heritage Park creates a dramatic setting for year-round public access to a variety of immigrant-built structures brought to Decorah from across the Upper Midwest region.

Heritage Park’s urban woodland, inspired by the surprisingly similar Driftless region of Northeastern Iowa and the wooded landscapes of Norway, extends throughout the outdoor spaces, bringing together two unexpectedly rugged landscapes on the site. Here, plantings frame woodland clearings to provide obvious thresholds and edges defining Vesterheim’s grounds. In turn, The Commons’ outdoor classrooms and interpretive spaces are framed by diverse regional plant species intended to adapt and evolve alongside the institution and its programs.

Shaped by Traditional Craft
Built using locally sourced brick, wood structure, and textured concrete walls, The Commons links the museum collection and the Folk Art School to Norwegian craft traditions through honest and humble materials. This tactile and time-honored sensibility extends to skillful forestry practices necessary to nurture Heritage Park into the future.

“As a Norwegian-American company, Snøhetta is grateful and excited to play a part in recontextualizing the experiences, art, and crafts of Norwegian immigrants here in Iowa,” said Craig Dykers, Snøhetta Founding Partner. “We hope and expect that The Commons and Heritage Park will create new opportunities for considering and understanding the experience of immigrants to the United States.”

With its mass timber wood frame fabricated in Albert Lea, Minnesota and exterior walls built of brick from Adel, Iowa, The Commons extends a long tradition of using local materials to give shape to the life and culture of Decorah. The project’s distinctive yet respectful outward appearance creates multiple opportunities for Vesterheim visitors to experience and appreciate Decorah’s downtown architecture and the region’s verdant landscapes. The project is scheduled to be completed in Summer 2023. Source by Snøhetta.

  • Location: Decorah, Iowa, USA
  • Architect: Snøhetta
  • Architect of Record: BNIM
  • General Contractor: McGough
  • Landscape Contractor: 2nd Nature
  • Cost Consultant: Directional Logic
  • Structural Engineer: Fast + Epp / MBJ Engineers
  • MEP & Lighting Engineer: Morrissey Engineering
  • Civil Engineer: Erdman Engineering
  • Acoustics Engineer: ARUP
  • Sustainability Consultant: Atelier 10
  • Heritage Park Phase I Landscape Architect: Damon Farber
  • Mass Timber Fabricator: Bell Structural Solutions
  • Brick Fabricator: Glen-Gery Brick
  • Mason: Berger Masonry
  • Concrete Fabricator: Wicks Construction
  • Entry Sign Woodworker: Jock Holmen
  • Client: Vesterheim, National Norwegian-American Museum, and Folk Art School
  • Year: 2022
  • Images: Moer, Courtesy of Snøhetta