Paper-thin ice sculptures celebrate catenary forms, winter weather in Iowa City

Winter in Iowa has a unique beauty that is not often appreciated. Throughout the afternoon of Feb. 12, weather permitting, architects from OPN Architects and art students from the University of Iowa with support from the Iowa City Downtown District, will demonstrate winter’s cold beauty through surreal, paper-thin, inhabitable ice sculptures throughout Iowa City’s pedestrian mall.

Winter Weatherdance, a collaborative public art installation, will bring the now dormant Weatherdance Fountain to life with ice sculptures that will tower over the pedestrian mall in shapes that mimic the fountain’s warm weather arcs of water.

Designed by Wisconsin artists, Andrea Myklebust and Stanton Sears, the fountain was inspired by the nuanced and unpredictable Midwestern weather, and creates an elegant place of play that celebrates the energy of all seasons, especially the summer. In February, though, we will revel in the energy of winter.

Artists and architects will begin the installation in the early afternoon. The sculptures will begin to take form by nightfall around 7 or 8 p.m. Molly’s Cupcakes and Yotopia will provide sweet treats for onlookers. The intent is to have three sculptures places at each of the Pedestrian Mall’s entry points on Clinton, Linn and Washington Streets. The most dramatic installation will be between the Iowa City Public Library and Sheraton Hotel at the Weatherdance Fountain.

Ice as a structural and design medium is not new. Swiss structural engineer Heinz Isler was experimenting with ice catenary forms nearly 50 years ago. Isler, famous for his thin-shell concrete structures, used ice as studies for his concrete work. He created catenary curves – such as the arch in St. Louis is the shape that a hanging chain or cable assumes under its own weight when supported only at its ends – by draping fabric in perfect tension, freezing it, and flipping them right side up, creating unique geometries that are shockingly thin. While only studies, Isler’s ice forms have a surreal magnificence all their own.

It is the unique beauty of winter as well as the work of Isler and others that inspired this installation, in fact. Fifty-four years after Isler’s experiments, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture + Planning created Forces Frozen. The next year, in March of 2015, students at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, including Hugh Soward, an architectural intern at OPN Architecture’s Cedar Rapids office who is coordinating the Iowa City installation, explored paper-thin ice forms in a study they called Frozen Form Finding.

Winter Weatherdance will take cues from these previous exercises. The installation, though, will be unique to Iowa City because it is inspired by its location. Like architecture, the sculptures will reflect and respect the space they inhabit.

In this case, the artists and architects are inspired by Iowa City, the location of the firm’s soon-to-be fourth studio. OPN Architects will open its Iowa City location on Clinton adjacent to and above the Airliner restaurant in July.