On the banks of the Mississippi, in the sleepy town of Davenport, Iowa, a giant glowing cube sits on the waterfront.
It is a piece of world-class architecture, designed by the renowned British architect David Chipperfield, known for his spare, minimalist designs. On its side is the word Figge, and inside is the town's oddly fabulous collection of 3,500 paintings, sculptures and works on paper, including Grant Wood's only self-portrait and some of the world's best collections of Haitian and Mexican art.
As I drove down the river to it, past the ornate Victorian homes built during the town's heyday, I wondered how the Figge Art Museum could fit into this typical, sturdy Midwestern downtown.
The building caught me by surprise. At first, it seemed to be in the wrong city, but the longer I looked at it, the more it eased into place: It was the perfect size for its space. Its glass sides were tempered, so it didn't feel hard and impersonal like the glass towers of the 1960s and 1970s.
Instead of defying the river, the Figge uses it. It reflects light the same way the river does, making it feel like a mirror of the water.
The opening of the Figge in 2005 was a major event for the town, and helped stake Davenport's claim as a national destination. Not only was the art worth seeing, but the building itself was perhaps an even bigger draw.
Museums are one of the most sought-after commissions by architects, and when the Figge was announced (named for the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Foundation, whose $13.25 million donation helped fund the building), more than 50 firms from around the world wanted to build it. In the end, David Chipperfield won out. The museum was his first civic work in the United States.
"One of the reasons we wanted David," says curator Michelle Robinson, "is because we knew he would do something completely different. We wanted a totally new approach. We didn't want him borrowing from other museums."
The design Chipperfield came up with was so fresh that it unnerved locals who couldn't imagine how this glass cube would fit in with its circa 19th-century red-brick, Sullivanesque downtown. But despite opposition, the plan went through and the new museum has put Davenport on the map.
Chipperfield has gone on to get museum commissions in Missouri and Alaska, and earlier this year, GQ magazine chose the Figge as one of the 12 best new museums in the country.
But as inspired as the exterior is, the interior may be more so.
I climbed up the long stairs into the museum, and could see Chipperfield's understanding of light immediately. The lobby was filled with sunshine. Upstairs, the gallery floors had an airy feeling, and the rooms were framed with clean lines. The atmosphere was perfect for the Figge's vibrant works, such as the bright Haitian market scenes and voodoo pantheons, as well as its darker Mexican colonial paintings.
Local collector fed museum
Many of the works in the Figge have been in Davenport for more than 100 years, thanks to local art lover and one-time Davenport Mayor Charles Ficke. In the late 1800s, when Davenport was a burgeoning river town, Ficke began borrowing and devouring art books from a co-worker in the bank where he worked. He soon grew passionate about art and art history, and bought his first painting at an auction.
In the ensuing years, Ficke traveled the world, always coming back with more art. He once returned from Japan with 34 cases of art and antiquities weighing 7,200 pounds.
By 1925, Ficke realized he didn't have room for his collection at home, so he decided to donate it to the city's newly formed Davenport Municipal Art Gallery. As Davenport grew, the museum did, too, until it became clear that it would need a new home. When the city decided to undertake a major downtown redevelopment, a new museum became the centerpiece, and proposals started flooding in.
Walking through the Figge, as cool and reflective as the river outside, it's easy to see why, in our loud, fast-paced world, this kind of space is so highly sought after.
"Every architect wants to build an art museum," Robinson says. "They're like the new church. They're inner sanctums for our cultural treasures."
Frank Bures is a travel writer and a contributing editor at www.worldhum.com. He lives in Madison, Wis.