If you build it in the right place with needed services and a desirable view, they will come. This is exactly what Paul Mankins did with this two-story structure at the apex of a new riverside walking/biking path in Des Moines. Mankins and his then fledging firm won the commission from the city in 2006 to design a service building for the trail. “The city realized they needed functions like restrooms and a café, but the program they outlined would have wiped out the plaza,” Mankins explains. “We worked with Wallace Roberts Todd—the landscape firm doing the river walk—to get them to slope the plaza up and the recreational trail down, which allowed us to design a multilevel building and preserve most of the plaza.”

Added bonuses of Mankins’ sloped plan include incredible views from the top floor café and the only spot along the walk that has a street level entrance resulting in better pedestrian interaction with the downtown area. In order for the building to stand apart from the natural stone used for the river walk, the building consists of clearly manmade materials such as black zinc, polished concrete, red painted steel, and glass. “We wanted our building to look like something perched on the walk,” Mankins explains, “rather than be a part of it.”

“For a small structure, it has a big personality,” commended one juror. “It’s beautifully shaped to the land” and “these kinds of buildings can transform outdoor spaces,” raved others.  That big personality has a lot to do with those bold materials as well as concealing functions within the design. Views of the structure from every angle enhance the urban landscape. Occupants of adjacent office building can look down across the building to the river beyond and have their vista marred by ugly vents and mechanical systems because Mankins integrated everything into a central fireplace shaft. The dark zinc roofing warps around for a nearly solid western elevation in contrast to the other three glass walls. The zinc also cantilevers out to shade southern and eastern exposures just enough that low winter sun can warm the translucent upper level.