Thursday, May 31, 2007

Honestly, is this really the best that we can do?

Let's face it, architecture that has an impact or takes a risk has rarely been a priority in Madison. Maybe it's because we're a process town, with lots of committees. Maybe it's because we lack the kind of public figures with the imagination, political clout and deep pockets that seem to be required to bring a vision of excellence into being. Maybe it's because we're more into development than esthetics.

Whatever the reason, we go for base hits rather than home runs, and even playing the short game we rarely break .200. While Milwaukee gets the world-renowned Santiago Calatrava Milwaukee Art Museum addition, we spend roughly the same amount of (Jerry Frautschi's) money to come up with the Cesar Pelli Overture Center, architecturally humdrum whatever its merits as a facility. With a few exceptions, this is true of the city of Madison, and it's true of the University of Wisconsin.

Especially the University. I snapped the above photo from the Southwest Bike Path over the weekend. It shows Dayton Street Hall, the new University of Wisconsin dorm that has sprouted up at Park and West Dayton. To my eye, it looks as grim as a Brezhnev-era Moscow apartment block in the old Soviet Union. Maybe it's just me. Wandering off to the University's website in search of a more balanced view, I came across their Dayton Street Hall dormcam, but, if anything, this view makes it look even more ugly and barren (click on the link to stream a view of the action.)

I know a lot of planning went into it. I know because the University has a comprehensive Master Plan and an even more comprehensive website dedicated to explaining just how exciting it is.
"This moment allows us to use our imaginations to envision a campus that is more workable, more livable and more sustainable — and one that will carry our teaching, research and service mission into the future." -- Chancellor John D. Wiley
If only comprehensive Master Plans could guarantee great architecture, we'd be in great shape.


Anonymous said...

I share your reaction to those sad new dorms -- except I think of them as apartment blocks in the former east Germany since I spent some time there. They are so oppressively drab.

My only hope, for the students' sake, is that the rooms on the interior are a lot more cheery and have some up-to-date conveniences. That would help make up for coming home to such a depressing-looking place.


Dr Diablo said...

A few points to ponder.

1) You can't just order up "greatness." In fact, virtually by definition, most artistic productions will not stand out. Greatness is a quality ultimately conferred by history anyway, and its verdict is not easily predicted.
2) Structures like dorms don't readily allow the architectural imagination to take flight since the practical needs of occupants take priority over the aesthetic preferences of those driving by.
3) It's especially difficult to create pretty buildings because a design that looks cute as a tabletop model can appear entirely different when built. There should be a way to make full-size in-situ mockups with holograms or something so everyone can see in advance how bad the building is.
4) Many of the old buildings whose losses people lament are no architectural wonders. They acquire a certain kind of beauty just by existing, thereby acquiring sentimental and historical connotations. If the buildings pictured last 100 years, the public will protest any proposal to demolish them.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the new Dayton Street Hall building will not be an architectural gem for the City of Madison. The biggest problem that I have with the design is that the windows for the dorm rooms are expressed as nothing more than a functional requirement. There is no design of an overall window pattern for the whole building. As one of the first new buildings, along with Smith Hall, to represent the future results of the UW Masterplan - I hope that the level of design improces.