Saturday, July 21, 2007

Monona Terrace -- let them eat cake

Let Them Eat Cake 1They could not possibly have picked a better night for the 10th anniversary celebration for the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center. Cool breezes swept in from Lake Monona, where a flotilla of boats gathered to position themselves for ringside seats at the fireworks display later on, and the sky was awash in delicate shades of faded pastel. The rooftop was jammed, and the whole city seemed to be there.

In the background, after a long evening of music by other local groups, Maestro Andrew Sewell conducted the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra's anniversary concert, which included the late David Crosby's short symphony, "Monona Terrace." The concert also included the 4th Movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, part of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite, and with the fireworks that concluded the festivities as night fell, Borodin's Polotsvian Dances.

People were having a great time, and you would probably have to be a bit of a cynic like yours truly to see subtle indications of the gentrification of downtown Madison also portrayed by LFH's Condos after Dark series. There was free cake for all, but not all availed themselves of it. Some preferred to chat with their friends behind the rope line at the reserved tables for the corporate sponsors, almost like high rise condo residents enjoying a lovely evening at home, watching the sunset over the lake.

One of my commenters on the photo of Monona Terrace I put on Flickr said that the facility is not really a Frank Loyd Wright building. He noted some called it "the mistake on the lake," and that FLW must be rolling over in his grave. He's right about that. FLW hated it when clients presumed to mess with his designs, so imagine what he would have thought about his successors at Taliesin Associates tampering with his plans for Monona Terrace.

Bumping up the roof line to make room for an exhibit hall distorted everything -- and cut off the view of the lake for pedestrians on the Square. It destroyed FLW's fundamental vision of the graceful structure bridging and connecting the Capitol Square with the lake. (Although, if Wright would have disliked today's building, he would probably have been delighted with the concert -- as the lovely T reminded me, he used to pipe classical music out to the fields at Taliesin, where his apprentices labored as farmhands as part of the Taliesin ideal of self-sufficiency.)

In fact, I loathed the idea when I first heard they were finally going to build the Monona Terrace, back when the hype tended to pass it off as a building actually designed by FLW, rather than "inspired" by FLW, which is more accurate. I thought they should have let the original idea, which Madison spurned when Wright presented it multiple times, die a natural death -- and get somebody like Frank Gehry to create a living design.

But I think I was wrong. The Monona Terrace has grown on me as a public space. By Madison standards, it passes as interesting architecture, even if it isn't authentic FLW. It functions well as a downtown space -- and along with the Memorial Union on the other lake, is the only major public building we've built along our beautiful lakes in a century and a half. And, of course, a lot of people really, really love it. And that counts for a lot, at a time when most of our architecture is too bland to inspire either love or hate.

You have to say, for a city Madison's size and history, and with its superb physical location, most of our recent architecture is surprisingly humdrum. (One reason I've mellowed about Monona Terrace is that the Overture Center, with all its travertine pretensions, is absolutely mediocre in comparison -- and not nearly as welcoming to the public.)

As for us, T and I listened to the first part of the concert on the rooftop and then decamped to an outdoor table on the patio of the nearby Paisan's. The large loudspeakers installed for the event and aimed at Law Park gave ample coverage at our location. Every note was crystal clear. Listening to the 5th Symphony while watching the lights of the boats bob and weave on the darkened lake like fireflies was a rare experience. And the superbly choreographed fireworks were fantastic -- and right in our face. A truly memorable night.

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