Maybe. The University of Wisconsin has announced that it wants to tear down this edifice, long-reviled by Madison campus students and faculty alike, sometime within the next decade.
Maybe not. Some are arguing that the building is such a fine example of mid-century Brutalism that it should be preserved. What they're wrangling about is the George L. Mosse Humanities Building, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, who designed many highly regarded buildings throughout the country and especially in the Midwest, including the more refined Chazen Museum next door. The controversy would probably have amused the late cultural historian George Mosse, for whom the building was named after his death in 1999. [MAP]
It certainly looks brutal enough. With its walls canted away from the street, it looks like nothing so much as a fortress, which is not surprising, given that it was built between 1966 and 1969, during the height of student unrest on one of the nation's most turbulent campuses. The man in the photo seems comfortable enough, but that just goes to show that people will make themselves comfortable almost anywhere.
But that's the thing -- we do make ourselves comfortable almost anywhere, figuratively if not always literally. Our eyes certainly acclimate to things that once seemed shocking, with the result that monstrosities often morph into classics. (As a photographer, I certainly have always found the rough concrete textures and the brutal geometry of the building fascinating. It may be a totally dysfunctional structure, but it fails to function in a visually interesting way.)
In a thoughtful piece on the controversy, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel architecture critic Whitney Gould quotes Arnold Alanen, a professor of landscape architecture at UW-Madison, one of the people in the small but growing retro movement to preserve Humanities.
Alanen admits he would not like to work in the building, but he values it as a testament to its difficult times; as the work of an important modernist (our [Milwaukee] Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is another Weese product); as a piece of the Brutalist complex that includes the Chazen Museum and Vilas Hall.Susan Lambert Smith of the Wisconsin State Journal also touched on the controversy.
He has been around long enough to remember how many other now-revered UW buildings were once candidates for the wrecking ball: the Old Red Gym, the University Club, Washburn Observatory, the Dairy Barn. "Sometimes, if you can just mothball these places for awhile," Alanen says, "they can survive."
Humanities was featured in a 2006 article in Preservation magazine, titled "Embracing the Brute."Should it stay, or should it go? How about both? I like Arnold Alanen's suggestion: Gut the dysfunctional interior, replace it with a modern interior that works, and preserve and renovate the exterior, which is crumbling in places. Sure, that would cost some money. But so would building new facilities for the departments housed in Humanities. Humanities definitely belongs with its other Brutalist neighbors, the Chazen Museum and Vilas Hall -- which, though they might have their own flaws, don't flaunt them as visibly (or dramatically). It would be a shame to lose Humanities.
But while campus building czar Al Fish is aware of Weese's achievements, he practices his own version of brutalism when talking about the Humanities Building. "(Weese) has made some mistakes, and we have one of them here on campus," Fish said. How much does Fish hate the Humanities Building? Let us count the ways.
It's a maze and an "energy hog." The concrete has "spauled," meaning it has chipped and cracked from heat and cold. It has leaked since the day it opened. The poor music department is largely underground, where wildly fluctuating humidity and temperatures wreck the instruments. And, said Fish, "Who would build a building with empty space under the sixth floor, so the floor is always cold?" The heating and ventilating systems have never worked right, leading those forced to work in the building to refer to it as "Inhumanities."
And remember, the Old Red Gym was also once considered an antique relic and an eyesore. There were those who called for its demolition. But most people today are glad that never happened.