Thursday, July 19, 2007

Will the sun set on the Brutalist architecture of UW-Madison's Humanities Building?

The Sun Sets on the Brutalist Architecture of UW-Madison's Humanities Building
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.

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."
Susan Lambert Smith of the Wisconsin State Journal also touched on the controversy.
Humanities was featured in a 2006 article in Preservation magazine, titled "Embracing the Brute."

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."
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

The same debate rages about the Boston City Hall. You know its fascinating what happens to architecture over time. One of America's most noted early architects, Thomas Jefferson, created has had one of his buildings torn down as well and for a time there was an appendage added to his classic Rotunda. We are never fully appreciate greatness, I guess when we are too close in time to the building. Of course they could tear it down and then a few decades later want to rebuild it as it once was like Penn Station in New York.

Tom Bozzo said...

I'd like to see a more preservationist approach taken to Humanities, too. One thing Al Fish isn't quoted on, though, but which I've heard at campus planning meetings I attended a couple years ago, is that ceiling heights are an obstacle to gutting -- there's not enough to run modern utilities.

What I suspect is on the building's side is that (as Lampert Smith's piece notes) Fish can't tear it town until he can build replacement space(s), and for that he needs money that isn't as freely flowing as for West Campus life sciences buildings. So maybe by the time there's money, he (or his successor) can just let loose the nanobots to reassemble the building.

Madison Guy said...

... just let loose the nanobots to reassemble the building. Love that image, Tom.

And the nanobots aren't the only reason that time may be the best friend of preservationists. For a long time, providing space for modern utilities was a big argument in favor of demolishing older buildings -- there just issn't enough room for all the fancy wires we need today, was always the claim. But the ducting requirements of modern utilities keep changing. You used to need separate electric, phone and computer wires. The latter two are already merging -- and may well be wireless in the future. At which point it will be a lot easier to retrofit new facilities into older buildings. Especially with nanobots doing the grunt work...

Belle07 said...

You used to need separate electric, phone and computer wires. The latter two are already merging--

Not only have they merged but it used to take one 4" duct for each phone and computer. Now you can get by with one (1) 2" flex pipe for fiber or Cat 5 wiring.

Madison Guy said...

belle07, wow! I knew the trend was headed that way, didn't know the change was already so dramatic. Soon the wiring will be so microscopic only nanobots will be capable of assembling it. Anyhow, sounds like they'll have a lot more flexibility with the building than they used to think they did.

Nonanon said...

I'm not really well-informed enough to speak to the economic aspects of keeping or demolishing Humanities. But I will say this: I will never love a building the way I love Humanities. That spot outside on the second floor where you stand under the massive concrete ceiling with the huge pillars, is, bar-none, my favorite spot on campus. I used to plan my routes to each class just so I could cross that space. Sure, it's a huge ugly monster, and it's impossible to find your classes in it. But something in me responds to the ugly, and I'll miss it if it goes.

Madison Guy said...

Beautifully put, nonanon. Wonderful description of how ugly buildings grow on us -- especially if they offer an interesting spatial experience that connects with our lives. It took me a while to come around, but I'm getting there.

Dr Diablo said...

I attended classes in UW Humanities and later taught in that building. Deep within that massive fortress, I always felt like I was teaching in a subterranean installation, helping to rebuild civilization in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. It was a noble fantasy, but hardly relaxing.

Society cannot preserve everything about which we have become sentimental, since just about evrything in the material world acquires emotional significance over time. We have to, as it were, separate the precious metals from the slag and tailings, and the hideous Humanities Building is definite slag. Give everybody a day to clean their desks and start the demolition Tuesday, I say.

However, if folks are determined to save the structure, I have an idea. The statue of Barry Alvarez at Camp Randall suggests that he has the status of a Roman Emperor in your community. I propose that when the Final Gun sounds for Alvarez--hopefully some decades hence--he be entombed in that building and that the building then be sealed shut with concrete for all time. No need for him to share the place with Richter as other suitable buildings are very nearby.

David said...

Thanks for the great post Madison Guy.

Weese is now becoming known as leading architect of his generation. Because he was an iconoclast, and not a slavish proponent of the International Style, he was overlooked for years.

This building is one of his many works that will be appreciated by architecture lovers for many years. I hope the Board of Regents are starting to sweat because the heat is on.

Madison Guy said...

David, thanks for stopping by and the nice comments -- but especially for posting the link. Lot of information, informed commentary and good pictures of Humanities there.

thechrisproject said...

Ha! I just re-found this post through an odd series of links. I was researching parking garages because I've been doing a photo project on them. I got to the wikipedia entry on Multi-storey car parks, which referenced the Trinity Centre car park in Gateshead, England. Brutalism was discussed in the analysis of that park, and looking at the wikipedia page on Brutalist Architecture, I found a picture of the Boston City Hall, which reminded me instantly of the Humanities building. So I googled "UW Humanities Brutalist", which led me right here.

That's all, I don't really have any insights to share, I was just amused by all this.

ex-madison guy said...

I thought I'd weigh in on what the Humanities Building means to me. I'm a baby boomer born and raised in Madison from 1951 to graduation from High School in 1969. I lived most of the next 30 years in Madison and have been living in Tucson, Arizona since December of 2000.

Not having any idea whatsoever of what I wanted to be when I grew up, I entered UW-Madison in the fall of '69 with an eye toward engineering, which is, of course, a very conservative field. Whatever was going on politically at the time was beyond my awareness in the midst of basically "more of the same" at a university level. I weathered my first year reasonably well, but the fall of 1970 was a different story. Besides my growing personal confusion, the mood on campus was getting increasingly tense due to the situation in Vietnam. Within the first 6 weeks before I dropped out, I was to drastically rethink the value of higher education. It's all pretty vague what happened exactly, but a few things stand out: unkempt "hippie types" (I had not yet loosened up) abounded on campus manning information tables and carrying signs. "Free Huey" and "Free Angela" among other protests were written on the sidewalks. (Why would they cost money?, I thought. That's how ignorant I was.)

Then one day in the fall of 1970, I was walking down State St. approaching the intersection of Park St. with Bascom Hall looming before me and the Humanities Building on my left, when I heard a commotion. I looked to my left and I saw a group of police moving to the right down Park St. Then I looked to my right and saw a group of protesters moving to the left toward them. The two groups met and all mayhem broke out. I even saw the classic return throw of a tear gas cannister by a protester. Once, I headed up Bascom Hill in front of a similar commotion following me. I got to the top and over the other side and looked back to see them peak the hill and start down the other side as a Chinook helicopter flew overhead. It was definitely a war zone. The last straw for me was when my calculus professor came in one day and said he could not in good consience continue to teach under the circumstances. I was having trouble comprehending this level of mathmatics and 2 weeks without instruction ended the possibility of passing the course. I went to my guidance counselor and told him I wanted to drop out. He looked at me incredulously and told me that I'd most likely face the draft. I knew that, but I was in hell already, so what was the difference? (I avoided the draft with a large lottery number, stayed out of school for 2 years and then entered Madison Area Technical College and studied auto mechanics. So much for ivory tower liberal education.)

Despite my early experiences, I spent much time on campus over the next 30 years "doing the Union", folk dancing, attending free student concerts and hanging out on Picnic Point. The university atmosphere was compelling even though I was not directly involved. (State St. was, of course, included in this culture as well as Farmer's Market on the Square.) At one point I took up photography and ended up doing slide work for art students in the Humanities Building. There I really got to get a feeling for the building. If it looks forbidding and raw on the outside, inside it was like working in a cave but with green florescent lights and without the rounded and flowing lines of a cave in the ground. Add to that the plethora of student art posted and propped everywhere (no disrespect intended - comments on the character of the Art Department is a different issue.), and the constant presence of maintenance personnel fixing the leaks and other problems. I always felt gloomy during and after my time there - not a very good feeling for a center of art education in my mind.

From the moment I first saw Brutalist architecture, I thought it was a cheap art form. How pretentious to think that raw cement can be considered an artistic statement. I grew up in the building of the suburbs and saw many raw cement house foundations, but they were all eventually buried except for a 1-foot strip next to the ground. This had the purpose of leaving the wooden parts of the house isolated from the damp ground, not as any kind of statement. I suppose the Humanities building could be a lasting testiment to a certain period of history. However, I don't know that anyone who didn't go through that period can really appreciate what that really means. Anyone coming to the University today, will only see an ugly cement monstrosity. I will not be sorry to see the Humanities Building go. It may not be replaced with anything better (or with more of the same in contemporary terms), but to hold onto something like this is like leaving a ramshackle backyard shed of an evolving family home from the 60s standing as some kind of testament to how good or unique life was back then. Good architectural style has a significant classical element and enduring quality to it. There are reasons that certain old buildings are worth preserving. I don' t think Humanities qualifies.

Peter Anton

Anonymous said...

Sorry but brutalist buildings will always be ugly, imposing and remeniscent of the USSR and the cold war. They have no place in our landscape and should be demolished whenever possible.