Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Madison's all too casual and cavalier attitude toward preserving the city's sightlines

Madison's Cavalier Attitude About Preserving Its Sightlines
Once upon a time, there was a building with a dome at each end of State Street, and you could see the one from the other.

If you looked down the length of State Street from the Capitol toward Bascom Hall, you would see Bascom with its dome at the other end, as this photo from vfm4's 1915, Madison, Wisconsin Set illustrates. Then Bascom's dome burned down. But even so, what remained of Bascom Hall could still be seen from the Capitol.

Not so today. As the top photo from the Capitol steps -- shot during a recent Dane County Farmers' Market -- demonstrates, you can no longer see Bascom Hall from ground level at the Capitol. If Bascom Hill were aligned with State Street, there would be no problem, but it jogs off at an angle to the right as seen from upper State Street. Thus, preserving those sightlines would have required greater setbacks and/or lower rooflines as State Street was developed, especially lower State Street. (Actually, you can still see a bit of the roof of Bascom Hall in the picture -- it's under the flagpole to the left of the Orpheum sign.)

The problem was the expansion of the UW-Madison Memorial Library in 1990, which brought its footprint closer to State Street and added height at the same time. Critics warned that sightlines would be compromised, but architectural drawings were marshaled against them, seemingly disproving their case. Later that decade, the same problem arose regarding the "Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired" Monona Terrace. Critics said it would cut off the view of Lake Monona from ground level on the Capitol Square. The criticism was dismissed, once again with the aid of architectural drawings based on Wright's that clearly showed the lake in the background, somehow obscuring the fact that the roof had been raised to build an exhibit hall.

In both cases, the drawings were misleading -- at best. You have to wonder how that happened. After all, the rules of perspective and projective geometry don't change over time. The truth, it seems, is more malleable.


Gino said...

You are just as guilty as you claim the city is, for your photo looking down State Street was taken at a far lower elevation than the postcard you hold up as an exemplar of how far it all has fallen. Your position is, however, right down there with the rest of what passes for "journalism" in Madison, much of which refuses to be convinced by facts.

Madison Guy said...

Gino, I'm not sure what your point is. I never claimed my photo was taken from the exact same position (the hot air balloon wasn't available). My point was that you used to be able to see Bascom from the steps of the Capitol, not all that long ago,and now you can't. But thanks for calling me a journalist.