Sunday, April 25, 2010
If the UW doesn't tear down the Humanities Building soon, they may have to preserve it instead
I wandered over to the campus yesterday afternoon to take some photos of the George L. Mosse Humanities building in the rain (view large on black). It's probably the most hated Brutalist building in Madison, and I wanted to take another look at its brooding, labyrinthian forms after reading in the NYT about what's happening with Brutalism out East.
Architectural trends seem to swing like a pendulum, and this once much-reviled offshoot of late modernism seems to be making a comeback. The tide is turning. If the UW doesn't carry out its plans to demolish Humanities soon, it may end up facing pressure to preserve and renovate it as an architectural landmark instead.
Although for many people the term Brutalism evokes architecture that is ugly, sterile and inhuman, the NYT's "Beautiful Brutes" explains that term originally had a more positive meaning. It's derived from the French "breton brut" (raw concrete) popularized by Corbusier. (This example is on Vilas Hall, another Brutalist building across University Ave. from Humanities.) Often bearing the imprint of the wooden forms into which it was poured, the concrete ages in interesting ways. Up close, it often looks like an interesting abstraction. From a distance, it often looks dilapidated. The NYT story includes a slide show of drawings portraying Brutalist buildings in New York that seem worth a second look. Drawing is a great medium for highlighting some of the strengths of Brutalism while avoiding the often shabby exterior details of these aging buildings.
This is a view looking through one of the exterior passages toward the pedestrian bridge over Park Street (view large on black). I love to wander the exterior passageways and courtyards of the Humanities Building. There's some serious geometry going on, and the sheer bulk of the building avoids being oppressive because the visitor is led forward by interesting openings for the eye and other visual surprises. Of course, I don't have to work or attend classes there.
How likely is it that Humanities will be restored and preserved? I have no idea, but it's probably worth taking a look at what they did at Yale University. The school recently spent $126 million renovating the Art and Architecture Building (and building an addition). The Yale building was designed by Paul Rudolph and completed in 1963, just a few years before Chicago architect Harry Weese designed Humanities for the UW. Rudolph's building opened to widespread critical acclaim, but -- like Humanities -- soon became very unpopular on campus. It was rumored, though never proved, that disgruntled students set the fire that gutted the interior just a few years later, turning the building into a white elephant that sat around for decades. Now it's an architectural landmark with a spiffy new addition by the New York firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, which also supervised the restoration.
Will the UW follow suit? Currently there's no money in the budget to tear down Humanities. Continuing budget woes may give the building more time to come back into fashion. Or the delay might just lead to continuing decay and deterioration, to the point where it no longer makes sense to preserve the structure. Stay tuned.