The evolving discussion of whether to assess and preserve modernist architecture at the University of Massachusetts echoes debates taking place around the country.
Modern architecture raises particular issues for preservationists and the general public alike. The main obstacle is the perhaps understandable reluctance of the average person to consider relatively new buildings "historic" or worthy of preservation, or both. Skepticism concerning the historicity of the recent is compounded by the fact that modern architecture does not have the popular constituency that venerable buildings do. "Unloved" is a term often applied to both individual structures and the modernist styles as a whole. It can moreover seem that there is no urgency or clear purpose to preservation because modernist structures are still relatively common and the forces of time have not yet performed their winnowing and sifting. As one preservation group warns, "We need to separate the masterpieces from the mediocrities before they are all sacrificed for density and infill."
My brother visited Madison recently, and he spent a morning photographing a Madison architectural landmark.Among Weese's best-known works is the Metro in Washington, D.C. The Humanities Building, erected in 1968, was named for George Mosse (my undergraduate advisor), one of the most celebrated members of the distinguished history department housed in that building, following his death in 1999. Its stylistic pendant, the adjoining Elvehjem--I mean, Chazen--Art Museum, including the Department of Art History and Art Library (1970), is more popular and successful. Thus far, it has avoided the wrecking ball and succumbed only to the renaming mania that plagues our universities and other civic institutions in an age of declining public resources, short memories, and rising donor expectations.
The Capitol? No.
A Frank Lloyd Wright design? Definitely not.
No, he was documenting the wonders of the George L. Mosse Humanities Building, the most maligned structure on campus. UW-Madison officials can hardly wait to knock it down; the chancellor himself has joked about auctioning off the privilege of pushing the demolition plunger.
But to my brother, a building engineer and architecture buff, the building at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue is an excellent example of an architectural style known as "Brutalism." It was designed by one of Chicago's revered architects, Harry Weese.
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."
Fish said UW has spent more money maintaining the building (upward of $10 million) than it did to build it back in the 1960s ($8 million).
Architectural historians and preservation advocates argue that the building should therefore be maintained or at least adaptively reused. The campus planners respond that this is throwing good money after bad:
Milwaukee architecture critic Whitney Gould has suggested nominating the Humanities Building for landmark status, saying it incorporates a historical style of architecture that might not be appreciated now, but may be in the future.
Arnold Alanen, a UW-Madison landscape architecture professor, notes that beloved campus buildings such as the Red Gym, the University Club and the dairy barn endured similar eras of disrespect. Humanities is a link to the modernist period . . . . He thinks the university should preserve the best elements of different historical styles as a way of linking generations of students together.The building is slated to come down within the next decade and a-half. Aficionados are not wasting time. The Madison Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to educate the public about modernism, and various private individuals are already calling attention to and informally documenting the structure.
"Especially when it's a building by such a leading architect," he said. Alanen advocates gutting the building and rebuilding it from the inside.
But UW-Madison doesn't think it's worth the trouble.
Fish said it isn't about the style as much as the function. While well-built century-old buildings such as Chamberlain Hall and Education are worth renovating, most of the buildings from the '60s aren't.
"The campus buildings built in the 1960s were built with 20- to 30-year life spans,'' he said. "They were built fast and cheaply, to stay ahead of the wave of Baby Boomers entering college. ... Now it's all falling down around us.