The sketches and models that fill Kenton Peters' airy, colorful studio near the Capitol offer a portal to an alternative Madison.
In that city, the Lake Monona shore is lined with an amphitheater, restaurants, promenade and marina, old storage buildings are replaced by high-rise affordable housing with a rooftop park, and winter-weary residents find refuge in glass-enclosed gardens.
East Washington Avenue is lined with 3,000 trees, and St. Raphael's Cathedral, destroyed by fire in 2005, rises again with an arched sanctuary of ribbed ivory stone and translucent glass, filling the church with light during the day and letting it glow after dusk.
Madison's own Frank Lloyd Wright - in ambition, feisty temperament and drive if not architectural style, which is admittedly "eclectic" - Peters has designed some of the city's most recognizable and controversial buildings.
And at 78, he says he's not done yet.
The architect who startled and outraged city residents with his cobalt blue federal courthouse and metallic UW Foundation and Marina condo buildings - the latter famously described by former Mayor Sue Bauman as a "garbage can on the lake" - still hopes to deliver a lasting legacy for his beloved Downtown.
Despite a recent glut of hotel proposals, Peters is trying to assemble land for Downtown's biggest hotel with a striking, modern design and atrium that he hopes would be his crowning achievement. He declined to share specifics, saying negotiations are at a sensitive stage.
"I've never had so many interesting thoughts, such a rich flow of visions, sort of culminating after 50 years of practice," he said.
'An artist, in the best sense'
After a career that's produced more than 100 buildings, from St. Paul's University Catholic Center on State Street to the Teton County Courthouse in Jackson, Wyo., Peters is widely viewed as one of the state's leading architects of the last half century.
"I think he would be in the top echelon," said Bob Greenstreet, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UW-Milwaukee. "I have the highest regard for his work."
But it's his relentless modernism, his fixation on Downtown and his unending ideas for properties he doesn't control, that has earned Peters a reputation for a genius - or stubborn, unrealistic dreamer.
• Unbidden, he designed a new Catholic Diocese Cathedral and produced an alternative for the proposed Edgewater Hotel redevelopment on Lake Mendota. Before city leaders got serious about a new central library, he offered a modern facility topped by condos behind the Madison Municipal Building, and will soon offer an alternative to the current library plan. He sees a mixed-use building with offices, housing and a grocery on a parking lot off Capitol Square.
• He continues to push grand visions: A landscaped, terraced esplanade with parking built over John Nolen Drive to the Lake Monona shore that he's calling "Lake Park," glass enclosed winter gardens off Capitol Square and the Overture Center, and "green" streets with no parking.
• When the economy improves, he hopes to build another metallic residential tower with a bridge over John Nolen Drive to the waterfront between his existing Union Transfer and Marina condos.
"He really is a visionary," Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said. "Not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, his designs are challenging. I love some of them and hate some of them."
Cieslewicz, former mayor Paul Soglin and others said they love the concept of Lake Park. "If we had all the funds in the world, I'd do that one," Cieslewicz said.
"He's an artist, in the best sense," said attorney Fred Mohs, a Downtown activist, historic preservationist and former University of Wisconsin regent who's known Peters for 40 years. "He has great confidence that he's right."
At the same time, Mohs said, "I wouldn't want to live in a city where he's in charge of all the design."
Former football great
Ten floors above his studio, Peters and his wife, Susan Lubar, live in a penthouse in his Union Transfer condos on East Wilson Street.
The sun-drenched, white interior is filled with modern art and furniture and has a killer view of Lake Monona.
Yet nowhere in his studio or home can one find evidence of Peters' years as a Wisconsin Badger, when he caught 22 passes for the 1953 Rose Bowl football team and was a captain in track and field.
In life, as in his architecture, Peters isn't about the past, friends say.
"That is truly characteristic of him," Mohs said. "He is forward looking."
Born in Cincinnati, Peters - whose father was a traveling salesman - was raised with three brothers and a tight gang of friends who were always building something or battling in sports.
In Glen Ellyn, Ill., a Chicago suburb, where his family settled, Peters was a star in football and track and recruited by Dartmouth, Colgate and Tulsa universities when he graduated from high school in 1949.
Instead, he followed his older brother, Farnsley, to Madison as a walk-on for the Badgers, making varsity as a sophomore, junior and senior.
While he doesn't tout his Badger past, he remembers it vividly: beating Illinois to make the Badgers the nation's top-ranked team, blocking for Alan "the Horse" Ameche, losing to USC in the Rose Bowl.
A consummate jock, he nearly pursued a career in coaching.
But one night, a local architect teaching a class asked if he'd consider a career designing buildings. The answer came clear as Peters strode home across Bascom Hill that snowy winter evening.
"It was one of those magical moments. I knew what I wanted to do," he said.
Hits and misses
Sitting in his living room or strolling past the federal courthouse on North Henry Street, there's no escaping Peters' embrace of modernism.
"I like the efficiency of modern architecture," he said. "I think every generation has the right, the prerogative, to build buildings that express their age."
The courthouse, built in 1985, is meant to be a focal point rather than blend with its surroundings, its provocative blue, metallic skin inspired by the Harvestore silos that dot rural Wisconsin.
U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb raves about it, inside and out. "It's sleek. It's handsome," she said. "It's the kind of building that people can't walk by without stopping and looking and thinking."
Peters doesn't fret about "context." His metallic UW Foundation Building shimmers among brick structures on Old University Avenue and his Warner Park Shelter is a burst of colored corrugated metal amid grass and trees.
"He's not willing to accept the tired notion of building buildings that fit in," said Whitney Gould, a former Madisonian and longtime architecture critic at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal.
Peters said he tries to innovate on a site. But sometimes, even in the eyes of admirers, he can misfire.
His concrete, curved James Madison Park Shelter overlooking Lake Mendota, for example, is "a very forbidding, brutal building that turns it's back on the landscape," Gould said.
Still, Peters said, any design is ultimately a collaboration among the client, the site and the times.
"I'm an eclectic," he said. "I don't look at myself, except in rare occasions, to be a real creator. Truth be known, I'm a follower as far as design is concerned. I design my buildings as an amalgamation of all the images I see."
Doesn't play 'the Madison game'
Peters, who now assumes the roles of architect and developer, has struggled to move some of his grander ideas from studio to reality.
Eloquent and funny, with a biting wit and a penchant for sarcasm, Peters can be his own worst enemy, reacting to input from officials or neighborhood groups like a gourmet chef watching a diner slather ketchup on a filet mignon in port wine sauce.
"My first encounter with him was terrible," said neighborhood activist Bert Stitt, who likes Peters' work but clashed with him on Union Transfer, which exceeded the approved height and cost Peters fines and humiliation. "He approached the community with a certain arrogance, a disdain really, for what someone else was thinking."
"Kenton is a guy with strong and clear ideas," said author David Mollenhoff, who's penned books on the city's history and Frank Lloyd Wright. "He is also a tenacious debater, as any visionary has to be."
That's sometimes a tough sell in a city like Madison, which has long identified itself, for better or worse, as a city that respects process. "He doesn't play the Madison game very well," Cieslewicz said.
Peters concedes that he doesn't play that game well but said he won't stop trying to change Madison.
"I just don't believe in designing by committee," said Peters, who acknowledged that he's "not good at persuading people.
"I can see what a great city this can be."