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As UW-Madison plans for future, well-known 1960s buildings could face wrecking ball
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As UW-Madison plans for future, well-known 1960s buildings could face wrecking ball

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They are some of the most architecturally infamous buildings on the UW-Madison campus.

“Just a box,” was how scientist Zhumin Zhang described the McArdle Cancer Research Building, a hulking 11-story concrete facility with small windows on two of its sides and none on the others. “It’s not very pleasant.”

“Kind of ugly,” junior Sydney Tishim said of the Mosse Humanities Building, where she has attended lectures and discussion sections in classrooms she described as “enclosed and kind of claustrophobic.”

As for the exterior, with its slabs of concrete and narrow windows, Tishim said, “It’s artistic in a way, I guess.”

UW-Madison has good news for critics of McArdle and Humanities: If the campus’ planners have their way, those structures and two others from the 1960s — the towers of Van Hise Hall and the Engineering Research Building — could face the wrecking ball in the not-too-distant future.

The university is developing its latest Campus Master Plan, a wide-ranging road map for development at UW-Madison that includes new or renovated buildings, reshaped green spaces and re-engineered intersections.

Officials have identified dozens of potential locations for new buildings that they say could better use the campus’ space, some of which would involve tearing down the half-century-old structures that often draw the ire of the students and faculty who inhabit them.

Targeted buildings are not the futuristic, gleaming glass facilities that have sprung up around campus in recent years, nor are they the timeless brick or stone buildings that have defined UW-Madison for a century or longer.

They instead come from an era when their now-controversial style of brutalist architecture was en vogue.

It was also a time when UW-Madison was growing — enrolling more students and bringing in federal research dollars that spurred a need for more space on campus.

Brutalist buildings are known for their harsh lines and edges, as well as their generous use of exposed, cast concrete. They were a popular style on college campuses across the country, said UW-Madison art history professor Anna V. Andrzejewski, though some structures “tend to have a fortress-like appearance.”

“People find these buildings foreboding and threatening,” Andrzejewski said.

But campus officials say the problems at the buildings they hope to eventually demolish are more than skin deep.

Van Hise needs a new fire safety system that will cost tens of millions of dollars. Bringing McArdle up to code for accessibility would also mean paying steep costs. The Humanities building has been plagued by leaky roofs and water damage for years.

“It’s a constant struggle for us,” said Patrick Coughlin, Humanities’ building manager.

UW planning for

future of campus

UW officials have not yet committed to tearing the buildings down, said Bill Elvey, associate vice chancellor for the university’s facilities planning and management division.

Any demolition is still years or perhaps decades off, and will depend on funding, detailed studies about how to best use the space and the construction of facilities for the departments that call the current buildings home.

But as UW-Madison works on the Campus Master Plan, officials have targeted Humanities, McArdle, Engineering Research and Van Hise, each built between 1962 and 1969, as prime candidates for replacement with better-designed buildings.

The plan lays out several changes to UW-Madison, such as a redesigned intersection where North Charter Street meets Linden Drive that uses pedestrian and bicycle bridges to get cars through the area quicker while cutting down on crashes.

It’s the plans for buildings that would bring some of the most dramatic changes to UW’s landscape and the Madison skyline, though. Van Hise is the tallest building in the city, while Humanities takes up nearly an entire block in the heart of the campus.

UW isn’t targeting all of its buildings from the 1960s for demolition — the university will start a major renovation of Witte Hall, a dorm built in 1964, next year, for instance. And the campus’ older buildings such as Science Hall or North Hall aren’t in danger either, thanks to their quality and historic significance, Elvey said.

“We’d never tear down Bascom Hall,” Elvey said. “But the structure itself is in good shape.”

For those buildings built on what Elvey euphemistically described as “value engineering,” though, their life span could be nearly complete.

Problems more than

skin deep

The main lecture hall in the Humanities building got a new ceiling last year after chunks started falling out of it during classes. A leaky roof was to blame, and water stains have already started showing up on the new ceiling.

White streaks along the cement walls of a stairway are a testament to a rite of spring in the building. Its single-pane windows ice up each winter, Coughlin said, and there’s a “waterfall” in the stairwell and standing water in offices once they thaw.

Maintenance crews “have to deal with stuff constantly,” Coughlin said.

Humanities was built in 1964 for just under $10 million after a round of cost-cutting measures, one of which was to remove design features that left the building with its bare concrete exterior, according to a history of UW’s facilities written by former student Jim Feldman.

Last year, crews had to block one of the building’s main entrances because chunks of concrete were falling off and needed to be repaired.

“There was a lot of emphasis on lowest initial cost … and not necessarily looking at the lowest life-cycle cost,” Elvey said of the thinking that went into buildings in the 1960s.

Designs present challenges

Humanities’ design isn’t just an aesthetic problem, Elvey said. One reason classrooms feel claustrophobic is because the only windows they have are small skylights in the angled ceiling, creating a bunker-like effect.

“It’s a very dismal place for students to learn,” Elvey said.

Other buildings suffer from more fundamental design flaws.

The Engineering Research Building near Camp Randall Stadium stands 14 stories tall and less than 60 feet wide. UW-Madison could pay for a range of expensive repairs and renovations that might improve the building, Elvey said, but it still wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate modern labs and research spaces.

“At the end of the day you’d spend millions and millions of dollars and all you’d have is a tall, skinny building that wouldn’t meet your needs anyway,” Elvey said.

Some opposition

to tearing down buildings

Brutalist buildings are common objects of derision on college campuses, but even they have defenders.

Conor Murphy, a UW-Madison graduate who works on campus, first started coming to the Humanities building for summer music programs when he was in high school, and had classes in the building nearly every semester when he was a student.

Murphy acknowledged Humanities’ exterior is “stark, gray and kind of depressing.” But the building, which houses UW-Madison’s music, history and art departments, is also a hub for creativity, he said.

“It’s this building that holds a lot of beauty that you have to discover,” Murphy said.

Former chief state architect Dan Stephans called Humanities the best example of brutalist architecture in the Midwest.

Tearing the building down, Stephans said, “would be a loss of a cultural resource that would be detrimental to Madison, the Midwest and the world.”

Andrzejewski said she has seen a greater appreciation for brutalism among the public in recent years.

“Just like everything else, things come in and out of fashion,” she said.

Now that many of the buildings are more than 50 years old, Andrzejewski noted they could be considered for the National Register of Historic Places or other landmark protections.

As for whether the brutalist buildings at UW-Madison deserve that protection, though, Andrzejewski hedged.

“These buildings … tell us the story of expansion at UW-Madison,” she said. But, she added, “Campuses are living organisms that have to grow, change, live and breathe.”


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