Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Sorry, but Madison architecture is boring. (Or, please stop building the same building)

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Last time I talked about people, not brick and mortar, but today I do want to talk about bricks and mortar.

I am not the first person to say it, but living in DC has really driven it home for me: Madison architecture sucks. I’m not talking about comparing the big federal buildings and monuments here to buildings back in Madison, nor am I talking about the historic buildings in Washington (which are impressive) – I’m looking at the new developments in Washington, and comparing it to what I see us building in Madison, and it’s not good. Madison is building boring buildings, over and over again. Let’s look at some examples:

21 N Park, the new UW business offices. Down the street, you can see Meriter, and if you rotate up a little bit you’ll see Smith Hall, also the same design.

Regent and Washington, in a long stretch of sameness:

The monotony of the Student High Rises. Except for the copper roof at Gorham/University/Bassett, not a one of them has anything worth mentioning:

Grand Central, at Mills and Johnson. Where have I seen those colors before? “Oh, we’ve got both kinds of music, Country and Western”

The new Mendota Court development.. It’s a tried-and-true formula.

It’s not getting built, but the Shorewood hills apartment building that would have replaced the cylindrical tower on University Avenue.

This week there was news a new project was moving forward. I’m all for redevelopment on Park Street, but does it have to be the same as every other street in Madison?

I could go on – the Badger Bus Depot redevelopment, the buildings near First St, some of the south side senior housing redevelopment.

Enough. Please, for the love of God, I’m going to scream if I see one more Prairie School building proposed. I just can’t take any more brown and yellow buildings with stubby little wings sprouting off the top. It’s not that they’re bad buildings or they’re ugly, it’s just they’re all the same.

For comparison, I took a four-block walk in DC and took a few (admittedly, crappy) iPhone photos of buildings I found interesting.
Here’s a example of what you can do in a small footprint. Look – a curve!

I really like this building. You can still have right angles, but they don’t all need to be in the same plane as the roof or walls. A little bit of layering and depth is nice.

Old and new can mesh together well. It can have prairie school influences, but not everything needs to run the length of the building.

You can vary the color and shape of the building, and you can do interesting things in the courtyard. Occasionally, a curved surface is fine!

Sometimes, some negative space adds a lot to a building. Not everything needs to go right out to the edge of the building or align the same way.

You can use a corner as a face of the building, too.


It’s not that Madison is not aspirational or that we don’t want bold or interesting buildings, because we do. A year or so back, I was showing a friend the UW Campus Master Plan for the East Campus Mall, and she excitedly pointed to a building (labeled 7 in this picture) and said “Oh, what’s that going to be!”

She was very disappointed when I told her it was the building we were in, the University Square redevelopment


So, what’s the problem? How is it that from an essentially random 4 block sample from Washington, DC I can find a slug of interesting buildings, but yet Madison keeps building the same boring building or worse, turds like University Square?

Obviously, some of it is economics. While land costs more in Washington, construction costs in DC are likely within a reasonable factor of Madison construction costs (a brick is a brick, and bricklayers in DC probably make about what bricklayers in Madison make.) However, rents are much, much higher here – and I doubt the land costs explain all of it. Therefore, the developers have some extra money to work with, which means they can build more complicated designs or use better materials on the exterior – costs that the Madison real estate market can’t support.

Maybe it’s fewer architects in the Madison area. Madison has a small enough development community that when I go to meeting where they’re presenting plans, I can often recognize the architects or from a project proposal tell you who likely designed the building. Each architect has a style and things that he or she likes to do, and maybe with more architects we’d have more variety.

Or, maybe it’s the Urban Design Commission, which is charged to “assure a functionally efficient and visually attractive city in the future.” The UDC is made up of architects, design professionals, and is staffed by the City’s planning department, so they do know what they’re talking about, and should serve as a good form of peer review on designs that we’re going to live with long after the terms of any development deal are finished.  I believe the UDC’s mission is important, for example, it should stop awful buildings like this one:

(It’s an ugly building to start with, and put forward by the same people who brought us the travesty at Randall and Spring. There are also some pretty serious sustainability and public policy issues since they UW is likely to have to tear it down in 20 years (and pay a premium to do so). All of that aside, the background color for the rendering is very unfortunate. Every time I look at that I keep thinking of the “Dark Tower” series by Stephen King)


So what if it is the UDC? Architects spend their entire career and training being reviewed and critiqued by other architects, so the UDC review shouldn’t be anything unlike everything that they’re already used to doing. Is it tougher than it needs to be? Do developers simply stick to designs and styles that the UDC has traditionally approved so as to not rock the boat?  Is the UDC’s definition of “making projects better” actually “make projects look like what we’ve approved before?” Or, what if it is just economics? Is there a public interest in seeing varied designs, and how do we incentivize that? Why does it seem like we’re getting the same building over and over again, and why do people complain about the architecture in Madison? If we had more Kenton Peters (and maybe if the new Kentons had a better reputation of being easier to work with), would we see more things happening in Madison?

This question of “why are the designs so boring in Madison” is an important question to understand, because we’ve sold ourselves on the idea of redeveloping East Washington Ave, and we envisioned it as something new for Madison, in part with pictures like this. Do we think we can actually build anything like this in Madison?


Most of the pictures I took from DC were from 14th St NW, which is both an important transit stretch in DC (the bridge from Virgina into DC that passes the Jefferson Memorial is 14th) and is undergoing the same sort of revitalization that we want to see happen on East Washington. So how do we ensure that what we dreamed was possible actually comes to pass, or, will we wind up with another stretch of the same boring design we seem to be getting good at building?


ps – if you want to stay current with Madison development news, absolutely the best source I’ve found is this thread on Skyscraper City. (It’s 40-something pages of messages long, so skip to the end to see current projects.) These posters love redevelopment, and collect images of proposed projects. If you ever wonder “what is that hole in the ground going to be”, they’re pretty good. The City’s planning site is usually pretty decent, too.