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.


7 comments so far

  1. Michael on


    Alas,you are correct about the banality of design in Madison. I think this is decades-old problem, though there are exceptions even today. Part of the problem is the expectations set by city policy and rules. That explains the student high-rises that look pretty much the same with only slight variations in massing and a detail here and there

    The building at 434 W. Gorham (which you show) is as prime example of how awarding bonus floors for “extraordinary design” goes wrong. The brick-clad part of the building is pretty good, actually, with interesting patterns to the brick (which is real brick, by the way, not the panelized faux-brick on U-Square). The upper floors are a mess: unrelated to the rest of the design, clumsily scaled and cheaply covered in EIFS.

    Not on your list is the building directly across Gorham Street from this one, perhaps the most unimaginative apartment building to go up in recent years. Fact is, it meets some stated city requirements: build fours floors, do a setback and add two more. There are a handful of similar building in the neighborhood, though none that looks quite so much like stacked shoeboxes.

    I’d like to believe we can do better. Most like to think of Madison is a special place, but the stuff we’re building these days is far from special.

  2. the house husband on

    Michael is right, it all starts from the council or regulators. We have a similar problem here where I live, a beautiful location with some excellent town planning in the 80s. Everything since 1995 is boring and ugly and worse is replacing some cool old buildings that had character. Town planning affects people so massively yet as public users and viewers we have no control over it and seem to be the last stakeholders to be considered.

  3. blackwatertown on

    You see to be suggesting moving outside the traditional paradigm, taking a small risk even. Excellent. I think architecture has to be functional, to serve people and not arrogate to itself some higher calling that relegates the importance of humans. However, that still leaves ample scope for imagination and variation. It’s important to fight against the dreary, dull and boring. It looks as though you have a tough task ahead.

  4. anonymous on

    Good architects in Madison have learned to work through the UDC process by designing to the middle, which is more likely to produce banality than boldness. The committee process itself exacerbates this. That’s not the fault of any individual UDC members, it’s become the culture of UDC.

    How do other cities deal with the genuine public purpose of good urban design and the just-as-genuine risk of “design by committee” producing poor results?

  5. Matt Aro on


    I just returned from a week long trip to D.C. and it once again brought home the identical thoughts to yours. As an architect, I have tried to find a good explanation for the banality in general of Madison architecture.

    One explanation is the rent rates that a commercial building owner can get in the local market. With Manhattan or D.C. rental rates, paying more for architectural design and building features is easier and in fact necessitated by the competition. The extra amount borrowed up front can be justified over the long run financially to a skeptical bank or other investors who are putting up the money for design and construction. There are also a few local architects that tend to be preferred by developers due to cost, recommendation by their peers, and other factors, and often the resulting designs are iterations of the same building and features.

    One other Madison factor (that is not exclusive to Madison) is that architectural design is often viewed as an elitist activity. Conformance and visual relation to neighboring buildings is more important than making great architecture. I do not believe this is true in all areas of the city, but have discussed this point with political leaders and some residents who agree that it is an undercurrent of Madison development politics. We as architects must change this attitude. The fact that we are now considered “lobbyists” in Madison does not help this perception.

    Third, but by no means last, there are codes and constraints at the level of the city government that tend to inhibit great architecture and implicitly encourage conformity. The often-used PUD (Planned Unit Development) process is an extraordinarily flawed zoning tool subject to the whims of individual committee members, city staff, and individual residents. It also sets vague standards for approval that were meant to be flexible for developers but are equally as flexible for those who evaluate and approve projects. It is subject to abuse by all, and often the end product suffers for it visually. In addition, many of our “historic” districts would not fit into any of the D.C. districts that carry such designations. Georgetown for example- so completely charming that no one in their right mind would question the extraordinary value it has. I do not see any districts in Madison that rise to the level of a D.C. area historic district. Individual buildings, yes, but not entire districts. The presence of broad-brush districts inhibits creativity and innovative design.

    Conformity with mediocrity = more mediocrity. The mold must be broken.

  6. Scott Jones on

    Great post. Far too many of the new buildings in Madison just look like a jumbled mess of beige and metal-ish colors.

  7. on

    No. I believe anyone should be able to wear whatever they expose appropriate.

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