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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fog/Mist
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All together now
With its Design Neighborhoods plan, the UW seeks architectural unity
on
East campus mall plan.
Credit:Anderson Illustration Associates

The University of Wisconsin-Madison plans to grow by thinking small, at the neighborhood level. The new Campus Master Plan has a 'Design Neighborhood' esthetic that could serve as an example to Madison as the city considers an ordinance that would establish its own Neighborhood Conservation Districts.

UW planners believe that envisioning the university as a series of architecturally distinct neighborhoods will create a sense of place that will not only be beautiful ' it will build better minds, too.

The Master Plan, unveiled in November 2005, specifies how more than 50 new buildings or additions will fit in during the next two decades.

'One of the things we are trying to look at is: What are the characteristics of the building in that neighborhood?' says Daniel Okoli, university architect. 'And then can we continue, when we have new projects, to make sure that we respect that? So we don't get a sense there is a hodgepodge of things cropping up in different areas, but that there is some unity.'

That's quite a change from the 1960s and '70s, when the 'hodgepodge' quality was prized. In 1978, a special UW committee identified buildings most worthy of preservation. The bold, modern Humanities Building was placed on the top list for preservation. Many of the oldest buildings were placed on third- or fourth-priority lists, meaning that, at best, they merely provided a sense of unity to the campus. At worst, the committee found, they 'cannot be considered of high value.'

Today, 'sense of unity' is the priority ' and Humanities is slated for demolition.

The Design Neighborhood idea harks back to the university's 1908 Master Plan, written three years after the arrival of university architect Arthur Peabody. He later recalled of his initial survey, 'There were examples of every style of architecture in vogue during the (last) half century, most of them unobjectionable but with no strict relation or harmony to one another.'

A veteran of the prototypical City Beautiful, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Peabody ' with architects Warren Powers Laird and Paul Phillippe Cret ' specified general architectural styles for different parts of the campus.

'They actually talked about Design Neighborhoods at that time,' says Gary Brown, director of UW planning and landscape architecture. 'Interestingly enough, this is the first time we've ever had design guidelines, other than what Peabody, Laird and Cret had in their plan. It sort of got blown up in the '60s and '70s when the campus exploded in terms of all sorts of development.'

Building types

The modern neighborhood boundaries were drawn by an outside consultant, Ken Saiki Design. The UW distinguishes between the traditional campus, to the north of University Avenue, and the newer 'urban' campus, to the south. As expected, characteristics of the various Design Neighborhoods differ sharply (see sidebar).

Building types are specified. 'Bridge buildings' will blur characteristics along the edges of neighborhoods. Otherwise new buildings are to generally conform to identified neighborhood characteristics. 'Tall buildings' are limited to the urban campus. In fact, 19-story Van Hise Hall, the tallest building on the classic campus (and in the city), located just behind Bascom Hill, is to be replaced.

'Buildings along the lakefront would be maybe four to five stories tall,' says Brown. 'Buildings as you get closer to University Avenue would get up to six, seven stories. Between University Avenue and Dayton Street, buildings could be eight and 10 stories tall. And then as you get toward Regent Street that would step down again.'

On the traditional campus, four other new building types will mimic the footprints, masses and layouts of historic buildings. Special attention is paid to how the buildings are entered ' the point is how visitors experience the space.

Unifying features

The UW even specifies building materials to be used for a majority of any new building. Around the former hospital complex, west of Charter Street, Milwaukee Cream City brick will be featured. 'As you get toward the agricultural campus there will be more of the reddish brown brick with the red tile roofs,' says Brown. 'That really picks up the character that Peabody set up on the ag campus. Traditional looking, not a lot of glass.'

Everywhere, but especially toward the central hill neighborhood (including Bascom and reaching all the way to Babcock Drive near the Lakeshore dorms), there will be great use of Kasota stone, a type of Minnesota limestone that resembles the Madison-quarried limestone extensively used in older campus buildings.

The Kasota stone will have a smooth surface on buildings in the modern hospital area, suggesting the Bascom Hill neighborhood but with a more modern look. Hopefully, the rock's homey, historic appeal will affect drivers, says Brown. 'We're trying to get away from a suburban character ' two-lane, four-lane road winging around there, people driving very fast, big, huge buildings. We're trying to bring it back into the character of a campus.'

Elsewhere the Kasota stone may take on a rougher finish, resembling the carved blocks of Bascom Hall or the 'Madison rubble' texture of the Field House and Lakeshore dorms. Red tile roofs will be used throughout the campus as a generally unifying feature.

There will still be opportunities for 'heroic' buildings ' eye-catching centerpieces that announce one's arrival on campus, such as Bascom Hall. But they will be spaced out. By contrast, Vilas and Grainger Halls and the Humanities Building, all at the corner of Park Street and University Avenue, are heroic buildings crowded together.

'The architects need to think about the context,' says Brown. 'We want your building to complement what's going on and fit into the context, and not be all of these heroic buildings.'

The plan also identifies 13 'open space systems,' ranging from Picnic Point to the Library Mall. 'We've actually gained around 70 acres of new greenspace on campus in this overall Master Plan,' says Brown. On Linden Drive a 'build-to' line will preserve and enhance a long front lawn the length of the street. Elsewhere in the city this is called a setback, and on the isthmus it's used as a bargaining chip with developers, trading increased setback for height.

'For us it's about creating the quadrangles of greenspace, to make sure that those are maintained,' says Brown. Lawns may be returned to historic buildings that gave them up for parking space.

Taking shape

The Design Neighborhood approach has already had some successes. In 1993, even before Design Neighborhoods were spelled out, the Milwaukee-based Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. created the School of Business' Grainger Hall, a massive and thoroughly modern facility that picked up design elements from its neighbors. Similarly, the Genetics Biotechnology Center that replaced the old Nurse's Dorm suggests its predecessor's lines and materials.

The Hall of Fame Terrace in front of the Camp Randall Shell transforms the massive Quonset hut into a cousin of the Field House with its use of Kasota stone. And the recent $50.6 million, 280,000-square-foot addition to the 1930 Mechanical Engineering building, near the corner of Breese Terrace and University Avenue, is so sensitive and seamless that, after a few years of weathering, it will be difficult to tell where old and new meet.

The Design Neighborhood approach has also been violated in some cases. Because of a lack of funds, some of the new dormitories have no stone facing as planned, but instead make do with buff-colored pre-cast concrete. Near the Lakeshore dorms, the new Microbial Sciences building nearly swallows quaint 1891 Hiram Smith Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. To accommodate an existing electrical substation, Microbial Sciences also violates the Linden Drive build-to line. The space was sacrificed to avoid even greater height.

The bigger picture

It remains to be seen how much of an ongoing priority the neighborhood esthetic will be for the UW. Brown says that, in the past, architects have swung faculty and staff around to grander, less contextual visions.

'Sometimes they come in very narrowly focused,' he says. 'They're only looking at their site. 'This is the next building I'm going to win an award with. This is going to be just groundbreaking, state of the art, blah blah blah.' And it unfortunately sways the users a lot of times. They, of course, want wonderful, big, state-of-the-art buildings too.'

The university hopes to get architects thinking about the bigger picture. 'You're not building your little empire here,' Brown says. 'We want you to be part of the bigger whole. Now, there's some socialism in there, I guess. But we really want the university and all of its buildings to have a sense of the whole community. And we have sites for heroic buildings. We'll hire the Cesar Pellis [and other famous architects] to come in and help us think about those spaces.'

In fact, Pelli's firm has already done conceptual design work for a proposed new School of Music.

Jim Feldman, architecture critic and author of The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin, likes the Design Neighborhoods plan. But he's wary of the future.

'The problem is not having a good plan, the problem is sticking to it,' he says. 'The things you can count on are: Tastes change and sometimes there's no money.'

Feldman notes that unified appearances for buildings with radically different functions is an idea that has been roundly mocked in the past.

'Every couple of generations, all the ideas get thrown away, the baby with the bathwater,' he says. 'So, though I really like the plan, I have limited confidence that the UW will be able to stick to it for the 40 years or so that will be required to undo all the good ideas of the past.'

The city's version

Madison is considering a citywide ordinance that would allow for the creation of Neighborhood Conservation Districts. It's a far milder approach, but similar to the UW's Design Neighborhoods.

Mark Olinger, the city's director of planning and development, says the ordinance would preserve the 'essential physical character' of a designated area.

'What are those things in a neighborhood that matter enough that you would like to make sure they reoccur in redevelopment?' he says. 'What that means [for developers] is, if you meet the ordinance, you get a permit. You don't need to go to Urban Design, you don't have to go through the Landmarks Commission.'

Neighborhoods would petition the city for creation of a Conservation District. The identifying characteristics would vary by area.

Olinger emphasizes that Neighborhood Conservation Districts are not a way to necessarily preclude development. He says that they could in fact boost the kinds of development we don't typically see.

'[It's wrong] to make the assumption that the only value added to a neighborhood is through new development, rather than sensitive redevelopment or long-term activity by the owners,' Olinger says. 'In a conservation district we may have a bunch of individual homeowners who want to do something. We may have a small developer who wants a small single or two-flat infill and does not want to do eight condos, or put in 65 underground stalls.'

One of the proposed ordinance's sponsors, Ald. Brenda Konkel, says there was initial opposition from real estate agents, Smart Growth Madison Inc., Downtown Madison Inc. and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. 'When we made some minor clarifications and gave them some comfort language, they seem to be a lot more supportive,' she says.

Konkel expects that the Common Council will take up the matter in late January.

A sense of place

Design Neighborhoods and Conservation Districts will look nice, sure, but they could also contribute to the community in a significant way.

'We know from studies done that sense of place is important, not only for the students, but for faculty,' says the UW's Brown. 'People tend to be more collegial and willing to work on things in a collaborative effort if they have this sense of place, and this sense of community, developing out of how we design their physical world.'

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