Thursday, June 23, 2005

Wisconsin architecture, 1

(Posted hurriedly. Maybe tomorrow or Saturday I’ll be able to finish this, and add some photos.)

Here’s the architecture we’ve looked at on the trip:

Monona Terrace, Madison: perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright's last public design, this is a convention center and parking lot complex perched above Lake Monona, linking that beautiful lake with the equally beautiful capitol building that sits high above the isthmus separating Lakes Monona and Mendota. In Wright's late style, the building recalls the Marin Civic Center: Wright clearly was intent on his architecture mediating urban humanity with the natural environment.

In Marin County the form of his Civic center replicates the gentle dome-shaped hills, bridging between two of them; and his colors refer to the golden fields of summer and autumn and the clear blue sky. In Madison he layers the parking structure, the convention center, and the rooftop "garden" in terraces, referring now to the isthmus itself; and a broad terrace-mall links the streets in front of the Capitol to the Terrace. It's a striking and, I think, fitting adjunct to the Capitol itself, again mediating between conventional (but superb) Beaux-arts Federal style and his own idiosyncratic Modernism.

Ely Place, Madison: This is an upscale residential quarter atop a hill overlooking the Madison campus and out onto Lake Mendota. We parked at the one Wright house here, got out, photographed and admired it; and then struck up a conversation with a woman out gardening in front of her house next door. Her house was also a beauty, also landmarked; and she went inside to find a brochure describing a walking tour of the area, and lent it to us so we could walk for half an hour admiring the homes built in the first twenty years of the 20th century for the early faculty of the university.

Near here, too, we saw a splendid big shingle house, dark under wide eaves and eccentric, elaborately projecting lookout beams: one of the very few residences designed by Louis Sullivan. This was built for a private owner, subsequently bought by a college fraternity, badly burned a decade or so ago, and very nicely restored. It is vaguely reminiscent of such Greene & Greene buildings as the Gamble House in Pasadena, but more eccentric and more visionary.

Farmers and Merchants Bank, Columbus: an hour or so north of Madison the small farm-county seat of Columbus hosts one of Sullivan's eccentric bank designs, reminders of a time when the small-town bank took seriously its role of community idealist in substance. This was Sullivan's last such building, and he called it his "jewel box," and so it is -- a small twostorey brick building sitting at the northeast corner of a main intersection, across from a vaguely Gothic Victorian City Hall built in 1892.

An annex was built next to this bank a few decades ago, to my eye a fairly sympathetic one; but it's scheduled for demolition soon, to be replaced by another, supposed to be equally sensitive to the significance of the original Sullivan building on the corner. The entire block, both sides of the street, is handsome and (except for the annex-in-progress) all of its period. (One storefront houses an amazing collection of horse-drawn vehicles: coaches, gigs, buckboards, delivery vans, and sleighs, all as bright and spiffy as new.)

Wausau, Wisconsin: Two buildings here: a fine, late, low, flat house with Japanese shoji influence, built as a private residence overlooking the artificial lake on the Wisconsin River south of town, now occupied by a broadcast media company; and a marvelous private house in an upscale residential neighborhood on a forested hilltop at the other end of town. We were in Wausau on a Sunday; the radio offices were closed and no one was about, so we walked around the building, peering through the windows, taking photos, and marvelling at the casual lack of "security" -- this would not be the case, I think, in California.

We were content to admire the private home from the sidewalk, listening to a pair of Scotties yapping at us -- friendly, their mistress assured us from her patio chaise-longue. This house might have been in the redwoods south (or north) of San Francisco, or the eucalyptus in the Berkeley Hills.

Fox Point, Milwaukee: another long, low, elegant private residence, this one on a vast lawn on a shady road in an exclusive suburb north of the city and on the lake. The broad driveway led between low concrete-block walls with signature glass-block lanterns built into them on either side the drive, which made a dog-leg around a planting of trees screening a tennis court from the street. We couldn't get closer than say two hundred feet of the house, but could readily admire its low, Japanese-influenced form. It's amazing how similar these houses are to all those Sunset Magazine shake-roof ranch bungalows of the 1950s, and how different -- owing simply to Wright's sense of proportion, and the unity he imposes through decorative treatment and plays of symmetry and slight asymmetry, and his careful sense of scale.

Milwaukee Art Museum: This building perched at the edge of Lake Michigan recalls, through its site, Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace in Madison. It too stands white and bold against the blue waters and sky; but its design is very different. There are in fact two equally fine buildings here, the older one by Eero Saarinen, boxy but wonderfully proportioned and ideal for its purpose: the exhibition of art. (And the collection is something to boast.)

Five years ago, in 2000, this was enlarged by the construction of an equal-sized hall designed by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect. This is splendid enough inside, but particularly dazzling from the outside, topped by a symmetrical "brise-soleil" or sunshade, two enormous wings which close at the beginning of the day to shade the interior, then open at the end of day, like some fantastic bird methodically opening and closing its wings on a diurnal rhythm.

The building is linked to a plaza by an elevated stay-cable pedestrian bridge spanning a crosswise-oriented lawn and fountain, and it's hard not to imagine Calatrava's delight when he replicated this trick in the recently built pedestrian bridge in Redding, spanning the Sacramento River.


The Blogk House, Milwaukee: One of the earliest of Wright's masonry residences, a big, vaguely Mayan, twostorey cube of a thing, with a low hip roof whose projecting eaves proclaim Prairie Style but whose vertical slits of windows look forward to the Imperial Hotel he would design a few years later for Tokyo. This sits among other fine if architecturally less emboldened neighbors: across the street there's an interesting Italianate Dutch-Colonial home, of all things, that manages to combine its loggias and its bell gables with a degree of integrity.

1 comment:

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