Towards an appreciation of Brutalism: Or, the Humanities Building is very good
Madison's most-maligned structure embodies a misunderstood, utopian school of architecture. (Photos by Molly Wallace.)
Reviews of the George L. Mosse Humanities building are divided. With a 3.7 rating on Google Maps, the building is either a "grotesque labyrinth," "not very chic," or "glorious." The Humanities building has been slated for demolition in University of Wisconsin System planning documents four times since 2003, most recently in 2016. In each instance and for the time being, the Humanities Building has evaded the wrecking ball. Madisonians are gifted the opportunity to appreciate the Humanities Building's often misunderstood architecture for at least a little longer.
Defenders of the Humanities Building will often note it is a good example of Brutalism. The area surrounding the intersection of University Avenue and Park Street is littered with Brutalist buildings: Vilas Hall, the Elvehjem wing of the Chazen Museum of Art, and—up until recently—St. Paul's church on Library Mall. Marked by their foreboding, concrete exteriors, Brutalist buildings are often maligned for their drab appearance. I am not a Brutalism apologist: the style hasn't aged well, concrete is high in embodied energy, and only tankies go ride-or-die for the Soviet aesthetic. However, I do think that the dramatic, poetic expressions of the Brutalist style are often mistakenly underappreciated, as is the case for the Humanities Building.
Modernism dominated architecture in the 20th century. The style has a functionalist aesthetic—think Mies Van der Rohe's grids of black iron superstructure at the Chicago Federal Center skyscraper (1959), or Le Corbusier's smooth, white, boat-like sculptural building at Villa Savoye (1931). These buildings are about truthfulness in form. Things appear orderly and the most modern materials and technologies are showcased. Both Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had problems with women, and their works share a firm assertion of the architect's control—this was Modernism! Man and machine triumph over nature, at long last!
Brutalism grew out of the Modernist movement, bringing forward and expanding on its ideas of truth in architecture. There's no hiding in a Brutalist design — these buildings bluntly express their structures and their materials. The buildings were popular with government and university officials worldwide for their low construction costs. There was no need to pay for exterior finishes when the desired look was bare concrete. Béton brut (raw concrete) is the inspiration for the term Brutalism, which entered the architectural lexicon with 1959's Unite l'habitation in Marseille. The apartment building, designed by Le Corbusier, was forced by budget cuts to leave the pylons unfinished, just raw concrete. The striking, unpretentious look and ethos of truthfulness took off; Brutalism was a movement motivated by aesthetic and supposed integrity.
As Brutalism evolved, the cost of labor worldwide was low, the space race was on, and buildings took on a more dramatic megastructure. The Geisel Library in San Diego is a good example of sculptural Brutalist architecture. The buildings still express how they are built—a viewer can trace the path gravity takes—but reach more ambitious, whimsical forms.
Brutalism is utopian. It is commonly associated with socialist or progressive views, due in part to its popularity with ambitious, artistic architects like the Smithsons in England. The style enjoyed popularity within the Soviet Union, where it often looked like propaganda posters come to life. Soviet architects championed the idea of a social condenser, proposing their designs as the center of social life in a community through the use of interior streets and generous public gathering spaces. Brutalism took the cue from Modernism to embrace the future and added an architectural ethic by using materials and form in their most unpretentious, unadorned manner, to create spaces meant to further progressive ideals.
In the context of Madison's storied past of raucous, righteous protest, a new Brutalist building made sense for the University—the design was both solid and progressive. Construction on the Mosse Humanities Building started in 1966—before the Vietnam War protests in Madison so no, it was not designed to be riot-proof—and completed in 1969. Harry Weese, the architect, was at the height of his career, having just received accolades for the Washington D.C. Metro, a Brutalist bat-cave feat of engineering and architecture. As the Humanities Building's design neared construction, the budget was reduced and the design was changed multiple times. These numerous changes could account, in part, for Humanities' confusing network of hallways. Rebar inside the concrete on the exterior walls was left out to save on costs, a decision that today leaves the building with cracked, chipped corners.
The building is top-heavy. Its wide, flat band of limestone is a big heavy cap, bearing down on the classrooms below. This downward movement projects solidity—the building is declaring its presence and strength, not unlike the nearby Red Gym's chunky, Romanesque, fortress-like architecture, or the thick, reassuring, Neoclassical columns at Madison's noted cool building, the Wisconsin Capitol.
The Humanities Building tells us how it is put together. Below the limestone cap, concrete beams poke out above the main mass of the building. They are holding the roof mass up; their visibility reassures us that they are strong enough. Below, the main mass of the building is comprised of a two-story figure-eight ring of classrooms, enclosing a courtyard and secondary mass within its perimeter. The rhythm of the main mass is so predictable, it's like a drumbeat. The quick, even pace of the window panes is broken up with columns on a six-bay module. Those visible beams are at this level as well, this time holding up the classrooms before terminating in spindly concrete columns—and what special columns they are! On the exterior wall, flat columns punctuate the rhythm of the windows. On the interior, ringing the courtyard, the columns are round, softening to welcome students to the inviting courtyard, which is architecturally opposed to the imposing exterior. This courtyard is a social condenser; it is an unprogrammed public space where students may gather, a utopian ideal about community embodied in architecture.
The regular pattern of the Humanities Building's structure accentuates the architectural details that break the rhythm. On the northwest corner, the very special bridge connecting the building to Bascom Hill extends the Brutalist look toward an iconic campus green space. Just to the south of this bridge, a three-story opening in the exterior ring of the Humanities Building is punctured, opening up to a breezeway view into the courtyard. This archway is the only opening to the street; the heavy roof mass is held up by a glorious waffle slab. The waffle slab was a hot move in Brutalist concrete—by using a honeycomb structure instead of a flat slab, designers could create lighter ceilings that spanned larger distances.
On the east side of the building, lucky students get two of these killer waffle-slab flat archways. At the center of the building, below the archway and marked with some stylish, period-appropriate street lights, the pyramidal ground level of the building opens up. It's like walking into an anthill. This is a popular architectural flourish—compress and release—in which the view is greatly restricted at first so the release into a larger, interior space is overwhelming. The Humanities Building's release into the courtyard is particularly relieving, given the formidable exterior. The courtyard shows strong attention to human scale. Railings, steps, benches—these things are at the size of an individual, in comparison to the gargantuan roof mass or extra-tall columns. The material shifts from unadorned concrete on the exterior to limestone blocks—softer color and smaller size, rendered in a welcoming stone. From the inside vantage point, a visitor can see that the roof mass is occupiable—windows at these levels on the interior give away what, from the outside, looked like a gargantuan, solid slab. This kind of insider knowledge and attention to human scale, available only to the visitor who comes inside, is what makes this architecture so exciting.
The third connection from interior to exterior is the elevated walkway to the Elvehjem museum. Another Weese design, the Brutalist companion shares an architectural language with the Humanities Building and is similarly delightful (don't get me started on that monumental staircase). The connection is nice from the interior, with a wide plaza from which the relationship of inside to outside of the Humanities Building is on full display. But the real gasp of architectural relationship is seen from University Avenue or the top of Vilas Hall. Elvehjem and Mosse share the wide, limestone band at their roof level. The Humanities Building is taller—as if the buildings were previously two parts of the same, but the Humanities Building grew up somehow. The pyramidal ground level form exacerbates this—like it's bursting out of the ground, peeking out over the museum. The new wing of the Chazen thoughtfully continued and accentuated this banded roofline, adding to the charming, pop-up effect of the pairing of the school and museum. This is the role the slanted pedestal-like ground level plays in the larger form at a distance. Zoomed in, it's exciting to be at the top of that pyramid, close up to the monumental beams, with solid covering above and the ground sloping away below. The slope also points inward, inviting people on the street level to come into the courtyard.
Despite all of these alluring architectural features, folks in Madison still moan, "oh, the Humanities (Building)!" or call it a "munitions plant from some bleak dystopian fiction." Brutalism often gets dismissed as the most hated or ugliest architectural style. It's true that some of the buildings have not held up very well: concrete is harder to repair than brick or wood construction, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a bunch of abandoned Brutalist structures, or, in the case of the Humanities Building, the civic bodies that commissioned the building cut costs for the initial construction, not thinking of the lifetime and maintenance of the building. To people coming of age during the height of the style's popularity, Brutalist buildings were ready symbol of the establishment that spawned protests and punk songs. Folks of that generation perhaps started the "Brutalism is ugly" myth, taking Brutalist buildings as symbols of the cold bureaucracy, ignoring the human-scale articulation and thoughtful formal elements that are characteristic of the style. But the progressive, utopian, often socialist ideals that Brutalism also represents are back in vogue for today's young people. The resurgence of the left, in combination with the fact that Brutalist buildings' bare concrete exteriors look great on Instagram, could be fueling a renaissance of the style. Brutalism is back, baby!
The students and workers who spend their days in the Humanities Building may object to this call for appreciation. They know best whether or not the building fits their needs. By all accounts, the building needs a renovation. But to demolish the Humanities Building would be to lose half of the beautiful pairing with the Chazen. As a two-part architectural expression, the pairing is revelatory. On its own, Humanities is a fully realized, truly delightful Brutalist building that, by design, allows for new spatial appreciation upon each visit. The only thing that should be demolished here is that tacky "W" flower bed on University.