Isthmus + Urbanism | A Perspective and Prospectus of the Built Environment in Madison

You know what?  2018 was a fun year.  I traveled quite a bit, kept in touch with old friends while making new ones, and ate Ethiopian food for the first time.  I also completed the necessary prerequisites to become certifiably capable of designing things, designed something independently that was good enough for a shoutout on ESPN, and gave a talk about thinking like a designer that was challenging to research, rewarding to craft, and humbling to share.  And while the presentation had nothing to do with a cow’s skull, I found the promotional material Madison Magnet picked to publicize the event sufficiently quirky and delightful.

In the day or two before the presentation when all my thoughts were pretty well collected, I remembered there would be a “Q-and-A” after I would conclude.  I spent a little time imagining what kind of questions I would get; it would be impossible to rehearse everything of course, but I thought it would be wise to prepare an answer to one question in particular which I have been asked by (or instigated among) my peers in several conversations.

“What do you think of all this development in downtown Madison right now?”

I was asked plenty of intriguing questions after I finished my presentation.  “What was the first thing you ever designed?”  “Are your parents designers?”  “How do you keep yourself from going in circles and not accomplishing anything?”  “What makes architects and contractors not get along?”

No one asked the one question I thought I’d get.  That just means I get to expand upon the answer I rehearsed.

Urban Fabric and How Cities Tick

Any conversation of what a city’s development is going through and whether it is “good” or otherwise should begin with a holistic view of the context in which the development is occurring.  To do this, I’ll look at what I (and many other urbanists) refer to as urban fabric: the set of intangible maxims by which a city’s core defines itself.  This is shaped by far more than the materials on a building’s façade or a cliché label dispersed on social media.  It has to do with the historical, regional, cultural, and iconic elements that tell a city’s story and guide its future growth.  Madison’s central core has unquestionably reached a critical mass that a distinct identity can be extrapolated and examined.

I like to look at a city’s urban fabric by analyzing five components and how well or poorly they have developed in themselves and in relation to the others:

Philosophy is to answer the basic questions of why the city is there and what understanding of common values—environmental factors, employers, organizational strategies—affect the worldview of its residents.  This is what sets a particular city apart from others that it may be comparable to in size or region.  The four remaining pillars each look at some aspect of how a city has been designed and what it does to empower and encourage its residents to think expressively or outside the box, organized on a spectrum from pure infrastructure to pure expression.  I categorize architecture at the middle of the infrastructure-expression spectrum because buildings must adhere to function and context as well as form and uniqueness.  All five components have overlapping qualities and, if developed in conjunction with each other, create a place with a strong identity among its people and built forms that can be used to conceptually check and balance any proposed changes or improvements.

When it comes to urban philosophy, Madison certainly has a solid foundation.  Downtown’s setting on an isthmus between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona creates not only an environmental draw but a natural barrier to constrict and forcibly densify the downtown core.  This is by no means present in all cities in the United States, many of whose key geographical features are highways or railroads which are no longer used to the capacity they were designed for.  On top of physical environment, Madison has established employers (the State of Wisconsin, UW-Madison, Epic, and others) which have shaped the history of the city and will not be reducing in size or influence anytime soon.  These establishments’ associated design elements, from the State Capitol and Camp Randall Stadium to the Memorial Union terrace chair and the script “W”, give a sense of visual organization and monumentality that all residents utilize and appreciate.  Madison’s growing technology industry, though in the private sector and its largest concentration being in a suburban outcropping, is clearly making a similar mark on the city’s identity and future direction.  Its impact should not be understated when approaching the urban fabric and the design problems we will need to solve.

The connection between Madison’s philosophical and planning components resonates in the organization of downtown around the two chief establishments, with the State Capitol at the center and the UW-Madison campus to the west with State Street interconnecting the two.  The bond between these and the street grid running through them and across the isthmus gives the city a strong and relatable infrastructural organization.  A sensible and scalable gathering place and central core is created that can be understood and appreciated by all those in the metropolitan area.  Substantial attendance at Capitol Square events like the Saturday Farmers’ Market and July’s Concerts on the Square series solidifies this gesture.  Radiating out from the Capitol reveals a conglomeration of neighborhoods akin to passing through farm towns along a state highway, revealing collections of businesses and density along a single street but with a unique twist on the city’s identity.  Johnson, Williamson, Atwood, Regent, Park, and Monroe Street business corridors (to name a few) create a visual and spatial vernacular which helps define the experience of living in this city for those new to town and lifelong citizens alike.  Interconnecting these neighborhoods with bike trails in addition to vehicular roads meshes with the nuance of understanding and appreciating the natural setting; many here choose to commute in it, no matter the temperature.

Perhaps due to the infrastructural side being so dominant, Madison’s expressive end of the spectrum is a bit more conservative as it pertains to built form.  Creativity comes out the clearest in the people within the city, be it their clothes, tattoos, jewelry, or language, to give the place a defiant edge among the clean and crisp government establishments.  This makes the general population very accepting of an individual’s right to express oneself, further adding to the maxims of what it means to live here.  Cuisine, both in the variety of ethnic and experimental foods and the creativity in their design and presentation, further becomes an expressive form that has undoubtedly become a quintessential part of the city’s culture.  Food and beverages crafted with care and finesse are just as valuable a sign of good design culture as any building or public art installation.

So where does this leave Madison’s architecture?

I do not get the impression that Madison has historically expected a whole lot from its buildings, mainly because the philosophy and planning components of the city’s urban fabric have been the forefront of downtown development.  Single-family homes (or student housing of a comparable scale) dotted in the compact street grid help create neighborhood boundaries and complement the smaller-scale street corridors mentioned earlier.  The height restriction on downtown commercial buildings ensures the Capitol’s dominance and monumentality, giving all surrounding locations a sense of place and a number of exquisite vistas (even a Dane County Regional Airport runway aligns with the rotunda).  So while the architecture of Madison certainly shapes the city’s urban fabric and what it means to live here, it does so in a very reserved, utilitarian, and isolating manner.

I’m happy that Madison is developing and areas like the East Washington corridor are becoming extensions of the densifying urban core.  But if Madison grows and the various facets of its expression and infrastructure evolve while the understanding of architecture’s role remains stagnant, we will be left with a quintessentially defining form of the city—its skyline—sitting devoid of purpose and connection to what it holds and how it is organized.  That’s nothing more than a glorified suburb, and it will resonate as much with potential residents who know nothing about the city.  Based on this definition, Madison certainly has a tangible urban fabric; we should expect this understanding and appreciation of what downtown is to resonate in all facets of design that we encounter and encourage.

So here are a few simple ideas that any of us can apply to any building type, usage, or location within the city as we think about what is best for us now and as Madison’s urban fabric continues to mold around our needs and collective ideologies.

First and foremost, downtown Madison is a prime location for innovative design and architecture because of its inherent characteristics due to its natural setting and the way the city has developed.  Again, one of the strongest components of Madison’s urban fabric is its planning that incorporates monumental structures and multi-modal options to create various nodes around the city.  Building forms and layouts should be designed to utilize, annunciate, and strengthen the iconography and connections that Madison already has.

Take the site at the corner of Blount and Williamson Street, where another textbook example of the trendy multi-family housing typology called “The Edge” is currently under construction.  Any architect in the world would be overjoyed to be given this site to work with.  The site is mostly square, with a slight angle opening up along its Williamson Street edge.  It is flanked on non-street sides by two historic buildings (quite a rarity here), one of which has been turned into office space and the other into apartments with a bar and restaurant on the first floor.  The street corner serves as a figurative boundary between the downtown district and the Marquette/Williamson Street neighborhood; designing something under the premise of creating a “gateway” could work very well in this location.  Across the street is a small triangular park where Jenifer Street turns toward a character-filled neighborhood and a picturesque overlook in a hillside park sliding its way into Lake Monona.  A bikeshare station sits across Williamson Street, and a block away is the Capital City Bike Trail connecting downtown to Williamson and Atwood Streets.  Everything playing into Madison’s hand to set it apart from any other city in America intersects at the corner of Blount and Williamson, but the new architecture on this site won’t be doing much to address these contextual relationships.

Blount-Williamson intersection highlighted in relation to the Capitol and isthmus.
(Google Earth)

Just like diversity and opportunity for its population, Madison’s infrastructural and expressive qualities need to continue growing in diversity and opportunity.  Architects start thinking about site context and its relationship to form as soon as they start designing, which should be held in equally high regard as we develop the isthmus because each location has its own relationship to the existing network.  Architecture can be highly expressive while accomplishing its intended purpose—Frank Gehry’s Fredrick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles all take on unique forms but do so in a way that blends with the surrounding environment.

Left: Fredrick R. Weisman Art Museum (taken 05 July 2016)
Center: Pritzker Pavilion (taken 15 October 2017)
Right: Disney Concert Hall (taken 01 September 2018)

Long story short, let’s leave the dull and homogenous structures that pay no attention to surrounding context to the cities in this country that have no surrounding context to pay attention to.

Madison is a city of movement—movement of students, movement of industries, movement of livelihoods.  One of the first things I noticed when I came here was the age difference of the clientele at a coffee shop or bar depending on where the establishment was located on the isthmus; I could literally pick a place to get a drink depending on how old I wanted to feel while I was there.  Still, every place seemed to have a similar inherent sense of common direction and purpose—that’s a sign of a strong (dare I say caffeinated) urban fabric.  Movement through a city can be confined to an interstate looping around a central business district or through businesses like these, incorporating their experiential qualities and forcing what they design—not just what they do—to be a crucial tenet of that common purpose.

Think about how the most unique and inspiring buildings in this city are those which invite people into them.  The Capitol isn’t just the greatest building because it’s the tallest, but also because it’s open to pass through and its organization makes it advantageous to do so even when it’s nice outside.  The Overture Center lobby is beautiful because of its transparency, creating an ascension of the street grid below when lit up in the evening.  Around the corner yet within the same building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s gallery rooms are designed to the scale of State Street.  Proportionality to the surrounding storefronts invites passersby to go inside, not just to pass a foreboding structure and cross the street out of intimidation.  The best of our city—its architecture, its parks, its neighborhoods—are immersive and experiential, not gridded up and walled off outside of a chic waiting area next to a leasing office.

Asking a designer to interpret the best way to incorporate an inherent sense of immersivity with whatever building type, function, and cost he or she is tasked with producing will create a wide array of solutions and challenges to the status quo.  Tying them back into the surrounding context—infrastructural, expressive, demographic, or otherwise—give these unique spaces a sense of purpose and cultivate an appreciation of design among those who experience them.  Creating a host of spaces which accomplish this will not only give us interesting places within the city to be proud of and call our own, but will ultimately help us all be more deeply connected to each other and our community.

I haven’t lived in Madison for very long in the grand scheme of things, but the simple fact that the city is going through a growth period means we are going to design some great things that profoundly shape our city’s urban fabric.  Much like Tulsa, a former residence of mine, experienced its design heyday in the 1920s and expressed it with an influx of Art Deco architecture that still leaves a significant mark on its downtown core, Madison is going through a period of growth and prosperity that will be remembered for generations as a time when the city set a tone and direction for itself.  We can—and must—think about the long-term effects of what we are building and how we are developing the isthmus and consider how our mark will be left on this place.

Look at the relationship downtown Minneapolis has with its historical architecture.  The primary industry for much of the city’s formative years was flour mills along the Mississippi River.  The downtown landscape eventually drifted away from the riverfront and into postmodern skyscrapers as this industry faded, but the architectural quality and craftsmanship of these buildings and the graphic design of the mill company signage atop the silos have significantly defined the designed pieces of the city’s twenty-first century urban fabric.  Riverfront parks are archeological in nature because designers conscientiously preserved what once was, even if the trucks at the receiving docks of the mills have been replaced with farmers’ market stands.  The architecture, such as Jean Nouvel’s Guthrie Theater, is explicitly designed to integrate with this unique surrounding context while making its own innovative design gestures.  Even the multi-family housing that has gone up in the past decade or so, while evoking a similar typology and scale to that on East Washington Avenue, is done with an appreciation of history and craftsmanship that makes it feel rooted in the community.  What Minneapolis has is a unique urban fabric that meshes architecture with infrastructure and expression.

Left: Mill Ruins Museum (taken 05 July 2016)
Center: Mississippi River (taken 06 August 2016)
Right: Guthrie Theater (taken 26 May 2017)

But Madison doesn’t have too many of these monumental (and empty) structures to work around, which just means we get to design them.  We get to set the standard of how we want design to shape our lives and our environment, and we should all welcome that challenge.  How will future generations look back on the designed elements we left behind?  What kind of standard for form, function, and craftsmanship will they see?

Forward We Design

It’s beautiful to see an appreciation for architecture take hold in a community and shape its collective understanding of itself and what it will become.  Another former residence of mine—Dubuque, Iowa—started understanding the value of its historic structures right around the same time that city leadership made a conscious decision to increase the number and diversity of businesses operating downtown.  The result is a myriad of structures that have been preserved or adapted, from Catholic churches becoming community centers to millwork factories becoming mixed-use nodes of development (and a gorgeous backdrop for senior pictures).  Great design that makes sense is worth repurposing as the city around it changes.

So how do we dictate the sort of design we expect for Madison?  The first step to generate ideas is to understand the urban voids we currently have and creating a setting in which potential improvements can be discussed and synthesized.  Milwaukee has been doing an impeccable job of encouraging these discussions for quite a while—early last year, two coworkers and I represented my firm in the Menomonee Valley Design Charrette where we were given a site and explored all kinds of design implementations to improve it.  Representatives from the community and neighboring businesses offered input as we sketched out iteration after iteration before their eyes and racing thoughts.  The first step to designing is to understand everything about what you’re working with, and the best way to do that is to talk to as many people as you can.

Charrette design process in action (taken 31 January 2018)

These quick design studies are incredibly valuable in so many ways.  First, the architects love doing it and the community responds incredibly well to it.  Second, it’s a blank slate at the beginning—ears are open and no idea is too farfetched to discuss.  Third, it creates a tangible, unfettered image of what can be done that excites everyone and—if things work out the way we want—will lead to an investment in a real project down the road.  Madison has many of these voids on the isthmus and beyond that would be prime locations to study and design a potential solution.

To answer the question I thought I’d be asked after my presentation, I think the buildings going up now are a good start.  They show that there is investment in this city and capitalize on the strongest tenets of Madison’s urban fabric: our time-honored traditions and their manifestations in the way our downtown is organized, and the picturesque place we get to call home.  But we can’t stall out now.  We all must constantly think like designers, expect more from our architecture and the other four pillars of our urban fabric, and show this region and nation how one-of-a-kind our city truly is.

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