Saturday, February 26, 2011

Capitolizing (sic) on Good Architecture

Wisconsin is in the news a lot this week because of a battle between unionized state workers and anti-union, budget-cutting Governor Scott Walker. That is not what this blog entry is about.  It is about the backdrop for union demonstrations: the Wisconsin state capitol building. It has been highly visible in TV and print news.
Approach to the Wisconsin state capitol.
I have long thought that Wisconsin's capitol is architecturally one of the best. It's classical motif is not unusual or particularly remarkable. However, its proportions and interior spaces are exceptional.

On the outside the Wisconsin state capitol has gravitas: a grounded heft to the proportions that make you take it seriously. The interiors have a three-dimensional spatial excitement, with pedestrian bridges spanning the galleries and numerous skylights to draw the eye upward. The building materials are lush (43 varieties of stone) and beautifully executed (hand-crafted glass mosaics and furniture). Other state capitols (not all, but many) are unfortunate victims of having been built too early in a state's history and do not have the grandeur of a powerful political center. Construction on Wisconsin's capitol began in 1906 and was completed in 1917. Wisconsin was, perhaps, at the height of its economic power and able to execute an exceptionally fine building. It was designed by George Brown Post (1837-1913), an accomplished classicist. He contributed to the famous Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, a classical extravaganza.
Numerous bridges span interior galleries.

The central dome.
In most ways the Wisconsin capitol surpasses the national Capitol with architectural panache. People are horrified at criticism of our national icon, but that is really what it is: an icon, not an architectural masterpiece. As a symbol of our nation it is just fine. As architecture it has been modified over the years into a clumsy mass of ill-proportioned lumps. At close view the dome all but disappears into its bloated base. The interior spaces are drab and uninspired. The house and senate chambers are gloomy. Not so with the Wisconsin masterpiece.
Every detail is exquisitely executed.

The Wisconsin state capitol building currently glistens with $145 million worth of renovations completed in 2001. This National Historic Landmark is worth a visit if you are anywhere near Madison, Wisconsin.
Numerous skylights add natural light.
All photos by MJK.