UW Humanities Building
The UW-Madison Humanities Building sits at the corner of University Avenue and Park Street. Craig Schreiner/Wisconsin State Journal

DOUG MOEAll of a sudden there is a flurry of interest in Harry Weese, who designed the most controversial building in Madison history.

Weese, a colorful Chicago architect who designed the George L. Mosse Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus, and who died in 1998, is the subject of a long profile in the July issue of Chicago magazine.

A new book on Weese and his work, “The Architecture of Harry Weese,” which includes a photo and text on Humanities, is coming in September. The author, Chicago academic Robert Bruegmann, will speak on changing tastes in architecture at Monona Terrace Oct. 7. His lecture is titled, “Buildings We Love to Hate.”

The next day in Madison, Bruegmann will speak on campus — the details are still to be finalized — more specifically on Weese and the Humanities Building.

In an interview last week, Bruegmann told me he’d been contacted and asked to speak by a faction on campus that is “really incensed” with the UW-Madison administration’s plans to tear down Humanities.

Ever since 2003, when UW-Madison unveiled its long-range plan for Humanities — demolition — there has been a debate over whether the building really deserves to die.

The overwhelming majority of people can’t say good riddance fast enough. That includes students and faculty who say they’ve become ill from the building’s ineffectual ventilation system, and others who have become lost in its maze-like halls or suffered its leaky roof and strange extremes of temperature. Some just find its hulking, charmless exterior outdated.

Some of the problems with Humanities — which houses the music, art and history departments — did not evolve gradually. They were there opening week in 1969.

In his 1997 book, “The Buildings of the University of Wisconsin,” Jim Feldman notes that the grand opening of Humanities was marked by two dedicatory concerts in Mills Hall that “were seriously marred by acoustical problems that would not be worked out for years.”

Still, Humanities has its defenders. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Whitney Gould noted in July 2005 that there is something “brave, even heroic about the building, an example of the raw, monumental style of Brutalism.”

A year later, in a Preservation magazine piece titled “Embracing the Brute,” Ann Matthews wrote about Humanities using words like “menacing,” “toxic” and “incoherent,” but added, “even when you felt most lost, most trapped, you never forgot you were wandering inside a gigantic work of art.”

Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and management on campus, told me last week plans are still in place for razing Humanities, though likely not for a decade. And while Fish has no love for the building, he said he’s received “steady correspondence” in its defense and expects “a quite engaged discussion” once zero hour is nearer.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the mind responsible for all this should seek out the July Chicago magazine piece, written by Robert Sharoff and titled “On the Life and Work of Chicago Architect Harry Weese.”

The Humanities Building is not referenced in the article, nor is the Chazen Museum (formerly the Elvehjem), which is also a Weese design. (Bruegmann, who wrote the forthcoming book on Weese’s work, told me Weese also designed some housing in Madison as well as an office building for IBM — though he’s never been able to confirm the latter.)

But what is in the article is fascinating. You meet a man responsible for some 1,000 designs, including one — the Washington, D.C., Metro transportation system — that the New York Times called “among the greatest public works” of the 20th Century.

You also meet a man ultimately undone by alcohol, in and out of rehab, who near the end wrote a brief note so compelling that Sharoff uses it to conclude his piece: “I’m OK — the world’s all wrong.”

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