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The fearsome glare of development

Why are Madison’s new glass buildings so fascinating?

Why are Madison’s new glass buildings so fascinating?

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Beige purgatory or blinding glass hell? These are the two options developers must weigh when participating in Madison’s stampede of new construction. A lot of the apartment, condo, and mixed-use buildings going up around town these days look spiritless and bland. But among them could rise up an even more relentless contingent of forbidding glass towers, most of them still in the planning or building phases. Even the architectural renderings submitted to the city show these edifices projecting white-hot solar glare or teeming with some kind of irradiated glow in daylight. They evoke Godzilla and his rival Titans battling each other with great pulses of radiation.

Foremost among them, to my poor seared little eyes, is Archipelago Village, currently under construction on the 900 block of East Wash. Its centerpiece, perched upon high like a god sipping mead from the skulls of the damned, is an 11-story office tower whose glass facade appears to fold in a bit like great abstract wings, though this may be an optical effect. 

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It may have a rival in a recently unveiled plan for a new building that would house both the Wisconsin Historical Museum and Wisconsin Veterans Museum. I personally don’t think this ambitious design inspires the same level of primordial dread as 929 E. Washington Ave., but this building, planned for the 200 block of East Wash, seems perfectly capable of generating its own severe beams of reflected sunlight. Both make the nearby U.S. Bank Plaza look quaint and stumpy by comparison. If these plans and others following the same design trends go through, central Madison could soon find itself bathed in annihilating glare from dawn til dusk. Build enough of these things and we can just imagine we’re living on the surface of the sun. Maybe Scott Walker had a point when he kept doing that silly bit with the shades a few years ago.

In London, one glass-fronted building reflected sunlight and heat with such intensity that it melted a car. This was likely a product of the building’s concave facade, which ended up focusing the light like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. I don’t think 929 E. Wash is shaped so as to create a giant death lens, but that effect could provide a useful incentive as Madison tries to create dense, pedestrian-friendly spaces. Especially on East Wash, where we keep kidding ourselves that we’re going to construct a hip walkable entertainment district—Cap East, baby! It’s totally a real neighborhood!—along what is in fact a busy highway. Or maybe there will just be a lot of distracting glare that causes car accidents.

Glass buildings do raise serious and complicated environmental questions. As the world gets hotter, glass buildings will often require more energy for air conditioning. And Madison is already an urban heat island. Madison has also created new building regulations to protect birds. In fact, the hate group and right-wing lawsuit factory Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is preparing to sue the city over these regulations, in partnership with construction and real-estate groups. Is the real danger that birds will accidentally fly right into the glass? I’m convinced they’d just get vaporized before they could ever make an impact. For whatever reason, there are little flocks of birds in the background of renderings for both Archipelago Village and the museum project. Surely the architects mean well and have no intention of coaxing poor defenseless geese into a gigantic air fryer.

In Madison’s gold rush of new development, the more visually tame buildings around town come off as disingenuous. They put an inoffensive face on a relentless pursuit of profit that displaces poor residents and locally owned businesses. These blisteringly bright glass projects, on the other hand, embrace the megalomania behind this mix of destruction and renewal. In that sense, they are fascinating in their honesty. Just don’t look directly at them.

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