Kenton Peters’ design is a good argument against requiring one architectural style for all federal buildings.
Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.
Madison’s federal courthouse is a truly contemporary canister of justice. To approach the Robert W. Kastenmeier U.S. Courthouse from the north is to take it head-on, almost like looking up the building’s nostrils. Formally, the courthouse presents itself as a solid, smooth object, clad in blue. The rounded corners exaggerate the building’s object-ness, so that it comes to resemble a giant, building-sized Lego or other plastic toy. The courthouse disguises a brainy architectural concept that takes cues from late Modernism and the Wisconsin landscape. To Madisonians, the Courthouse is an architectural oddity, though not entirely out of place in its current context, adjacent to the backs of several large downtown buildings.
If the Trump Administration has its way, the Kastenmeier will become even more of an anomaly among federal buildings.
On February 4, Architectural Record reporter Cathleen Mcguigan obtained “what appear[ed] to be a preliminary draft” of a federal executive order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” This order, if President Donald Trump signs it, would mandate that new federal buildings in the future use the “classical style,” which takes inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture. The order declares that Modernist designs fail to integrate “our national values into Federal buildings.”
The push for this order was spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a right-wing nonprofit that argues that “contemporary architecture is by and large a failure” on the grounds that it is “ugly, strange, and off-putting” and denigrates the built environment. NCAS fundamentally misunderstands architectural history. All of architectural history iterates on the past, and architectural style should be understood as an ongoing, ever-shifting experimentation by architects, designers, thinkers, and workers in the built environment. Most importantly, no one architectural style should be mandated for federal buildings. The architecture community has rallied in defense of Modernism, condemning the proposed requisite for a national architectural style, and noting the neoclassical architectural style’s connections to fascism.
The Kastenmeier Courthouse represents a lot of what’s good about Modernism. The proposed “Make Federal Buildings Great Again” order advances a false narrative about Modernism and would, if enacted, limit future designs like Kastenmeier that play off contemporary realities, rather than repeat classical ideals of architecture.
To understand why the courthouse is so blocky and so blue, it helps to understand the Modernist ideas that informed it. Unlike other architectural styles that are tied to a specific place, person, or time period, Modernism is a broad, approximate style that encompasses a confluence of technological, geographic and political factors, as well as places, people, and time. In 1913, Walter Gropius published “The Development of Industrial Buildings,” an article about advancements in building technology punctuated with photos of North American grain elevators. Thanks to the industrial revolution, reinforced concrete and steel were readily available and presented new ways to build with large, open spans—first adopted in grain silos, factories, and steam ships. Gropius’ article popularized this factory aesthetic among Europe’s architectural intelligentsia, and he went on to found the Bauhaus in 1919, to unite emerging industrial processes with the arts.
Gropius’ factory aesthetic offered an answer to Louis Sullivan’s 1896 handwringing about the imperative to express how form follows function. In 1923, Le Corbusier published Vers une architecture and took ownership over five very specific points of architecture, all summed up in his magnum opus, modernist exemplar Villa Savoye. Villa Savoye uses industrial materials—steel columns called piloti prop up the house like stilts—and simplified forms. The house presupposed a new way of living; the layout of the ground floor was designed for car turning radii, an embrace of new technology and its societal implications. Villa Savoye was responding to the contemporary context and signaled the dominance of Modernism in architecture.
However tidy it is to point at Villa Savoye as “the Modernist building,” several strains of Modernism occurred in quick succession across the world. Modernism was a global phenomenon) The most famous Modernist building in Wisconsin is Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for Johnson Wax HQ, in Racine. Madison has an even more recent hometown champion of Modernism in “visionary” architect and developer Kenton Peters. Peters designed the Kastenmeier Courthouse, as well as several other (mostly) metallic curved buildings in town, including the inflatable-looking UW Foundation Building and the twin tins of Marina Condominiums. Peters has found himself on the wrong end of architectural critique many times, including when former Madison Mayor Sue Bauman called the Marina condo project a “garbage can on the lake.” A 1997 Capital Times article quotes Peters’ response to complaints that the Kastenmeier Courthouse is uninviting: “Hallelujah! At least you looked at it! This city is very provincial as far as architecture goes. It doesn’t bother me if people don’t like it.”
That said, there’s more to Peters than a healthy taste for controversy. His practice is a specifically Madison modernism, influenced by the dominant architectural styles of the time, but with a touch of folksy Sconnie flair and Madison’s classic curmudgeonly urbanism.
One explanation for the Kastenmeier Courthouse’s polarizing architecture is that it makes stylistic references to both late Modernism and the postmodernism that was emerging when the building opened in 1984. The Modernist style is visible in the building’s blunt form: it looks like a boat. The ultra-smooth facade, thanks to the choice of metal cladding and ribbon windows flush with the exterior wall, turns the exterior into a series of planes, like an early abstract painting. The unembellished exterior continues to the interior, where the only decorative elements are thin, silver, metal ribs placed on the walls like wallpaper.
But the references to other objects, styles, and buildings are what make the Courthouse feel postmodern. Peters chose to soften the corners with curves and selected the specific shade of dark blue to reference Harvestore silos, a nod to “the rural district the court represents,” he told the Cap Times in 1997. As Modernism became modernisms, architects pushed the style to its limits. Rather than relating form to function, postmodernist architecture uses form to convey meanings, whimsy, and place. The courthouse attempts to evoke Wisconsin rural motifs (and therefore values about pastoral virtue) with its reference to silos. Its design sits at a crossroads—between modernism and the burgeoning style of postmodernism—responding to both architectural styles, as well as the urban-rural divide in Wisconsin.
On the street, the Kastenmeier Courthouse’s flat facade is paired with the similarly smooth backside of the Overture Center (which, in 1984, was the backside of the Madison Civic Center), turning this block of North Henry Street into something of a gigantic bowling alley. The apparent ambivalence of the human scale on this street creates a very specific condition and experience for pedestrians. This lack of architectural care toward the human experience is a flaw of many architectural styles. No style is perfect; those styles that rely on academic references can be less friendly to the visitor. The courthouse’s style is also a security feature—windows are few, adjacent only to the front, more public side of the building. Seeing into the building is impossible, even into the staff balconies on the top floor, recessed and obscured from the street. Photographing the building, even from the exterior, will earn you hostile glares from the security guards. Photographing inside is strictly prohibited; on a recent visit, we had to empty our bags and go through a metal detector to gain access to the building, and security followed us to each floor we visited. The architecture’s agenda for security is furthered by these guards.
As austere and imposing as it seems, the Kastenmeier Courthouse can also be playful. Peters especially lightens things up with his subtle references to Art Deco style. Another early 20th century movement, Art Deco is identifiable by use of strong, geometric motifs: in this case, curved corners. The motif continues from outside to in, where even the edges of the luggage x-ray machine are curved. At each floor, elevator doors open to walls curving away, directing the visitor to flow around either to the right or the left. Silver ribs accentuate these curvy corners, as do recessed lights hidden where the wall meets the ceiling.
The red neon light that presides over the entryway of the courthouse is a memorable sculpture by the artist Christopher Sproat. Sproat is an east coast artist with a long career, responsible for a number of public sculptures commissioned by government and transit authorities. The sculpture, called “Madison,” matches the building’s neon accents encircling the oversized column at the entryway. The particular shade of red used in these accents is almost orange—this is a gracious design move, because otherwise the building might look overtly and insanely patriotic. The design is a pleasing stack of concentric circles. Sproat’s other work indicates that he is drawn to simple, abstract shapes, arranged in dramatic ways, like this red spike. It’s iconic, if dated. Sproat’s sculpture gives the entire exterior a dystopian, off-kilter feel.
The interior of the courthouse is a particularly dated version of a high-tech future, like The Jetsons airing in the basement of That 70s Show. In the one courtroom I could peek into, the judge’s desk looked comically inflated, it’s wood polished to an obtuse, mighty curve. The ceiling of the courtroom was also wood, curving into recessed lighting strips; it was like a fluffy cloud. Sure, it’s rather Art Deco, as an article in 1984 celebrating the opening of the courthouse noted, but it’s also misleadingly cute. A fluffy courtroom with all of the corners buffed out suggests a friendliness that is not the reality of the courtroom, where Wisconsinites from across the district may find themselves entering the prison-industrial complex.
In a void, the architecture of Kastenmeier is cute and fun. But there is no such thing as a void when it comes to architecture. Architecture necessarily is tied to the context of its creation; in this case, the architectural styles have a strong influence. Architecture is also unavoidably linked to its program, what the building is used for. A federal courthouse has no business being cute or fun, and the exterior belies a high-security, largely inaccessible and opaque interior. The cheerful blue and red coats all interior surfaces, turning even the federal seal hung over the entryway into a toylike medallion. This playful architecture is either the architectural version of someone telling you to have a nice day when you are grouchy, or it’s an attempt to neuter the austerity of the courthouse, to lure visitors into a false sense of comfort.
I’m not certain what values the Kastenmeier Courthouse represents architecturally. “Playful” and “foreboding” do not seem like values our federal court system should want to evoke. There is a menacing character to the courthouse, if not exactly the same level of solemnity as the romanesque Milwaukee courthouse, or the neoclassical Lafayette County Courthouse in Darlington, Wisconsin, about 60 miles southwest of Madison. The federal General Services Administration describes the Kastenmeier Courthouse in uncharacteristically floral terms: “As the exterior design was created in relation to its urban surroundings, the interior design evolved from the desire to create a lively, warm, and personal atmosphere.”
What sort of atmosphere would “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” create? The mandate for Neoclassical style in federal buildings references Thomas Jefferson’s early American architecture. Neoclassicism in the 18th century was extremely popular; Jefferson was following trends as much as he was referencing 16th c. Italian architect Andrea Palladio, or tacitly referencing Athens or Ancient Rome. The ambition for a national architecture forefronted abstract ideas about liberty while, in reality, the Jefferson-designed Virginia state capital was constructed by slave laborers. Neoclassicism represents, to architectural historians, the timeless search for fundamental principles of architecture. To the President and the National Civic Art Society, neoclassicism represents definitely Western ideas of authority and power.
“Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is meant to replace the 1962 federal document “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” which mandated avoiding “an official architectural style” and said that new federal architecture is to respond to the time in which it is built. Architecture can and should do so much more: be comfortable to people, improve the city, promote good labor practices, create sustainable environments, and be delightful, unique, and interesting. Kastenmeier Courthouse delivers only as an idiosyncratic and visually interesting architecture, with its graceful references to late Modernism and the agriculture of Wisconsin. But Peters should be commended for taking the opportunity to notice the temporal and spatial contexts, rather than forever reiterating on the Pantheon and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Neoclassicism is boring. Long live the neon spike.