Since I moved to Madison five months ago, I've been using the Capitol as a compass. I used to live among the flat prairies of central Illinois, so I'm not used to curving streets and hills and, especially, lakes. Consequently I get lost a lot, and when I do, I look around for the Capitol Dome to regain my bearing.
As I've begun to meet people, I've learned that everybody's keeping an eye on the Capitol, no matter how long they've lived here or how well they know their way around. For them, the Capitol seems more a spiritual compass, a touchstone, a beautiful reminder of the days when architecture was Architecture. Urbanologist Jane Jacobs has called buildings like the Capitol "frosted pastries on trays," and yet we're all a sucker for these wedding-cake monuments to the past. They feel right in a way that glass-box skyscrapers never do.
It's not supposed to be that way. Modern architecture was supposed to have wiped buildings like the Capitol off the architectural map. With its colossal temple-fronts, its magnificent rotunda, its noble dome, the Capitol represents everything modern architecture rebelled against: the ornament, the wasteful extravagance (not such a good symbol for government), the complete subordination of function to form, the irrepressible nostalgia for the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome.
And yet I can't leave the Capitol alone. I find myself going out of my way to walk through it, climbing up its barrel-vaulted stairways, marveling at the complexity of its simple plan, gawking at the female personification of Wisconsin high up in the crown of the coffer dome, promenading along the dome's exterior balustrade, with all of Madison below me. What is it about classical architecture that still gets to us 2,000 years later? And what's a dyed-in-the-wool modernist like me doing hanging out in a frosted pastry?
It's All Greek...
This Capitol, the third in Madison, was completed in 1917 and begun in the early days of records history. At least that's where the symbolic forms - the dome and the temple-front - come from. We Americans have devised two new kinds of monumental architecture: the skyscraper (all function) and the capitol (all symbol). The one represents our pragmatic, future-oriented vitality, the other our idealistic allegiance to a mythical past. The Greeks and Romans created gods and goddesses to help them explain themselves. Americans created the Greeks and Romans to do the same.
The earliest statehouses were Georgian in style, a reflection of the Colonies' economic and artistic dependence on England. It was the Revolution that sent the country into a spasm of Greco-Roman worship. Greece and republican Rome were the very cradles of democracy - at least, so the early American leaders felt. (Greece relied on slaves, but so did Thomas Jefferson.) So when the early state capitols were being designed, American builders - most of them hardly qualified as architects - drew upon the architecture of classical Greece and Rome.
Actually, they drew upon classical architecture as reconceived by Renaissance Italian and by the leading neoclassical architects of 18th-century England and France. Still, it was the majesty and the symbolic power of the forms themselves - the Greek temple, the dome - that quenched the American thirst for a noble, democratic past. There's no more famous building in the world than the Parthenon, and Parthenonish temple fronts - some of them ridiculously small - began to appear all over the United States.
The dome is a curious mainstay of American government buildings, especially when you consider the important role it played in early Christian architecture. The Capitol Dome harks back to St. Peter's in Rome and to countless other martyriums built to commemorate heroic Christians. Palladio, the Renaissance architecture who first revived classical architecture, was also the first to appropriate the dome for secular buildings. (His famous Villa Rotunda is stylistically related to the Wisconsin Capitol.) Thomas Jefferson, one of America's first architects, took the dome from Palladio, and so today, over 200 years later, this immense Christian-derived dome stands as a symbol of the separation of church and state.
A Step Backward
Because civic architecture is notoriously conservative, it's no surprise that Wisconsin's Capitol, though built at a time when the Chicago skyscraper was conquering the world (and when Frank Lloyd Wright had already conceived a home-grown alternative to European models), so closely resembled buildings erected almost a century before. The gilded Miss Forward stands atop a building (built by Progressives!) that looks defiantly backward - toward the past.
That's because this country, at the time the Capitol was built, was still under the sway of the Beaux Arts, a French style that reigned over Western architecture for most of the 19th century and into the 20th. The Ecole des Beaux Arts was synonymous with architectural conservatism. It stood for a kind of sumptuous clarity that seemed quite in keeping with America's Gilded Age.
But Beaux Arts principles had trouble keeping up with 19th-century industrialization and mechanization. Even the Capitol Dome, which looks like it could have been built in 2nd-century Rome, has an iron skeleton concealed behind its ornamental faade. (This is what the modernists meant when they called old buildings built with the new technologies a lie.)
Diagonal streets radiate from the Capitol, wreaking havoc on the surrounding grid in the same way that L'Enfant's Washington, D.C., plan did on that city's grid, Like D.C., Madison has had its problems protecting the integrity of its sightlines. Today, many of the two- and three-story commercial buildings, which predated the 1917 Capitol, have given way to pushier (and uglier) buildings that are less willing to sit still while the Capitol shines.
And so, from the top of Wisconsin Avenue, what must once have been a fine view of the Capitol has now been penned in by the Concourse Hotel and Manchester Place - symbolic of the increased power of business with respect to government. Meanwhile, the First Wisconsin Bank, Madison's own Crystal Palace, throws back an oily reflection of the Capitol from its tinted panes.
Classical architecture is all about proportion, an intricate and centuries old esthetic that I don't presume to be an expert on. And yet there are aspects of the Capitol's conception that do rankle me. The purist in me rejects a four-winged state government. The state capitols that are not arranged on a cruciform plan (like ours is) have a wing for each half of their bicameral legislatures, but this one's symbology is messed up, especially with the governor and the Supreme Court housed in the same wing.
The Capitol is completely symmetrical: a building-in-the-round that's always putting its best face forward. I prefer the temple-front faades (the ones on the diagonal streets like State and King), though I find those little wooden doors beneath the gigantic pedimented, Corinthian-columned porticos an embarrassingly undignified way for we-the-people to enter a building we own.
The other entrances, the curved pavilions (with Ionic columns), are supposedly the Capitol's front doors, but I think these are the weaker faades. Because of the cruciform plan, the wings on these faades meet at a right angle rather that stretch laterally away from the dome like those on the U.S. Capitol and many other state capitols. The angle bothers me. It screws up the lines, and makes it look as if the wings are in the process of snapping shut.
Another tacky aspect of these entrances is that they were designed around the automobile (in 1917!), with their porte-cocheres and unseemly concrete pavements. What does it say about us that we allow cars to drive right up to our state's ceremonial front door?
The Capitol is loaded with indoctrinating artwork, inside and out. If you pay very much attention to this stuff (I don't think anybody does), your teeth may start to ache. The building is drenched in state ideology - a civics lesson in granite. All those allegorical paintings and sculptures preaching the virtues of state authority may remind you of neoclassicism's totalitarian associations. It wasn't simply by coincidence that neoclassicism was the favorite mode of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini: The style lends itself to centralized authority.
By the time the Capitol was finished in 1917, the world it was built to reflect no longer existed. The United States was no mere republic any longer, but a full-fledged imperialist power (admiringly evoked, if you ask me, by Miss Forward's eagle-topped globe). And neoclassical architecture, which had begun its life in America as a symbol of liberty and citizenship, had hardened into an icon of architecture itself, the backdrop to American military and economic might.
I try to ignore all this when I walk around the Capitol. I concentrate instead on the things I do like, especially the interior space of the rotunda. Architecture is above all the creation of space, and the rotunda is both thrilling and terrifying. It's form oblivious to function, the very opposite of the modernist creed. Only in a building with such a high ceremonial purpose - the glorification of the state - would we as a people squander resources on such a grand scale. And only by experiencing such a tremendous functionless space do we realize that function isn't everything, that the spirit has its own demands, that some material investments can only be paid back with years and years of looking and admiring.
The Capitol's Big Fix
Though the Capitol appears to be an unchanging symbol of the architectural past, it actually changes all the time. Some kind of renovation, restoration or repair work is almost always being done on it. Charles Quagliana, assistant director of the state's Bureau of Architecture, is in charge of maintaining the building's architectural integrity. He says big plans are in store.
"We're in the first phase of a six-phase project," Quagliana says. We're doing an upgrade of the electrical service to the whole building right now. We'll follow that by renovating and restoring each of the wings, and then the central space."
During the project, which is expected to take seven to nine years, air-conditioning will be installed in each of the wings. "This will provide greater comfort and protect the artwork," Quagliana says.
As part of the sixth phase, Quagliana hopes to restore the original cafeteria in the basement below the rotunda, which is now being used as a mailroom.
Quagliana says the state Legislature is generally pretty agreeable about Capitol restoration. "You have to fight and do your homework," he says, "but the master plan was created by the Legislature, so if they want it, they'll fund it. The general feeling is that the whole project will go eventually."