Behind Madison’s Aesthetic

Behind Madison’s Aesthetic

Maybe it’s that first glance of the Capitol from the hip-curve of John Nolen Drive, narrowing at the bridge-waist and blooming out again at Monona Terrace. Maybe it’s the sweetcorn yellow or dripping citrus of the Memorial Union Terrace chairs against the quietly lapping lake, or the way State Street suddenly seems irresistible anytime the air is thick with grass clippings and smoldering charcoal. There’s just something about Madison. People frequently say, “Oh, I love Madison!” though they can’t always tell you just why; it’s a feeling. But what if what you know and love about Madison isn’t by accident? What if it’s by design?

“When you’re walking around downtown and you step over a manhole cover, you might not be thinking that somebody designed that,” says Dan Merfeld, president of Design Madison. “But in a very real way you’re experiencing design. It’s not just the way Madison looks. It was intentionally put that way.”

Merfeld is talking about the recently overhauled State Street, where everything from top to bottom (including those manhole covers) was sculpted by a team including environmental design firm ZEBRADOG. The company’s creative director, Mark Schmitz, believes Madison is made up of “sacred spaces,” landmarks infused with deep, personal meaning for each of us, although that meaning is as customized as our fingerprints.

“Our entire culture is based in design,” says Schmitz. “Really, everything we are is purely about design and creative expression. We need to have relationships with people, and we create the environments where these relationships happen. It’s all very purposeful. The architect understands this, the landscape and interior designer understand this, the city planners understand this, the communication designer understands this—that we don’t exist without good design.”

But attempt to change a sacred space in Madison without a healthy reverence for the intangible values those spaces represent, and you’ll face a fight. There will be input from a half dozen highly educated and engaged neighborhood groups and at least a year of preliminary committee meetings to determine if there should be additional preliminary committees. This process, one landscape architect Ken Saiki calls “hyper-democratic,” might be the greatest evidence of Madison’s DNA-level attachment to its design.

“I know there are people in the business community who say it’s a political or a governmental issue, but I think it’s systemic in our city,” says Saiki. “Because it comes from the local activists and neighbors, and by and large we as a community do not like things to change.”

Ken Saiki Designs (responsible for landscape and greenspace planning at the State Capitol Park, Hilldale, the Kohl Center, Olbrich Botanical Gardens and more) was part of the State Street reconstruction team with ZEBRADOG. He says the original plan came from a highly credentialed internationally known firm out east, but it contained design elements that, while structurally sound, would have changed the character of the street, thereby making it fundamentally flawed. Both Saiki and Schmitz are Madison natives; they knew if anyone was going to touch State Street, infrastructure was only the half of it. Over time, the team developed and implemented the new plan that exists today.

“Everything on State Street, above ground, below ground, everything is new,” says Saiki. “But it is more like what was there before.”

Although both are devastated that the Edgewater Hotel proposal didn’t survive this passionate process (a Madison without the once-so-controversial Monona Terrace today seems unimaginable, for example), Saiki concedes this exhausting push-back might also be integral to what makes Madison a great place to be.

“This Madison-based process is extraordinary, I mean, it doesn’t exist at this level in very many places,” says Saiki. “People would argue that that’s good, that it is protecting the quality of life for our community… that because they fought so hard [the end result] morphs into something better than the original proposal.”

If it’s really about sacred spaces, it all makes sense. This is our town, this is who we are. This is not simply brick and mortar wedged between random bodies of water; this is Madison.

“When you grow up here,” says Schmitz, “you get it.”

-Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine.