A Brutalist Architecture Tour of Wisconsin

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts | © Ed Bierman / Flickr
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts | © Ed Bierman / Flickr
Photo of Victoria Borisch
Freelance Writer27 February 2018

The Brutalist architecture movement took hold in the 1950s but hit its stride in Wisconsin in the 1960s, with a handful of buildings popping up in the state. This modernist style focuses heavily on fortress-like, concrete structures popular with governmental institutions and universities. True to the times, Brutalism is fundamentally about rejecting tradition and convention and can be found in both Wisconsin’s state capitol, Madison, and its largest city, Milwaukee. Here are some of the best examples of Brutalist architecture in the state.

George L. Mosse Humanities Building

Building, Park, University
Map View
George L. Mosse Humanities Building ,Madison
George L. Mosse Humanities Building,Madison | Phil Roeder/flickr
The Mosse Humanities Building at the University of Wisconsin is an imposing structure with lots of character. Rumors have circulated around campus that the building was constructed as a bomb shelter or with the intention of being riot-proof, but all such stories have proven to be fictitious. Designed by famous American architect Harry Weese, the architect behind the Washington D.C. metro, the building is considered to be one of the best examples of the Brutalist-style buildings in the Midwest. Unfortunately, the university is considering demolishing the building in the not-so-distant future, so fans of the Brutalist style should enjoy this unique work of art before it’s gone.

Vilas Hall

Building, School, University
Map View
Vilas Hall, Madison
Vilas Hall, Madison | Corey Coyle / WikiCommons
Vilas Hall is another example of Brutalist architecture on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus. It is home to the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This building, constructed in the late 1960s, is nearly windowless to keep out the cold Wisconsin winters, not an insurrection of protesters as some UW Madison students have imagined.

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

Building, Theater
Map View
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts ,Milwaukee
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts ,Milwaukee | Paul Sableman / Flickr
The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee was also designed by Harry Weese. Construction on the austere building began in 1966 during the heyday of the Brutalist architectural trend and was opened a few years later in 1969. Today, this historical building is a staple on the theater circuit, hosting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera, and First Stage Children’s Theater.

Curtin Hall

Building, University
Map View
Curtin Hall is the primary example of Brutalist architecture on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus. This striking structure sits on the university’s 104-acre campus on Milwaukee’s Upper East Side and houses the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. Its protruding windows and stairwells add sculptural layers to the concrete building. A traditional piece of Brutalist design, the confrontational exterior may be off-putting at first, but students who dig deeper may find inspiration in this unconventional architectural movement.