Campus History

A More Perfect Union

Bye-bye, brutalism. Hello, welcoming and green.

The new Union South, which will feature an outdoor plaza, indoor climbing wall, and high-tech meeting spaces, is designed to be a campus destination, rather than a satellite to Memorial Union. Credit: Workshop Architects, Inc. and Moody-Nolan, Inc.

Bowling lanes might be one of the few similarities between the new Union South and the old one, a concrete behemoth slated for demolition this spring.

“[Union South is] not a warm, welcoming place. It was built in the brutalist architectural tradition,” says Dan Cornelius JDx’10, MSx’10, VP for project management for the Wisconsin Union.

A group of students, alumni, and staff worked for more than two years on the new building’s design, gathering input across the campus community through surveys and focus groups, and selecting architects to bring their ideas to fruition. The primary goal was to create a campus destination with spaces and programs that the iconic Memorial Union does not have.

“We recognize we don’t have Lake Mendota here,” Cornelius says. “We really need this building to be a people magnet.”

Some campus groups, it seems, canceled their events rather than hold them at the original Union South, built in 1971. The twenty-first–century incarnation has a much better shot of drawing people inside and prompting them to linger, given its bounty of windows, modern meeting spaces, two levels of underground parking, and even a climbing wall that will soar two floors from a basement recreation center.

That welcoming presence starts on the outside, where balconies, patios, and terraces will open the building to the surrounding campus. The plan for the southwest side of Union South features a stepped plaza, with water features and areas for seating, where the UW Marching Band will perform on football Saturdays. North Orchard Street will be transformed into a pedestrian mall that can also host farmers’ markets and art shows.

Overall, the building and its outdoor spaces will have a bigger footprint, eliminating the tributary of Johnson Street that runs in front of the north side of the old building and demolishing the adjacent apartment building along Campus Drive.

Early proposals for the new Union South were deemed too modern or not distinct enough from Memorial Union. The final design is more organic, with a wood, stone, and steel exterior suggesting some Prairie School influence, and 10,000 square feet of green roof, creating what will be the most sustainable structure on campus. The project will use local resources as much as possible, and will integrate salvaged materials, such as carved stone trim rescued from a building that was torn down to make way for the adjacent Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

The building’s main level will include a coffeehouse with a stage for acoustic music and spoken word performances, fireplaces, an art gallery, a market, food kiosks, and a sitting area — called the Sun Garden — for eating, studying, and informal meetings.

“This is going to be a high-energy space,” says Andrea Bill MS’06 PhDx’09, an engineering student and member of the design committee.

A grill offering lunchtime and evening dining will be Union South’s version of Der Rathskeller, with a stage for live shows. Sliding walls will create a cross breeze on warm days and blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor space, welcoming people into the building from terrace seating areas and the Orchard Street mall.

Plans for the second floor include a space three times the size of Memorial Union’s Great Hall. Called Badger Hall, it will overlook Randall Street and hold 1,000 people for a sit-down dinner or 2,000 for dances or concerts, and can be divided into three separate spaces. On the same floor, a 350-seat theater will serve as the new home for the Union’s film series and double as a space for lectures and conferences.

The building’s upper three floors will include sixty guest rooms, offices for student organizations and additional meeting rooms, and space for staff who are relocating from Memorial Union. Union South will also be the new home for Visitor and Information Programs, currently in the Red Gym, making it the starting and ending point for campus tours.

Memorial Union, on the lakefront, will also be undergoing a major renovation, with improvements intended to bring it up to current safety and access codes while preserving its ambience.

In 2006, UW-Madison students voted to pay higher fees to cover the cost of both renovating Memorial Union and starting from scratch to build the new Union South, scheduled for completion in March 2011. During construction, the engineering campus will host Badger Bash prior to home football games and SOAR programs for incoming first-year students.

Wisconsin Union director Mark Guthier says the new building will change Union South’s status from a “satellite union” to a place with a distinct identity. In a few years, when a student or professor says, “Let’s meet at the Union,” the natural response may be, “Which one?” For more information:

The new Union South, which will feature an outdoor plaza, indoor climbing wall, and high-tech meeting spaces, is designed to be a campus destination, rather than a satellite to Memorial Union. Credit: Workshop Architects, Inc. and Moody-Nolan, Inc.

Published in the Spring 2009 issue


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