The Variegated Wall


1. Having streaks, marks, or patches of a different color or colors; varicolored.

2. Distinguished or characterized by variety; diversified.

On the grounds of Wisconsin Lutheran College is a stone facade. Part of a building designed by Eschweiler and Eschweiler in the 1920’s, this stone wall is a delight to the modern eye in its variation of color and tone. Although it is made of grey limestone, each stone is differentiated from the next by the slightest hue variations, and by a strange and unusual system of canted vertical joints (see figure 1). While there is the historical curiosity of fine Romanesque Revival carving around the entry portal, it is the beauty of this plain, flat wall that strikes our modern eye today, and asks us to contemplate the simple elegance and interest of the variegated wall.

To clarify the accomplishment and sophistication of this wall is a nearby contemporary stone wall of the same Indiana limestone (see figure 2). This wall, while expensive by any standard today is flat and lifeless and would not warrant a second glance much less contemplation. Gone is the subtle variation of tone and color, and in its place is the sort of stultifying sameness that describes the material experience of so many modern buildings. Why is this so? Why would a wall of quarried, natural stone built today not have the same variety as a wall from the same quarry built almost a century ago? It is because the Eschweiler and Eschweiler wall was a careful contrivance, a specifically selected set of colors and tones chosen by the architect to create the effect of a highly intentional variegated wall.

Around 20 years ago I had several conversations with architects then in their mid-eighties, architects who had worked in the Milwaukee and the Mid-west from a period starting around 1925. One of the topics of our conversation centered on stonework, as it was practiced early in their careers. They stated that architects of this era would routinely select stones from different ledges of sedimentary color and/or tone from a single quarry, and mix them together to create specific variegated effects. One of the architects recalled how a project had mixed “…20% dark, 60% medium, and 20% light…” buff Indiana limestone to achieve the desired visual qualities. They mentioned that architects of the era would also work on the jobsite to observe and personally direct the placement of stones, especially those on important façade locations. One can imagine one of the Eschweiler’s in spats and top hat: “…and that extra dark stone, right, up, there…”

Today a new generation of architects here in Milwaukee (and elsewhere in the Upper Mid-west) is again working on the idea of the variegated wall in a contemporary form, and has produced the first buildings which demonstrate the richness and potential of the idea. One such building is the new Hillel Student Center, just south of UWM behind the Zelazo Center on Kenwood (see figure 3). Designed by the Milwaukee firm of La Dallman, this modest wood frame building completes the massing of a long row of houses and duplexes to the south, but there the strict contextual references end. Featuring an elevated volume clad in dark fiber cement panels, these panels display a beguiling variation in hue, resembling the subtle effects of iridescence. These fiber cement panels are shipped pre-finished, and are available in a wide range of colors. La Dallman has used three different colors: a dark grey, a dark bronze and a dark copper, all in very similar tonal range, to clad the upper mass. Panel sizes also vary significantly, conforming to an irregular pattern of openings. The architects worked closely with samples of the products, attempting to understand the finished visual effect, and it shows. Seldom has one seen a lowly product like fiber cement boards (think HardiPlank) executed with such elegance. Fasteners are exposed and pre-finished dark to match the panels, but they are there, and tell us that this is a light weight cladding screwed onto furring strips. Technically, this is a rain screen wall, with a pressure equalized drainage cavity and a water barrier behind the panels. The joints between the panels are left completely open, lending crispness to the detailing. The base of the building is clad in a veneer of salvaged cream city bricks, which after the civil war clad so many Milwaukee buildings that they named the whole town after them. This surface too has a rich variegation, with crème, blond, grey and even scorched black bricks all showing signs of their previous lives.

Another Milwaukee design firm that has been grappling with the idea of the variegated wall is Johnsen Schmaling. This firm has recently completed the so called “Camouflage House”, on Suger Loaf Peninsula overlooking Norwegian Bay on Big Green Lake in Central Wisconsin (see figure 4). Early in their extensive and careful design process the architects completed a collage (see figure 5) of objects collected from the heavily wooded site. Bark and leaves in the wide range of fall foliage colors set the tone for the exterior of this building, with facades executed in cedar boards and a rich variety of Prodema wood veneer panels. While the cedar has weathered to silver grey bark tones, the Prodema panels are intended to maintain the natural wood tones which correspond to the colors of the site collage. The insistently tall and vertical wood panels and windows relate closely with the tall vertical trunks of trees which grow densely on the site, giving the house its name as it is under certain seasonal circumstances, camouflaged enough for a military facility. But it is the rich variegation of the facades, with a display of the colorations of nature, which capture our attention when we are there, a display which resembles a woven tapestry or fabric by a thoughtful and skilled weaver.

Such experiments have not been limited to small boutique design firms and their exclusive clientele, and recent built works show that design research into this idea has entered large corporate firms. Architect Tim Carl with HGA (Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Architects) of Minneapolis has been conducting some interesting experiments in metal claddings, and has recently completed the anodized clad Benedicta Arts Center Expansion at the College of St. Benedict (see figure 6).  Covered in dark aluminum plates detailed as a rain screen, the cladding complements a dark brick used for the 1960’s era original. Architect Carl felt that the inconsistency of anodized aluminum finishing (often frustrating to architects looking for perfect uniformity) could be the starting point for a variegated surface as rich as any natural bricks or stones. Tim worked closely with an aluminum anodizer to develop a rich, dark, custom color by double dipping the plates first into the bronze finish, and then into the red. The results are intriguing, as the inherent inconsistency of anodizing is immediately evident in the final cladding assembly. Carl built full scale mock-ups to understand the variations of the anodizing inconsistencies and, in general, found them to be beautiful.

Even architects working at the largest institutional scale of buildings here in the Mid-west are working with this idea, as the new 400,000 square foot Froedert and Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center demonstrates (see figure 7). Designed by Chicago area architects OWP/P, this building utilizes a rich variegated surface of different glasses to give a massive facility a surprising lightness and delicacy unusual for such a large institutional building. With a long, curving south façade overlooking a parkway and pond, the architects chose to clad this surface entirely in glass. While many architects would stop there, OWP/P developed a complex and varied system using opaque spandrel glasses to clad the depth of floor construction between levels. This spandrel glass utilizes a solid ceramic frit coating which is baked onto the back of the glass, and is available in almost infinite colors. Randy Guillot, the Design Principal for the project, selected a variety of sky grays that are placed with seeming randomness on the curving surface.

One effect of this random pattern is the suppression of the reading of clear vision glass as simple horizontal bands. The actual transparency of windows, where we see a corridor wall or deployed window shades, is easily mistaken for one of the ceramic frit colors. In looking at the building from across the lagoon, the effects are interesting enough to engage long study; the eye is sufficiently engaged to search the surface again and again to understand the effects of transparency, reflection, light and color. Few glass buildings are this interesting in the day; only at twilight do most glass buildings provide the level of visual interest that their architects hoped they would have. This is certainly one of the best large glass walls built in our area for a very long time, perhaps since the First Wisconsin atrium lobby was built decades ago. It is important to recognize that here the success is not based on the old modern myth of a literally transparent surface, but on a recognition that most of this wall was to be opaque, and the architect worked to provide variety and definition to this solid surface.

The above examples show that something new is afoot here, a new sensibility of what constitutes a beautiful and engaging surface. At the same time, it represents a sensibility that can certainly be seen in the work of our area’s better historical architects, like that of Eschweiler and Eschweiler for example. There is also embedded in this movement an appreciation again for the solid wall in architecture. Here is a new generation that understands that architecture must have solid enclosing walls to achieve its full potential, and that mythic buildings of transparent glass are not enough for reasons environmental, technical and aesthetic. Having made this realization, these architects have worked to make these solid walls rich and variegated.