August 19, 2012

Geometreks in Madison I: Van Vleck Hall

Van Vleck Hall houses the mathematics department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Standing atop Bascom Hill, it consists of an austere tower of offices and meeting rooms and a classroom block burrowed into the hillside.

Designed by the architecture firm John J. Flad & Associates, the complex was dedicated in 1963. It is named in honor of prominent Wisconsin mathematics professor Edward Burr Van Vleck (1863-1943), who was also active in the American Mathematical Society and served at its president (1913-1914). His main mathematical interests were function theory and differential equations.

Sheathed in precast concrete panels, the stark, relentlessly symmetric tower looms over the campus.  Upon closer inspection, however, its austerity is relieved somewhat by geometric patterns that cover three of the four facades of the building’s ground floor.

Made up of arrays of lines, circles, and triangles, these patterns hint at geometric theorems, incompletely sketched in pebbled concrete.

I assume that these decorative facades were part of the original design, but I can find no information on who was responsible for them, what inspired the designs, or how they were conceived and executed.

A hint of geometric theorem?

Intriguing details include this triangle of triangles.

Three of the four sides of the ground floor block are covered with geometric designs.

A bent-paperclip bicycle rack adds another geometric element to the setting.

Photos by I. Peterson

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