Santiago Calatrava and Eero Saarinen in Conversation in Downtown Milwaukee – Come for the art, stay for the architecture.
Milwaukee is perhaps best known for its cheese curds, breweries, and in recent months, its championship basketball team (Go Bucks). It’s not a city that comes to mind for architectural marvels, despite the glut of Frank Lloyd Wright landmarks that are driving distance from downtown. One of Milwaukee’s lesser-known treasures, however, is a gleaming white edifice on the banks of Lake Michigan, designed by Spanish architect and designer Santiago Calatrava to house the city’s premier art museum.
For those unfamiliar with the city, its landscape is dominated by brick industrial buildings that remain from the early days of American industry, with a handful of skyscrapers that have made their way into the skyline in recent decades. Milwaukee’s eastern border, however, is a bit more open, home to several parks and museums that overlook the lake. There, the Milwaukee Art Museum sits—a refreshingly modern design in a sea of otherwise familiar architecture.
The building itself may remind its viewer of a rib cage, or a paper crane—maybe a surreal abstraction of the two. When approaching the museum from its dedicated parking structure, a narrow pathway, the Reiman pedestrian bridge, leads one down an axis of symmetry for a highly-coveted view of Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion, where two “wings” (known officially as the Burke Brise Soleil) energetically extend from the top of the building, as if in flight. As you draw closer to the entrance, it becomes clear that the wings are made from individual shoots of steel that connect to the main concrete and glass structure.
Surprisingly, the Milwaukee Art Museum was Calatrava’s first building in the United States, completed in 2001 as a kinetic structure that, for its time, took people’s breath away as its wings cascaded closed at the end of each day (a moment that pulls many an iPhone out of nearby pockets to record the performance). The wings fold and unfold three times each day at 10 a.m., Noon, and 5 p.m., a Milwaukee-specific timepiece beloved by locals.
Inside, the main atrium of the ground floor is a high-gloss space that is a visitor’s first encounter to the interior of the building, with a panoramic bank of windows on the far side of the room, all slightly concave, as if inviting you to peer out over the edge. As you move from gallery to gallery, Calatrava’s voice grows quieter, making room for the statements of each artist, and taking on a more traditional museum structure. But in the moments where the art is more sparse, the architecture shines through, an homage to the future and a spirit of levity, creativity, and beauty.
A foil to Calatrava’s bone-white facade is a brutalist building in concrete, designed by Eero Saarinen to house the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. The cantilevered cruciform is a stark and solemn contrast to the bright spirit of Calatrava’s contribution. The memorial serves as a place of education in memory of the wars fought by Americans, and in lieu of a flagpole or bench, the building serves as a space for congregation and respect for the lives lost throughout the nation’s history. Dedicated on Veteran’s Day 1957, the building represents a collective sense of gratitude and admiration for the armed forces, designed by Saarinen to afford a view of Lake Michigan from the interior of the building, while paying homage to Le Corbusier by way of a pared-back material language and basic geometries.
The overall appearance of the memorial is one that, when seen in conversation with Calatrava’s work, prompts reflection, stillness, and thought (as opposed to the awe that the Quadracci Pavilion tends to elicit). There is a distinct lack of ornamentation to the War Memorial Center, arguably to preserve a sense of reverence for the intended purpose of the building. The Modern punch, of course, comes from an ingenuity in the structure of the building, leaving an open cavity in the center of the building, while balancing the main structure on what, from a distance, appear to be concrete stilts. Thus, the imposing appearance of the building is somewhat lessened, as it creates a courtyard, where Saarinen placed zig-zagging staircases and space to enjoy mild weather that is so treasured in the Midwest.
Together, the two cultural centers, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the War Memorial Center, represent a serious appreciation for Modern design and architecture that is an undercurrent of the city of Milwaukee, which should perhaps be given more credit for its contributions to the field.