is not the most pleasant of cities. It sprawls messily along the edge of Lake Michigan
, full of decaying factory complexes from the gentle collapse of American industry. Just another member of the Rust Belt
; unwieldy and impersonal. Its notable exports? Beer
. How romantic. Milwaukee also has the lovely distinction of being the most segregated
city in the United States
, a thorn in the side of every smug Northerner groping for a mythical moral superiority over the South in matters of race. Tensions run long and deep, festering just beneath the surface. Whereas Green Bay
is loved by all and Madison
manages not to offend despite its quirkiness, Wisconsin
's third major city is an ugly, hulking, isolated embarrassment.
From amidst this urban wreckage rises the Milwaukee Art Museum. I do not mean that figuratively. The building is a drift-dreaming feathered creature perched at the edge of the vast lake. When the sun rises, it takes a deep breath, groans epicly to drive sleep from its body, and unfurls its wings. Wings. Huge, gorgeous, swooping, sensuous wings. And there it stands, poised for flight, ever-ready to ascend into a vast future's sky.
The origins of this wondrous beast of myth are belieingly mundane. It took form as the Milwaukee Art Center in 1957, a merging of the stodgy Layton Art Gallery and progressive Milwaukee Art Institute. The new institution combined with a War Memorial center funded by local women's groups to become a medium-sized gathering place for mostly minor works of art much like its hundreds of brethren across the nation. It aggressively pursued the broadening of its collection, eventually mounting several successful traveling exhibitions that placed it as one of the top ten American museums for earned revenue from exhibitions. Combined with a donation of one million dollars from Harry Lynde Bradley, this allowed it to nearly quadruple its physical space in 1975. The museum developed its educational function with a program of volunteer tour guides; mostly students from the city's universities. It also serviced the Milwaukee Public School district with satellite art classes. In 1980 it was redesignated the Milwaukee Art Museum to reflect the growing maturity of its collection.
Continuing success and generous funding from the boom of the 1990s lead to an expansion of the museum that brought it into the realm of extraordinary. Requirements were drawn up. The building had to flow with the texture of the shore and its neighborhood. The two previous building's aesthetics had to be respected, ruling out any postmodernist nose-tweaking. To a list of eleven candidates, Santiago Calatrava was added at the last moment, and eventually chosen based on his impressive resume of work. His design was completed in 2000 at a cost of seventy-five million dollars.
The structure can be most easily approached from its footbridge. A long, sinuous connection with the city, it draws its passengers gently from the urbanity behind toward Calatrava's more imaginative world. Directly before one is a sharp, angled spine, fifty meters high, anchoring the radial tethers holding the footbridge above the ground. One's attention is barely held by this monument, instead drawn to something even more fantastic. Soaring upward in parallel is a pair of curved wings meticulously mirroring the spread of a bird's. The wings are composed of a series of louvers which are motor driven. Beneath them is a pyramidal ribbed glass exhibition hall. The practical purpose of the wings is to provide temperature calibration for the building below, but they are so beautiful they hardly need to have function. All this elegance from the external view must eventually give way as one enters the building.
A problem I often have with creative architecture is that it's a splendor to look at from afar, but the gritty details of its interior are somewhat less attractive. Calatrava didn't just dodge this obstacle, he effortlessly bounded over it. Once inside, one is immediately greeted by a cylindrical glass elevator shaft. The car rises as driven by a polished metal piston. Efficient. Clean. Stepping inside and descending to the exhibition floor brings one to what I frankly consider a religious experience. The mainhall is pure white, with a curving roof of glass formed from the building's ribs. The forms immediately evoke the image of a cathedral, with the bright patterns of light deliberately scattered over the floor reinforcing that image. Everything about the space is organic and flowing. Not a single aspect of the architecture is static. It isn't just the roof, absolutely everything is in movement. Look to your right, a perfectly curved supporting brace immediately suggestive of the great weight it supports yet reassuring in its stability. To your left, a corridor of forms that serves as a textbook example of narrowing perspective. I assure you I do not hyperbolize by telling you there is not a single direction in which one can look without seeing immense beauty. Even the parking garage is a stunning work of art. Yes, the parking garage.
There are other, less noticeable qualities of the Quadracci Pavilion that are impressive. Calatrava shows acute semiotic sense in his positioning of boundaries. Walls are angled in such a way with help from floor curvature to clearly suggest a line one shouldn't cross without actually placing any impediment. One could step across the line, but it simply feels more natural not to. This gives the whole space a persistent sense of freedom without surrendering the ability to guide travel. Lighting fixture systems offer incredible flexibility in displaying exhibits. The display of African craftsmanship from Mali which I visited while I was there was lit in such a way that the light seemed to stream from the objects themselves, nebulous and sourceless. It was just breathtaking. Hundreds of small details like this cemented my love for the building, the best marriage of form and function in modern architecture that I have yet to see.
With recent exhibitions attracting international attention like the museum's latest "Leonardo da Vinci and The Splendor of Poland," the Milwaukee Art Museum's future prospects seem decidedly positive. It has single-handedly transformed my loathing for the city in which it sits to fonder, gentler feelings (Madisonians like myself get downright vociferous in their criticism of Milwaukee). I urge you, if you ever have the chance, to visit the museum. I promise it will blow you away. And the collection's not half bad either!
Bowman, Russel. "An Introduction to the Milwaukee Art Museum--Past and Future," Building a Masterpiece: Milwaukee Art Museum. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2001.
Bowman, Russel. "Disclosing Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Masterpiece," Building a Masterpiece: Milwaukee Art Museum. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2001.
Tzonis, Alexander. Santiago Calatrava: The Poetics of Movement. New York: Universe Publishing, 1999.