When Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava was hired to design an addition for the Milwaukee Art Museum in December 1994, he was 43 years old and though not unknown, he hadn’t yet seen any of his works built in the U.S., and had little name recognition here.
But nearly immediately after his stunning Quadracci Pavilion was completed in 2001, everyone began calling it “The Calatrava” and his fame in Milwaukee was – just like his avian structure – cemented into the city’s collective consciousness.
As Calatrava has gone on to wider acclaim, due surely in part to his iconic Milwaukee Art Museum addition – as well as to his PATH train station, called “The Oculus,” at New York City’s World Trade Center site – his building has literally become the symbol of Milwaukee.
That the unique Quadracci Pavilion not only got built, but has become beloved here, speaks volumes for how Milwaukee has altered its view of itself over the years.
Indeed, when Calatrava returned last week to celebrate in delayed fashion the 20th anniversary of the October 2001 opening of the addition, Mayor Cavalier Johnson praised the architect and his work here for sparking a renaissance.
“For 20 years, the Quadracci Pavilion has helped to redefine Milwaukee,” the mayor said. “Everybody knows about the Quadracci Pavilion, about the Art Museum and what the symbol means.
“You jump started Milwaukee’s renaissance. It’s fitting that there are wings on this building because it gave lift to the city.”
While the architect was in Milwaukee, we got a chance to sit down with him for a question and answer session that turned out to be much more answer than question.
We discussed his initial impressions of Milwaukee, the kind of teamwork that led to the construction of the Quadracci Pavilion and perhaps the most burning question of all: what does his think of Mark di Suvero’s sculpture, “The Calling.”
OnMilwaukee: So I wanted to start talking about how familiar you were with Milwaukee when you got the invitation to come here and do this project. Did you know anything about the city? Did you have any expectation?
Santiago Calatrava: I mean, I knew that Milwaukee exists, as much as Chicago. The difference was that I was in Chicago before, just occasionally as a tourist, but not here in Milwaukee. I knew about Toronto, which is also on the lake, and I had been working there for three or four years. So I was familiar a little bit with this part of the world: about the vegetation, the light, the presence of the lake, the importance of the lake.
I knew also that the museum has very good collection of German Expressionism, which is very rare here in the United States. Out of many immigrants came here, or the presence of an important German-origin community.
I knew that the museum was very respectable, particularly because then it was starting to build up a collection around Georgia O’Keeffe and some of the contemporary artists.
And architecturally, had you seen the Saarinen building and …
Yes, and then I knew the area and a little bit the spirit of the area through my studies, and studying the work of Frank Lloyd Wright particularly, and also (Louis) Sullivan. I knew that this area was a ferment of interesting architecture.
I knew also that Mies van der Rohe who was born in, I think, in Aachen, and came here and establish in the post-war time in Chicago, and has now made an important contribution.
Mostly it was the figure of Frank Lloyd Wright, you see, who has here in the city a home he designed, and also he has also the church, the Greek Orthodox church, very important buildings both, I visit them.
Then also in Racine, and the Johnson home. That is a magic piece in the history of architecture of the 20th century, plus Taliesen East was also not far away from here in Milwaukee and Chicago. So the Prairie houses I knew.
Also the whole (area) has had for me a little bit of legendary character, you understand, of places where completely unsuspected interesting architecture in the 19th century to the 20th century; very interesting and substantial contemporary architecture has been done.
I came here with a lot of expectation, and of course with a lot of feelings, knowing the place and knowing the significance of this work I could do.
I know the museum leadership and the trustees were eager to have a work of yours. I don’t know if they could have imagined it would be as beautiful as it is, but were they receptive to your initial ideas?
In this matter, you see, there are several aspects in a building that need to be considered and that, since ancient times, have been very clearly different. First of all, there are the people who give you the commission.
So-called trustees or the client. Second is the project itself, and the third one is the construction. Now, I arrived with a conviction that there is not a good project in the world without a good client. So if a project is good it means clearly the client wanted to do a good project. Do you understand what I mean?
That is very important, and this was the case. So the trustees of the museum, they chose me. Was their free decision. They also had in mind to have a significant building, was also their decision.
They also embraced and conducted the whole fundraising campaign and fund this museum by working very hard, amplifying always their goal, as the fundraising campaign was progressing because the enthusiasm in the community was growing and because more people associate their idea of making of the museum extension something significant.
Now, the trustees are also the extension of the city, where if you permit me, maybe it will be a little bit long, but it is important. Your question seems to me to be capital.
Yes, of course …
You see, the trustees embrace also the sense of the community. This community, this city, has chosen a cultural facility as (its) emblem, as (its) sign.
They could have chosen another thing. They could do, let’s say, a telecommunications tower. Many cities have done that in Europe. Many cities in Germany have an enormous tower with telecommunications, so progress, the future, and things like that. They could chose another subject, you understand?
They could chose maybe the parliament or something like that, a political statement. No, Milwaukee chose a cultural statement as an emblem of the city.
It was very clear for me from the beginning. The trustees tell me that we want to set a sign with the museum. Decision of the client, you understand? But also, by extension, of the community.
This is very important, do you understand? Because as I say, and I repeat, there is not a good project in the world and it’s not a good building without very important and clear and good commitment of the people and of the community.
Now, the second part is the project itself. This is more related to myself if you want, but also it goes always in dialog with the client. It is not that I just present (it) and then take it or leave it. No, it was a dialog. I caught also these enthusiasms of them. I understood they wanted to do something exceptional. They encouraged me also to do something special, and then I articulate my vocabulary, you see, to deliver that.
I say, well, let’s say we chose a language, and the language is very clear. It’s the engineering language. All those arcs, all those ribs, you understand? It’s the engineering language. You can see the pins, you see the articulations, you see how the arcs are arriving and then you see how they are put. If you go to the parking lot, you have exactly the same, so it’s clearly engineering.
Because I taught myself in architecture, but being also engineer, I have a lot of belief in technique. The technique is a vehicle of innovation and renewal, you understand?
I thought, “Let’s work here exposing also in a way, in single places, you see very strongly, our thing.” Eventually there are always a certain way to understand architecture. There is a way to approach the museum. There is a way how the museum becomes a sign, and how you walk in the museum. These are all architectural things, you understand?
Then I thought, “OK, let’s do a bridge like the War Memorial has a bridge. Let’s also separate the museum (by) one block, the footbridge and the pavilion here, and not closer to the museum, get one block so we are free of the dependence of any conflict between the actual extraordinary Saarinen building and David Kahler extension, and this part here. Let’s also do a bridge, as they have done in the (War Memorial) … I think this is called Wisconsin Avenue and that is Mason.
“And let’s do a bridge, but of course, you know, with a technical vocabulary, and use the bridge linking to the museum, and make the roof also close to it, parallel to the mast of the bridge, although they are independent. Then also make the wings as a poetical element, functional because it’s a brise soleil – it’s shading the sun and so on – but also as a poetical element embracing with the openness and lake and the landscape, the horizon and the birds who are flying around.”
You see, this was the way how this thing has been administrated. Also entering the museum, if you arrive in the garage, you have a whole way to go up. You discover the (Alexander) Calder (mobile), and then you go again up, and then you arrive into the lobby.
But if you come over from the street, it compresses you a little bit in the entrance and then opens more and more towards the hall with the opening, the lake. Then when you arrive to the end of the hall you turn back, then you see another type of roof because the roof is bivalent isn’t it.
Things like that … these are all architectural resources that are articulated through the vocabulary of engineering, and this is the essence of the project.
I could, of course, explain toi you much more, many more details, but this is the link between the two parts of the old – I mean the Saarinen War Memorial and David Kahler extension – and our pavilion, (which) here is just horizontal, as the horizon is also horizontal. Then we extend it with this canopy (to the south), and with the canopy towards the lake, a bit, you know, in the spirit of the Prairie houses of Frank Lloyd Wright that you maybe know in Oak Park, where the roofs were going in all directions.
There is also in all that a love of, let’s say, so-called architectural form. The material part, you see, is engineering, isn’t it?
Now, let’s see about the construction. That is very important. I was very lucky because I got, first of all, an extraordinary architect, as co-architect or architect of record in David Kahler.
And David Kahler put all his heart and his wisdom and his experience, you understand, in order to deliver the building in the most perfect way. You can see it in the corners, in the form works and all that. This has been mandated by architects who have been watching here (on site).
You see that in the joints of the marble (of the floor), which is very modest, you know. Seems to be extraordinary, this marble, but I can tell you it’s a modest marble. It’s so well put that this is a magic thing, you see? Then it dignifies the place. And the same thing happened, you see, with all the details you can see around.
I think of the carpenters who had been working here, and all the workers who put their heart (into it). Then the construction of the roof, then the construction of the bridge, then the construction of the brise soleil, that we needed to find a way to make it possible in the last minute, and we made it possible (by) bringing it here from abroad, and things like that.
This is not only the real part of the building, the real part of the material realization of the building, but also eventually the heroic part. You understand what I mean?
For me, those guys are all heroes, you understand. They put really their heart and their hands, you know, to make it possible.
Here was this strong, united constellation, the client, project and executors, you see, trying to do their very best. They were coordinated. They were articulated with each other, and then we presented (it) to the community in all humbleness, and of course, imagine 20 years later I am so proud to be here and to see that people recognize, through me, the effort we all have done.
You know, this is the destiny of an architect. When the thing goes well, you are in the top and you shine. When the thing goes badly… (laughs)
It’s part of the story of this profession. You need to take that with a lot of philosophy, and particularly with a lot of humbleness.
My time is up, but this is a question I have to ask you. For years, Milwaukee has had a battle. There are some people who say that Mark di Suvero’s sculpture, “The Calling,” blocks the museum and should be moved. Then there are other people who say it beautifully aligns with the building and should stay. What do you think?
You see, first of all, it’s very important to preserve all the area around the museum for future extensions or for art. You see today if you look at a city like Chicago, they are not only famous because they introduced the first in the world architectural tours, but also they have been capturing the very best sculptors of the time and letting them do magnificent work.
So you walk in Chicago and then suddenly you are there in front of a extraordinary Picasso. Then if you look at the corner, there is a Miró. I say that because both are from Spain. (Laughs)
You go to the (Millennium) Park and you see an extraordinary Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa and (Magdalena) Abakanowicz, and then you go there and (you see a) Marc Chagall. Irrepeatable! You will not get them anymore, because many of them are passed away. Do you understand?
They are a legacy. It is THE 20th century. Do you understand what I mean? Looking at it from the 21st century, it’s extraordinary. When you go to Florence, you see the David of Michelangelo in front of the Signoria, and then you go to Bologna and you see Cellini. They passed away many years ago, (but still) they are there. It is very important that we understand that this is, in my opinion, a good continuation of that; (that) newer sculptures are introduced.
Now, about this sculpture of di Suvero. Personally, I like it since the first day (I saw it). It’s not new. I’ll tell you why. When you are approaching the museum from Wisconsin Avenue, you have a first reference – the di Suvero statue – and then behind it the brise soleil. Now, if the brise soleil is closed, its ridge appears like a line behind (the sculpture). You understand?
But you have a first reference, and then (the brise soleil) opens. Then the link between the sculpture and the rest gives you an escape, and that is very important because it lets the brise soleil appear (to be) extraordinarily large, which is not the case.
You see, in the reality the scale is, I would like to say not domestic, is certainly monumental, but very controlled. You understand? We are not in front of the capitol. You understand what I mean? We are not in front of Eiffel Tower. Are you following me?
From the Champ de Mars, and then even from the Place de Fontenoy, behind Ecole Militaire, (the Eiffel Tower) seems to be gigantic wherever you’re looking. But the here is the scale is much more minuscule.
So the sculpture of di Suvero is like when you have, let’s say, a photograph and there is nobody there. Suddenly you put a person, and the scale of the photograph changes. You understand what I mean?
And I have had a similar problem, as it happens, in Manhattan. When I built the PATH station (the Oculus), I always say the PATH station is a link between the gigantic scale of the towers and the person. It has, of course, 40 meters, 120 or more feet (in height). I think the tip is maybe 160 feet or something like that high. But the towers are 600 feet and more. This kind of link, you understand, a scale link and like I say, as an architect, I think it’s very well put where it is.
Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.