Calatrava Revisits His Iconic Milwaukee Design, 20+ Years Later
by Rich Rovito
In an exclusive interview, the Spanish architect shares his thoughts on how MAM’s Quadracci Pavilion has become a symbol of the city in just two decades.
It has proven transformational for the local building design landscape. It’s also a defining work of its world-renowned Spanish architect. And in the 21 years since its completion, the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum – so synonymous with the man who designed it that most locals to this day simply refer to it as “the Calatrava” – has, arguably, become the physical symbol of Milwaukee.
In an exclusive interview with Milwaukee Magazine, Santiago Calatrava, 70, reflected on his time in Milwaukee working on the project and how it has been a turning point in his illustrious career.
The MAM addition, which continues to garner worldwide acclaim, was Calatrava’s first project in the United States and sparked other important work and commissions – most notably the Oculus transportation hub at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, which features some of the same striking design elements found in the Quadracci Pavilion.
“I remember my time in Milwaukee as a great time,” Calatrava says, speaking from his office in Zurich. “I’m fond of the people that I met there and what we accomplished. It was a very nice experience for me, and a most meaningful one. It opened the doors for me in the United States and opened my mind about the United States. The sense of community in Milwaukee impressed me so much.”
Since the Quadracci Pavilion was completed in 2001, it has become so synonymous with the city that Visit Milwaukee, the convention and visitors bureau, now uses it as the organization’s logo.
“It was a sign of the evolution of our city into a destination for meetings, cultural events and the arts. It put us on the map,” says Visit Milwaukee President and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith. “You look for differentiators. You can go anywhere and do certain things, but when you have a one-of-a-kind monument that was designed by an award-winning architect like Calatrava, it’s amazing.”
CALATRAVA, WHO MAINTAINS RESIDENCES in Switzerland and New York City, spent the early part of his career mainly designing bridges and railway stations. Then came projects such as the Montjuïc Communications Tower in Barcelona and the Allen Lambert Galleria in Toronto in the decade before he was commissioned to design what became the Quadracci Pavilion.
Calatrava says he’s honored that his work continues to resonate with Milwaukee residents and visitors who flock to the city.
“Once a building is finished, as an architect the only thing that you can do is see what the reaction of the people is, how they see the building and what they see as the meaning of the building, even after 20 years,” Calatrava says. “Whenever I hear about the building, it is always positive.”
For all his acclaim, Calatrava hasn’t been without his critics, and much of the disapproval focuses on cost overruns; the $4 billion spent on the Oculus was nearly twice the estimates at the outset of the project. Another much-heralded project concept on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Chicago Spire, would have risen to 2,000 feet and become the tallest building in the United States. It was approved in 2006 but met its end two years later amid the worldwide financial crisis.
But in Milwaukee, public criticism of Calatrava appears to be virtually nonexistent. Experts and casual observers alike praise the Quadracci Pavilion’s timeless look, even though some initially viewed his distinctly neo-futurist design, innovative use of materials and sleek aesthetic a bit too radical for Milwaukee.
“In general, buildings survive us. As we go through the years, if people still appreciate them and still see something for the future, then that means that the building is fulfilling a role to be there for the coming generations,” says Calatrava.
Construction of the $121 million project began in 1997 and was completed in 2001. Calatrava recalls the emotion that surrounded the formal dedication of the Quadracci Pavilion, which took place about a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The opening of the museum was a very special moment,” Calatrava says. “This building to me was a sign of respect and even a sign of love for the city of Milwaukee and for the United States of America.”
From its inception, the Quadracci Pavilion has served as a gesture of hope and aspiration for the city, says Marcelle Polednik, director of MAM. “It seems fitting that when the absolute tragedy of 9/11 occurred, that even though the building wasn’t entirely complete, the staff and the board of the museum and Calatrava himself felt that it was important to open the doors of the museum to welcome people into a space that was inspiring and healing so that it could bridge the gap between despair and hope,” Polednik says.
The 142,050-square-foot structure houses a reception hall, auditorium, large exhibition space, store, cafés and parking; even the small underground garage contains elements of its signature design. Windhover Hall, the grand reception area, is one of many architectural highlights. Complete with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults and a central nave topped by a 90-foot-high glass roof, it represents Calatrava’s interpretation of a Gothic cathedral. The hall’s chancel is shaped like the prow of a ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Michigan.
Adjoining the central hall are two tow-arched promenades, the Baumgartner and Schroeder gallerias, with expansive views of the lake and Downtown. The museum’s signature design element is its finned wings, called the Burke Brise Soleil, that form a moveable sunscreen 217 feet wide.
On the Wing
THE QUADRACCI PAVILION’S signature wings, called brise soleil (French for sun breaker), are made of 72 steel fins, ranging in length from 26 feet to 105 feet. The entire structure weighs 90 tons, and it takes three and a half minutes for the wings to open or close. Sensors continually monitor wind speed and direction, and the wings automatically close when winds exceed 23 mph for more than 3 seconds.
Calatrava says that Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen’s design of the original museum building inspired his work, as did the topography of the city and Wisconsinite Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style architecture.
Calatrava’s hope was to design a structure that would be viewed as a watershed project and a catalyst for other development. “What the museum shows, in my opinion, is the importance of making certain places landmarks,” he says. “Why? Because they create enormous added value for their surroundings. Our cities are not only composed of avenues and streets and beautiful lakeshores, things like that. But there are also functional elements. They can be libraries, universities, churches, those that also define the geography of our cities – the landmarks. Structurally, they can also define the quality of an area.”
Incorporating the original building with the addition, as well as the construction of a pedestrian bridge that serves as a link between the lakefront museum and Wisconsin Avenue, Downtown’s main throughfare, turned out to be vital. “When we were landmarking the end of Wisconsin Avenue with the building, we were multiplying the force of the presence of the museum in this area and qualifying this area from a cultural point of view,” he says.
In his October 2001 dedication speech at the museum, Calatrava said the design came out of a close collaboration with clients: “Their ambition was to create something exceptional for their community.”
Among those collaborators were the museum’s leadership as well as philanthropists Donald and Donna Baumgartner, who donated $4 million to the museum project, and Quad founders Betty and Harry Quadracci, who put up a $10 million matching donation in 1997 that gave the project its name.
Donald Baumgartner, who as a member of the architectural selection committee was instrumental in choosing Calatrava for the project, has described developing a true friendship with the architect during his 40 or so visits to Milwaukee.
“I became very close with Calatrava,” Baumgartner says in his 2018 biography With the Wind at His Back. “I was goddamned determined to build it the way he wanted it built to fulfill what he saw as a vision for this museum. I wanted every part of it to be there.”
Joel Quadracci, who now leads Quad, the printing and marketing company that also owns Milwaukee Magazine, recalls his parents’ interactions with Calatrava as the pavilion took shape. “They were looking for something that was unique and where the building is also part of the art,” says Quadracci, who recently completed a three-year stint as chair of the MAM board. “It was great timing for a smaller city to punch above its weight a little bit and create something fantastic.”
Calatrava also cites former museum leaders Muhammad Isa Sadlon (then known as Christopher Goldsmith) and Russell Bowman as key backers of his design for the project. “They were encouraging me to go ahead and bring something new,” Calatrava says. “The goal, when you are working on a public project like a museum, is to give back to the community, to see a benefit. As soon as you do a prominent building in a particular place, you are admittedly reflecting around it and marking the area in the minds of the people in terms of accessibility and significance. This, without a doubt, happened with the Milwaukee Art Museum.”
During his address to the crowd of Milwaukeeans in 2001, Calatrava expressed that exact aspiration for their city: “I hope that … we have designed not a building, but a piece of the city.”
MORE THAN 20 YEARS LATER, few could argue with Calatrava that those lofty goals have been met.
Former Mayor Tom Barrett, whose 18 years in the mayor’s office saw the Quadracci Pavilion grow into a symbol of his city, calls the building a “fabulous addition to the city and the lakefront” and an asset in selling Milwaukee. “It gives us a great image, not just locally, but globally,” he says. “What it has done is put a spotlight on how the city has changed in a positive way.”
Quadracci notes the MAM project, along with the creation of the RiverWalk, the rise of the Third Ward and other developments, have all helped to change the conversation about Milwaukee. “The Milwaukee Art Museum was a big piece of the city’s transformation, [but] I don’t know that any one thing solely creates that transformation. It becomes an attitude, a pride thing. We have a wonderful city. You didn’t hear that said in the same way 20 years ago,” Quadracci says. “My parents were believers in using art to strengthen communities. If it was just an art museum unto itself, that’s great and all, but if other parts of the city aren’t also moving forward, then it’s for naught.”
Mo Zell, professor of architecture and senior associate dean at the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, quickly became aware of the pavilion’s unique connection to the Milwaukee community after moving to the city more than 13 years ago. “One of my favorite things about the city is the truly authentic way that so many people identify with that building, across all parts of Milwaukee,” she says. “It’s really an identifier for the city.”
Calatrava’s design was “out of the box” for Milwaukee 20 years ago, Barrett notes. “By Milwaukee standards, it was a gamble, but it’s a gamble that has paid off,” he says. “I think it has more than stood the test of time.”
Polednik, on the other hand, hails the design as “visionary,” not an architectural risk: “It was thinking beyond the Milwaukee of 2001 and thinking about where Milwaukee needed to be and what it needed to become. From that perspective, it was forward-looking and hopeful. It was bold, yes. But it was not a gamble.”
Polednik recalls her first experience in the Quadracci Pavilion when she interviewed to become director of the museum in 2016. “It’s a truly awe-inspiring building in every way,” she says. “It’s majestic from the outside. It’s incredibly moving on the inside. It’s beautiful. It’s pristine. It feels like hallowed ground in many ways. It has a temple-like quality about it.”
What’s in the Name
MARCELLE POLEDNIK says she understands the general public’s inclination to refer to the pavilion by the name of its famed architect. Some even refer to the entire museum property as “the Calatrava,” the MAM director notes.
Polednik says it’s important to recognize all three of the museum’s major architectural commissions: the Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial Center (1957) and the David Kahler-created addition (1975), along with the Quadracci Pavilion. The latter was named for Harry and Betty Quadracci, who co-founded Quad, the company that bought Milwaukee Magazine in 1983. Betty was MilMag’s publisher for nearly 30 years until her death in 2013.
“Over the past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to shift that parlance,” Polednik says. “The museum’s campus consists of three monumental buildings. We’re slowly shifting that thinking to incorporate all the other architectural gems of the museum.”
And it’s been instrumental in deepening the connection between MAM and the community it serves, Polednik says. “This building wasn’t just about what the museum would gain in terms of functionality, it was also a quest in a sense to build an icon, to build a landmark that would speak to the aspirations of the community at large,” she says. “In that way, I think the Calatrava project is still a source of inspiration and aspiration even 20 years later.”
Zell credits the pavilion’s layout that usually allows the public access to much of its space without a ticket or membership. Changes to ticketing procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic restricted unticketed guests from entering the building, but Polednik says that will be temporary.
“One of my favorite things about the interior is the public nature of that space,” Zell says. “That main space is a public space, which means that everyone gets to come in and enjoy it and be a part of it. If you want to go to the top of the Empire State Building, you have to get in an elevator, and you’ve got to pay to go up. That’s not the case with the museum. I think there’s such a generousness with which the museum operates that’s not really talked about.”
Polednik speaks of the project’s functional aspects as well – chiefly the 10,000 square feet of space for “major, monumental exhibitions of art.” Windhover Hall and the expansion’s auditorium have been important for museum programming and connecting with the community by hosting public or private events. “We also gained outdoor spaces and actually gained quite a bit of functionality as an institution, all of which has enabled our artistic program and our visitor experience to grow exponentially.”
Even as other impressive projects have joined the pavilion in Milwaukee’s skyline – notably Northwestern Mutual’s 32-story sparkling glass tower overlooking the museum – it stands apart in its uniqueness.
“What’s really interesting about this particular building is that it doesn’t fit in with anything at all, and therefore it fits in with everything,” Polednik says. “It’s the raisin in the batter, and it will always be that way. But at the same time, my sense is, if we are thinking about urban density and the construction of numerous buildings Downtown, this building doesn’t compete with any of that because it is so unique and so monumental.”
PLANS TO CELEBRATE the 20th anniversary of the Quadracci Pavilion last fall were scrapped due to continuing pandemic concerns, but an event later this year, likely around the fall anniversary, will “be our opportunity to spend more time with Mr. Calatrava and share some of the thoughts about the future of the building,” Polednik says. She stopped short of confirming that Calatrava would return for the celebration, and at press time no formal announcement had been made.
These days, Calatrava is spending most of his time in Europe but is still working on completing the construction of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine at the World Trade Center site. He hasn’t come back to Milwaukee in the 20 years since the opening of the Quadracci Pavilion but says he does hope to return one day. “I would very much like the opportunity to go there and say hello personally to all my friends,” he says.
He adds that “it tugs at his heart” when he hears comments about how the addition he designed helped transform Milwaukee. “For the people who decided to do the museum, they should be really proud,” Calatrava says. “They added the value to Milwaukee that everyone was wishing to have. It justified the investment, added value to the city and improved the quality of life.”
That impact has been lasting. “It can be written 20 years later that this building is still part of the discussion of architecture and still inspiring to young people to do similar things or do something even better,” Calatrava says. “When I think of Milwaukee, it was an important building for my career and my work, but also the human factor for me was very important. I discovered so many devoted people. I got to work with great professionals. The human aspect was, for me, at least as important as the professional aspect.”