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Great American Architecture

Kevin Miyazaki Santiago Calatrava's new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Photo: Kevin Miyazaki

It may come as a surprise, especially to Midwesterners, but right now the most exciting architecture in America can be found in the Midwest. It all started in 2001, when the gleaming Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum opened: suddenly art lovers from around the world were going out of their way to visit a place once tagged as the buckle of the Rust Belt. Call it the Bilbao Effect. Frank Gehry’s sinuous Guggenheim Museum transformed Spain’s forgotten industrial city into a cultural mecca; Calatrava’s work has made Milwaukee an architectural destination.

With five major projects completed this year alone, and another five equally interesting buildings from the past few years, including Calatrava’s, this is the ideal time for a Midwestern architecture road trip. So I set out from New York, charting a loop that would take me from Ohio north to Wisconsin, then down through Iowa. This route also put me in the heart of Dairyland, and the trip turned out to be as much about ice cream as architecture. It’s a natural combination here. The Midwest is the only place in the world where you can see a frenetic Rem Koolhaas building one day, and eat the biggest frozen-custard sundae of your life the next.

Day 1

Cincinnati, Ohio, 0 miles The new complex of Morphosis-designed buildings at the University of Cincinnati is a monster: 350,000 square feet of classrooms, student dining, and a gym topped by a massive dorm—a V-shaped, cantilevered superblock with a chunk missing in the middle. It’s an electrifying and disorienting jumble, and not a little sinister. Visitors can buy day passes to the gym, and from the enormous pool to the elliptical skylight, it’s more beautiful than any spa I’ve seen. I was transfixed by the indoor track suspended above the basketball courts, especially the way it slices through the air ducts.

When I was a teenager in Los Angeles, it was a treat to eat at the Angeli Caffé, a Morphosis-designed restaurant that held no more than 20 people; now, here were hundreds of students in sweatpants and sandals lined up for lunch at Center Court, a dining hall decorated with 10-foot-high images of blades of grass. It looks like the coolest restaurant in some Scandinavian city, though the kids I saw seemed too wrapped up in their Wi-Fi to notice.

Next, I checked out Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center, a resolutely urban building nested into a corner lot in the middle of Cincinnati’s downtown. The jutting concrete-and-glass structure is bursting with energy, like a kit of parts that could be pulled into pieces and reassembled. Inside, it’s just as kinetic: the columns are trapezoids, the doors are parallelograms, and the stairways cross with such an unusual rhythm, you don’t even realize that they hide the third floor.

Day 2

Cincinnati to Toledo, 210 miles It’s a straight shot from Cincinnati to Toledo on I-75, with only two distractions to break up the drive: at Monroe, just north of Cincinnati, a five-story-high bust of Jesus towers over the interstate; in Findlay, 40 minutes south of Toledo, it’s a short hop to Dietsch Brothers Inc., where they make their ice cream right in the back. I spent summers in Findlay with my grandparents, and when I tried the orange sherbet, it tasted like 1981.

The empty lots and boarded-up buildings in Toledo’s downtown don’t make for an inviting landscape, which makes the Toledo Museum of Art’s decision to hire SANAA, a critically admired Japanese firm, that much more remarkable. The SANAA-designed Glass Pavilion is simple enough—a one-story glass box encasing a series of glass rooms—but what seems like a basic form is a deceptively sophisticated building. With it, SANAA is doing nothing less than taking on the Glass House, Philip Johnson’s masterpiece.

Glass is one of Toledo’s major industries, and the pavilion features both exhibition halls and "hot shops," or glassmaking rooms. When you stand in a gallery, you can look through glass walls to watch artists making glass in a 2,000-degree furnace, then through the rest of the transparent building to the park outside—all in one uninterrupted view.

Such a simple idea is actually quite complicated to execute. The mechanics should appeal to architecture geeks: the temperatures in the gallery, the glassmaking rooms, and the frigid Lake Erie air outside differ wildly, and wherever the walls are made out of glass, you can’t hide ducts or cables, so the machinery that regulates temperature is snaked to one of two opaque rooms, then carried along the ceiling. Even the air-conditioning units are located across the street so that they won’t interrupt the roofline.

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