With one of the most innovative museums since Frank Gehry's Bilbao, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava gives this Midwestern metropolis a whole new image
Christophe Valtin/MAM

When I was growing up there, Milwaukee advertised itself as "a great place on a Great Lake." It made sense to tout the lovely shores of Lake Michigan, especially because Milwaukee had little else—no icon on the scale of the Golden Gate Bridge—to give the city a defining image. In the 19th century, the uniform color of its brick earned it the name Cream City, and it hasn't exactly been lauded as a hub of forward-looking architecture since. That's about to change.

Santiago Calatrava's masterly addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) has been seven years in the making. It is precisely the daring lakefront building the city always knew it needed but was afraid to ask for. The structure's centerpiece—the 90-foot-high glass-and-steel entrance hall—culminates in a movable brise-soleil (what Milwaukeeans might call a sunroof). Light comes into the lobby through large louvers that can be raised or lowered as if they were wings. Nothing like it has ever been tried before.

Not surprisingly, Calatrava's construction schedule has suffered from the scope of his ambitions. Originally slated to open this spring, the museum addition, named the Quadracci Pavilion after longtime MAM supporters and prominent collectors Betty and Harry Quadracci, will now be unveiled in stages. The temporary exhibition galleries, housed in a long low-rise structure that links the reception hall to the existing museum, will begin holding shows next month. But the reception hall itself won't be ready for the crowds until fall. And the roof—the most technologically complex part of the project—probably won't be operational until 2002.

Calatrava seems a radical choice for socially conservative Milwaukee—even more so when you consider that the MAM addition will be his first completed project in the United States. Back in 1994, when the museum tapped the Spanish architect for the expansion, he was little known outside Europe. But he was already a cult figure among architects, renowned for his ability to make concrete, steel, and glass do things they're not supposed to do—like move. In fact, his training as an engineer gives his work uncanny structural flexibility. "He's a great talent," says New York—based architect Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, who came to admire Calatrava after seeing one of the striking geometric bridges that have become his trademark. So far, Calatrava's most famous project may be the City of Arts and Sciences in his hometown of Valencia, Spain. Completed November 2000, the science museum has the white exoskeleton, unusual angles, and repeated ribbing that characterize many of his structures. The planetarium, whose metal sides can be raised and lowered, resembles a giant eyeball.

Happily, Calatrava didn't pull any punches with his plans for Milwaukee. As MAM director Russell Bowman puts it, "We wanted a dramatic design. We got it in spades." From the outside, the building resembles a bird in flight. It will be connected to the city's downtown by—what else?—a gleaming white bridge suspended from cables.

The project, known around town as "the Calatrava," has been heralded as Milwaukee's answer to the Sydney Opera House. Calatrava has returned the affection. Though both Milwaukee and his adopted hometown, Zürich, are set on lakes and have a Germanic flavor, Calatrava claims that the differences between the cities inspire him more than the similarities. "The picturesque and rather intimate character of Zürich's lake cannot prepare one for the unbounded, windswept grandeur of Lake Michigan. You can have the most dramatic changes in the sky and clouds," he says. For Calatrava, this limitlessness is part of what makes Milwaukee "more energetic." But this year, some of the credit certainly goes to his own grand statement of glass, steel, and concrete—the Old World energizing the New.

I MEET UP WITH THE 49-YEAR-OLD CALATRAVA ON the construction site during one of his frequent trips to check on the progress of the addition. "It's beautiful to make buildings for the public," he tells me. "Everybody thinks, I own a little bit of this museum." Indeed, he has devoted much of his career to public spaces—bridges, airports, train stations. It is perhaps Calatrava's populist streak that has led him to embrace everything Milwaukee has to offer. He ranks the city's famed bratwurst as "very good, equal only to that in Munich and Zürich." And he is looking forward as much as anyone to the April 6, 2001 opening of the new Milwaukee Brewers baseball stadium, Miller Park, with its "wonderful, movable roof." He can't get enough, either, of Coerper's 5 O'Clock Club—a steakhouse with a saloon feel. "For him it's the quintessential American experience," says MAM's executive director, Chris Goldsmith. "He's the only person I've ever seen who can eat the pound-and-a-half steak."

Calatrava, who has wavy black hair and caterpillar eyebrows, is not one to temper his enthusiasms. "It's a world-class site here on the lake," he declares. Certainly, that is what the museum's backers are banking on. The new building will nearly double MAM's space, allowing for greater flexibility in showing the collection—strong in German Expressionism, American Modernism, and folk art—as well as holding temporary exhibitions. The first show scheduled for "the Calatrava" will be of Georgia O'Keeffe's personal collection (her work figures prominently in the museum's holdings). For his part, Calatrava, who sketches his designs in watercolor, has a special affection for a group of works in the same medium by Emil Nolde. He was overheard telling a museum staffer that he'd "like to take a few of them home."

THE SITE OF THE QUADRACCI PAVILION POSED ONE significant challenge. For years MAM was housed in a 1957 structure by Finnish master Eero Saarinen (local architect David Kahler had added a simple extension in 1975). Saarinen's work, a restrained box on stilts, is "an extremely strong, serious building," says Calatrava, who hoped to complement, not compete with, the existing structure. He integrated the pavilion with the other buildings by basing the "masts" of the bridge on one of Saarinen's "stilts." "One of the legs is inclined," he tells me, pointing. "Do you see it?"

In the end, Calatrava's design packs a visual punch without a lot of mass. And that suits Milwaukeeans just fine. The tallest building in town, the Firstar Center, is only 42 stories. "The scale of the museum is very appropriate," Calatrava says. "The approach is like Frank Lloyd Wright's approach to a house. None of his buildings are huge." Indeed, while everyone else was putting up skyscrapers, it was Wright, a Wisconsin native, who showed that hugging the horizon could also produce architectural masterpieces. Appropriately enough, MAM has an extensive archive of material related to Wright's interiors. Calatrava says he has "never forgotten for a moment" that he's working in Wright's home state. He especially admires two local Wright works: the Bogk House, which is a private residence, and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

Calatrava's low-slung temporary exhibition hall certainly shares something of Wright's less technically complex "Prairie-style" buildings. Despite all the complicated engineering involved—"there isn't a straight wall in the place," says Bowman—the addition has a streamlined feel. The principal level is given over to galleries; the lower level is reserved for parking, but that doesn't mean Calatrava hasn't been obsessing about it. The space is designed to receive ample light throughout the day. "It is a beautiful aesthetic experience in a parking lot," he jokes, conscious of his own perfectionism.

From the apex of Calatrava's pedestrian bridge, cables stream down toward the city itself. "As you look up Wisconsin Avenue," says Calatrava, referring to Milwaukee's main drag, "the mast of the bridge is like an obelisk."Much as bridges always do, this one represents a link—in this case, between a great place on a Great Lake and a future that will be greater still.

"O'Keeffe's O'Keeffes: The Artist's Collection" opens on May 4, 2001 coinciding with the official opening of Santiago Calatrava's Quadracci Pavilion.