What’s the best way to get a firsthand look at the sweeping curves, transparent walls, and sleek façades of some of the most important buildings in the United States?Drive the Midwest, says Oliver Schwaner-Albright
Kevin Miyazaki Santiago Calatrava's new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
| Credit: 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.

Day 3

Toledo to Chicago, 252 miles Mies van der Rohe taught at the Illinois Institute of Technology and designed many of its buildings, so for architects the campus is already hallowed ground. His use of crisp boxes made with brick, glass, and steel I-beams is a triumph of mid-20th-century design. Which is why IIT’s awarding of the new student center project to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, headed by iconoclast Rem Koolhaas, was a real head-scratcher.

The result is the closest thing to punk a building can be. Its official name is the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, but everybody calls it the BUT (Building Under a Tube), because it looks as if it’s been scrunched under the enormous stainless-steel tube encompassing the El track. The ceiling drywall has been left unprimed and unpainted, the bathroom walls are translucent, and several surfaces that look like wood veneer are, in fact, covered with wallpaper. After the BUT, Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, in Millennium Park, feels thoughtful and earnest, civic architecture at its most responsible. It’s easy to be cynical about a Gehry building now that he’s a brand name, but the Jay Pritzker Pavilion has a marvelous form, and has made what was once a useless chunk of land into a focal point for the city. The metal ribs soaring over the lawn are overkill for holding up lights and speakers, but they do turn the park into an outdoor room, a patio for all of the city.

Day 4

Chicago to Milwaukee, 88 miles The drive north from Chicago is thick with fast-moving traffic, and before you know it you’re passing Racine, Wisconsin, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s finest project, the Johnson Wax Building. Shortly after that, you hit the I-43/I-894 bypass, and it’s a three-minute detour to Kopp’s (right off the 76th Street exit), for the Midwest’s finest frozen custard. I first had a burger, but that was just to cushion the blow of the Peanut Butter Log: chocolate sauce piled high with frozen custard, then topped with nutty sauce and more chocolate.

Framed by Lake Michigan, Santiago Calatrava’s blindingly white Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum is unlike anything for hundreds of miles around, a poetic form that evokes the shapes of ships (both sea and space); Wright’s Marin County Civic Center; and the bones of a bird, bleached by the sun. Which is why it’s a bit of a surprise to realize it’s nothing more than the entrance hall for the museum, a 1950’s Eero Saarinen bunker. Still, it has the optimism of a World’s Fair building, a celebration of engineering and structure. You’ve never seen poured concrete used to such an ethereal effect. (For more on Calatrava’s work, see page 80.)

Day 5

Milwaukee to Minneapolis, 337 miles The Herzog & de Meuron addition to the Walker Art Center, completed last year, looks like a monumental wad of crumpled tinfoil. This is a compliment: the perforated metal holds and deflects the light in unusual ways, making what is essentially a featureless box seem like a dynamic shape. The addition has only a handful of galleries: most of it is taken up by a stage, installed so that the adjacent building, which was home to the Guthrie Theater, one of America’s most important regional companies, could be torn down for the next phase of the Walker’s expansion.

As for the Guthrie itself, this past June it moved into a muscular new Jean Nouvel building on a prominent, if neglected, spot on the banks of the Mississippi River. It stands next to the towering ruins of concrete silos, and more than holds its own. The structure offers a series of unfolding vistas; since the river is best seen from above, Nouvel put the lobby and main theaters on the fourth floor. Through a plate-glass window in the lobby, you can watch workers wheel sets from the scene shop across an enclosed bridge. Opposite that bridge is another that hangs precipitously in midair, leading to a nice bar with vertiginous views of the Mississippi.

Day 6

Minneapolis to Des Moines, 258 miles The horizon of central Iowa is so featureless, you can spot downtown Des Moines from 10 miles away. In the middle of that staid but pleasant town is David Chipperfield’s quietly radical Des Moines Public Library, a low-slung building clad in a perforated copper skin sandwiched between layers of glass. The footprint looks like a T cut out of construction paper, or maybe a stylized airplane, and that silhouette has become the library’s symbol. Despite its unusual shape and color, it’s really a modest building (and much more original than his Figge Art Museum, across the state in Davenport), just two stories of books and computers. Some of the flooring in the children’s library is made out of glass, so you can see how the plumbing and Ethernet cables wind underfoot.

Before leaving town I pay a visit to the Des Moines Art Center, a quick drive along Grand to 45th Street. It’s an elegant 1948 Eliel Saarinen museum with a fascinating Brutalist I.M. Pei addition from the late 1960’s. A Richard Meier wing was added in 1985; stand in the courtyard and you’ll take in half a century of American architecture.

Day 7

Des Moines to Iowa City, 114 miles After taking a peek at Louis Sullivan’s 1914 Merchants’ Bank, in Grinnell, and making a frustrating circuit of the campus of the University of Iowa, I finally found Stephen Holl’s School of Art and Art History, a surprisingly buoyant hulk sheathed in rusted Cor-Ten steel panels and perched beside an abandoned limestone quarry. I spotted my third cantilever of the trip: the library’s reading room juts out over a pond in the quarry. The showstopper is the central staircase, a soaring collage of steel panels and cables. A third-floor walk-up has never been such fun.

The university straddles the Iowa River, and across the bridge is Whitey’s Ice Cream, on East Washington. They’re famous for their mix-in shakes, made by cheerful teenagers, as well as for their "Boston," a shake with a sundae perched on top. They don’t have ice cream this good in New York, or architecture this edgy.

Oliver Schwaner-Albright often writes for the New York Times and Gourmet.

What to See

Campus Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati
2820 Bearcat Way; 513/556-5706; www.uc.edu.

Contemporary Arts Center
44 E. Sixth St., Cincinnati; 513/345-8400; www.contemporaryartscenter.org; admission $7.50.

Des Moines Art Center
4700 Grand Ave.; 515/277-4405; www.desmoinesartcenter.org; admission $7.50.

Des Moines Public Library
100 Grand Ave.; 515/283-4152; www.pldminfo.org.

Glass Pavilion, Toledo Museum of Art
2445 Monroe St.; 419/255-8000; www.toledomuseum.org; free admission.

Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis; 612/377-2224; www.guthrietheater.org.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Millennium Park, Chicago; 312/742-1168; www.millenniumpark.org.

McCormick Tribune Campus Center, Illinois Institute of Technology
3300 S. Federal St., Chicago; 312/567-3000; www.iit.edu.

Merchants’ Bank
8333 Fourth Ave., Grinnell, Iowa; 641/236-1626; www.grinnelliowa.gov.

Milwaukee Art Museum
700 N. Art Museum Dr.; 414/224-3200; www.mam.org; admission $8.

School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa
141 North Riverside Dr., Iowa City; 319/335-1771; www.art.uiowa.edu.

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612/375-7600; www.walkerart.org; admission $8.

Where to Eat

Dietsch Brothers Inc.
400 W. Main Cross St., Findlay, Ohio; 419/422-4474; www.dietschs.com.

Kopp’s Frozen Custard
7631 W. Layton Ave., Greenfield, Wis.; 414/282-4312; www.kopps.com.

Whitey’s Ice Cream
112 E. Washington St., Iowa City; 319/354-1200; www.whiteysicecream.com.

Whitey's Ice Cream

Kopp's Frozen Custard

Dietsch Brothers Inc.