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Eyes Wide Open
Which are the most underrated and overrated buildings in town? Our critic reconsiders Milwaukee’s architectural landscape.
 
Photo by Christopher Zaborsky
This story appears in the March 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable,” Oscar Wilde noted, “that we have to alter it every six months.” Think about those bell-bottom jeans, the leisure suit you proudly wore or your precious postpuberty poetry.

Pity the poor architects; they write in stone. There are no closets for buildings. Architecture is the one art form the entire public lives with, if only unconsciously.

The Bradley Center was much celebrated when it opened in 1988. But how does it look to us today? The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition has probably become the most acclaimed local building. But how will we feel 20 years from now?

Come to think of it, I have been reviewing architecture for this magazine for nearly 20 years. More than enough time to have jumped on bandwagons that went nowhere and overlooked the architectural marvels right in front of my eyes. In retrospect, I may have under- or oversold some buildings in town. But I’m also reacting to what seems like the consensus on certain buildings that I believe is dead wrong.

Which are the most underrated? The most overrated? For now, I offer this list of the top candidates. But I may change my mind again, and so, perhaps, will you. Ultimately, as mathematician Eric Temple Bell once observed, time makes fools of us all.

Underrated 

Bayshore Town Center, 5800 N. Bayshore Dr. (2004)

The music piped in on the street is the same everywhere. The buildings still feel hollow. And most seem to be the wrong size. In 2004, I trashed it as pure fakery.

But sometimes a good fake is better than “reality.” Southridge is real. Walmart is real. Bayshore Town Center is far better than them – or any other mall in Milwaukee. Six years after dismissing Bayshore, I have to admit – I get a buzz from it.

It feels like you’re walking around a movie set. Wherever you look, it’s the same; a complete world, fresh out of the box. Everything fits together like a ship in a bottle. Without any grime, funk or spontaneity, with no remnants or scars, Bayshore seems perfect. In other words, it’s impossible.

It’s like cotton candy at the amusement park. Sweet and airy but it melts away as soon as you take a taste. Bayshore might be saccharine, but you find yourself wanting to return. It’s a guilty pleasure.

Overrated 

Allen-Bradley clock tower, 1215 S. Second St. (1962)


My dad used to proudly say, “That’s the biggest four-sided clock in the world.” I always scoffed a bit, but still found myself pointing it out whenever introducing a newcomer to Milwaukee.

It held the title for nearly 48 years until recently being dwarfed by the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, the tallest building in Saudi Arabia. The new champ features 2 million LED lights that flash “In the Name of Allah” five times a day. (So I guess we can still boast we have the biggest four-sided Christian clock in the world.)

It still towers over the South Side. It rose high enough to be dubbed the “Polish Moon,” yet not so high as the Bradley family, which lived above and looked down on their employees, who no longer had an excuse to be late for work.

Although it was designed by Fitzhugh Scott, a distinguished modernist in Milwaukee, it feels like an imposing medieval castle with guard towers. This has to be the most authoritarian structure in Wisconsin. The Allen-Bradley tower doesn’t just loom over us, it glowers.

Underrated 

George Watts & Son, 761 N. Jefferson St. (1925)


George Watts started sweeping the floors at Massey and Co., a china shop on South Second Street, in 1870. Nine years later, he bought the store and moved it to a narrow building on North Milwaukee Street. After Watts died in 1919, his son Howard hired Herbert W. Tullgren, one of the leading Milwaukee architects of the time, to make an Italian Renaissance Revival-styled building with a glazed terra-cotta exterior.

The whole building is a pastiche. Long, oval, arched windows wrapped by twisted ribbons of terra-cotta fill up the bottom. The spandrels are dotted with floral medallions. From there, the building flows upward and becomes progressively more ornate. A tight row of rectangular windows sits on a delicately articulated ledge. The building is topped off with an outrageously ornamented cornice. The rest of the space is filled with metaphoric decorative motifs you’ll still find on Watts china today.

The Watts building is refinement exemplified. All of the embellishments could have become kitschy, except they were done in such good taste. The business and building have been one and the same for almost a century because it’s a perfect expression of the owner’s values.

Overrated 

Cudahy Towers, 925 E. Wells St. (1919)


Patrick Cudahy built the first part in 1909. Milwaukee architects Ferry and Clas created a refined and gracefully proportioned six-story apartment building. The windows, bays, lines and decorative motifs were impeccably rendered. Elegantly broken up into four volumes, it dandified a whole block.

Its whiteness was a bold move. Light, monochromatic buildings expose everything, which usually results in a loss of character, but not in this case. The Cudahy Tower was prime real estate. When it was built, there were more parasols and large flowered hats than trees across the street. Juneau Park was the promenade of Milwaukee, with grand views of grand people and a Great Lake.

So it’s easy to overlook the stout and awkward tower Cudahy’s sons added in 1929. In an effort to one-up their father, they hired the Chicago firm Holabird and Roche, which did the wonderful Plankinton Arcade a few years before. But even the best architects have an off day.

They tried to be more modern, but their composition all but evaporated the nuance and subtlety of the original building. The tower looks like it was made of blocks and stacked like a wedding cake. It flattens the space around it. Its vertical facades look empty, especially considering the elegant building it overshadows.

Underrated 

Plankinton Arcade, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. (1916-1924)


The gracious arched passageways in mosques and Mediterranean town squares became spacious skylighted interiors with shops in Europe in the 19th century and then migrated to America. When the first two stories of Plankinton Arcade were built in 1916, it was the bright new place to be in Milwaukee. It was a popular postcard.

It was later incorporated into the Grand Avenue Mall in 1982. But there was nothing grand about the mall other than the Plankinton.

The Plankinton Arcade radiates grace and authority of another time. We like to think the finishes and craft of old-world buildings produce their charm, and the Arcade is full of sumptuous materials and refinements. But its defining character is the rhythm, balance and harmony of its proportions.

The stone floor is sectioned into rectangles that link up with the pillars on the main level and then sweep around the rotunda. The spaces aren’t just big or small. The mathematical order of the interior feels both embracing and unbounded. The building converges and climaxes, of all places, when four staircases spiral down to the basement. It’s so sensual that I remember how my hand feels running down the railing.

And the rotunda’s skylight has a way of turning light into a volume that further articulates the space. The entire effect is so textured and nuanced, it’s hard to not slow down and linger.

Overrated 

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 9400 W. Congress St. (1961)


Wisconsin-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright did not bow down to anyone, including God. He once noted that his complete lack of religious affiliation made him uniquely qualified to build any place of worship. “I will be immortal,” he once declared, and indeed, the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church actually broke ground after he died in 1959.

But I can’t imagine Wright could have given this project much thought. He had sketched out the building in 1956 when his life was in a frenzy. During the last nine years of his life, Wright executed 300 commissions. That’s nearly three a month.

Glib detractors of modernism have often made their point by saying it looks like something that is obviously not a building. New York’s public works mogul Robert Moses called Wright’s Guggenheim Museum an “upside-down tea cup.” Alas, it’s impossible to describe the Annunciation church without saying it looks like a flying saucer from a 1950s B-movie.

The perfectly round building, with shallow arched windows underneath an aqua blue dome, sits on a white pedestal that looks like landing gear. The top is ringed by a decorative visor that you could imagine retracts into the spaceship in flight.

Wright’s windows, an essential element of design, were left blank because the congregation ran out of money. Eventually, they were replaced by stained glass with iconography Wright would have considered graffiti.

Is this really a Frank Lloyd Wright building? There is no mention of it, his last commission, in Ada Louise Huxtable’s biography of Wright. Wright thought that architecture should be “innate ... organic ... have the character of nature.” This looks more like the “Church of the Future” pavilion at a world’s fair.

Underrated 

Juneau Village Apartments, 1000 N. Jackson St. (1965)


Juneau Village is a monument to a very bad idea – an urban renewal project that wasn’t urban. Aloof high-rise apartments, set off from the grid on a corporate-looking green space, can’t renew what they were unwilling to be part of. Thankfully, the project ran out of money, which left us with only three of the 15 towers planned for the site.

But for a young, rich, single New Yorker like Lew Alcindor, Juneau Village was the place to live in the late 1960s, a “luxury complex,” as his Milwaukee Bucks teammate Oscar Robertson once described it. Today, it’s a place where college students live.

The best of the three buildings, the 310-by-60-foot 14-story building set back from Van Buren, makes “horizontal” into a verb. A colonnade lifts the whole structure one and a half stories off the ground. The porches on the corners are inset just enough so they don’t pop out and undermine the composition.
The uninterrupted rows of windows, separated by real brick with concrete bands, wrap the entire building. Unlike so many new condos today, it doesn’t have a cheap, blank back.

There is a surprising amount of texture and detail to its repetitive scheme. Still, it might become oppressive, if not for all the white window shades. This gives the building an ever-changing random pattern during the day like modern buildings at night.

Juneau Village is one of our best examples of late modernism. Contrast this to the next generation of buildings. The Yankee Hill complex next door doesn’t look like anything at all. The Lake Bluff Condominiums on Prospect are a faint version of another time and place. A city can live only so long on the fumes of the past. Juneau Village, by contrast, is of its own time, a real building without illusions.

Overrated 

The Haggerty Museum at Marquette University (1984)


To its credit, the Haggerty tried to be modern and different. Like the 411 Building and Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, it’s bold and concrete. It was well-received when it was built.
But the bookends of the building have an unfinished blankness, as though part of the building had been sheared off. In between, the top of the building assumes a brutal folding shape. I say assumes because nothing adds up. The Haggerty is so confused, it fails to express anything other than its bulk.

This windowless concrete tomb is so heavy, it seems to sink. It looks like an underground museum that somehow popped up to the surface, topped by the skylights, its only design feature. The only solution for an architectural mistake like this, as Wright once quipped, is to “plant vines.”

Underrated 

Henry S. Reuss Federal Building, 310 W. Wisconsin Ave. (1983)


Mayor John Norquist assailed this building as an example of blank facades that went up only to look down on the little people. It was all part of his quest to build a new convention center in 1997 that would look like an older building and be “friendly to the street.”

The Federal Building, by contrast, was tall, modern and – worst of all – blue. It became the “blue building,” which somehow turned most people’s favorite color into a pejorative.

But what’s wrong with blue? There are few buildings in the city that have enough color to be a color. Today, Federal Blue is much richer and more satisfying than any of the LED colors splashed around town.

The Federal Building was never a blank box. Its descending accordion of five rectangles turns the adjoining plaza into a visually dynamic architectural place. Inside, the atrium soars. This building creates a space rather than just occupying it.

Its little plaza, with a few trees and a modernist sculpture, is the neighborhood’s friendliest place. On a nice day, people inevitably mill about. The convention center just west, which squats ungraciously on two square blocks, is the lonely urban desolate wasteland Norquist decried.

Overrated 

Zilber Hall, 1200 W. Wisconsin Ave. (2010)


This was a recent Mayor’s Design Award-winner for its “context sensitive” architecture. Rather than trying to make something people would notice (as you might expect of Marquette University’s administration building), it sought to “limit the building’s physical and visual impact,” so as not to “disrupt or upstage” the two venerable buildings across the street, as the university describes it.

The Church of the Gesu, dedicated in 1894, is a good example of ecclesiastical French Gothic architecture. Marquette Hall, however, was originally a four-story science building that still looks more like a high school building, even with its overdone and disproportionate spired bell tower.

How do you blend with these buildings? It’s almost as though the architect used the Photoshop tool that allows you to expand or fill in an image by repeating and elaborating on similar nearby content. The Zilber building takes its patterning from Marquette Hall. Uses fake bricks to match. And toward the top, the Gesu look takes over, as the precast concrete turns beige, as do other vertical elements sprinkled throughout. To relieve the monotony, Zilber Hall is inset just enough to create a ribbon of green space underneath a dense row of canopies attached to decorative pillars.

It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would worry about standing out from and standing taller than a dull old science building. As for Gesu, who says adjoining buildings need be so chummy? In great cities, buildings compete. Have you ever felt sorry for Northwestern Mutual across the street from the tallest building in Wisconsin? Or do you enjoy the contrast?

If this philosophy were extended to education, ideas would stop clashing. And Newton would have cowered before Plato rather than standing on the shoulders of a giant.

Underrated 

411 Building, 411 E. Wisconsin Ave. (1985)


It was either too raw or not enough. Thirty floors of 8-ton precast concrete blocks with small inset windows didn’t seem like a good idea in 1985. It was our second-tallest building, but it got no respect.
But leaving aside its adjoining atrium and a massive parking garage (both of which look like the victim of a project that was scaling down as it was going up), the 411 is a robust and supremely confident structure. Compared to his building at 611 E. Wisconsin Ave. or the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, it’s Harry Weese’s most audacious building in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic Mary Louise Schumacher recently dismissed it as a “fat rhomboid” (a four-sided parallelogram), the same term used by the old Milwaukee Journal when it was built. But count them, the building has six sides.

It’s a smartly proportioned irregular hexagon with three different parallel sides, with a third less girth than the US Bank Building. From due north and south, the building appears to have two sides. Every other view has three sides, with some sides so oblique they seem indefinite. This abstraction is enhanced by slightly different window treatments, which together form a dense gradient of squares and rectangles.
Its rigor and rationality opens rather than closes the circle. It’s a different building, depending on where you’re standing.

Overrated 

Milwaukee Art Museum Calatrava addition, 700 N. Art Museum Dr. (2001)


The museum used to be part of the War Memorial. After the Kahler addition to the east, it was still tucked away underneath the War Memorial. If nothing else, the next $125 million addition was supposed to take the institution out of the shadows.

Ironically, the museum fell into another shadow. I can’t think of another museum or museum addition simply named after its architect. Brett Favre was a bigger star than Calatrava, but he still played for the Packers, not the Favre.

I look forward to every second I pass through the parking garage, whose harmonies soar like a choir. He is the master of the architectural gesture, the aesthetic pleasure of passing though a space. Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times anointed Calatrava “the world’s greatest living poet of transportation architecture.” The passageways – the galleries, bridge and grand entrance hallway of the museum – are the wonders that landed Calatrava the commission for the new train station at Manhattan’s Ground Zero.
Calatrava transports us, but do we ever arrive? When some national critics reviewed the MAM addition, they wondered where the art was. It’s obviously a great building, but not a yet a great museum. It wasn’t really designed to show art.

But the museum’s new curatorial team has taken up that cause with a vengeance. Director Dan Keegan has filled the spectacular entry hall with information booths and a coffee shop. Chief curator Brady Roberts is doing a series of architectural interventions by artists who’ll take on other parts of the building. As they push to make a lauded artwork into a museum, maybe someone will take a page from Rene Magritte and put a big neon sign atop the building that reads, “Ceci n’est pas une Calatrava” (this is not a Calatrava).

Underrated 

Milwaukee War Memorial Center, 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr. (1957)


Long before Calatrava’s winged museum, Eero Saarinen created the iconic soaring bird that symbolized the jet age at the TWA Terminal in New York, completed in 1962 at what is now known as John F. Kennedy Airport. His “tulip chair” was the prototype for furniture on the original “Star Trek” TV show.
Saarinen died in 1961 before completing the TWA building that he started working on while finishing the War Memorial. The two buildings are pristine examples of his contrasting obsessions – the box and the curve.

The War Memorial is four boxes arrayed on a pedestal that define another box, an open courtyard in the middle. Each side is further subdivided into more boxes by deeply inset windows. Too bad this visual intelligence wasn’t continued to the front of the building. Local artist Edmund Lewandowski’s mural would have ruined a lesser building. It’s like putting a quilt on a minimalist Donald Judd sculpture.
Unlike the Calatrava’s metaphorical relationship with the lake (a ship’s bow, the flowing, liquid forms), Saarinen’s rectilinear building offers a purely visual one. The horizon line across a large body of water is the only straight line in nature.

The War Memorial is easily this city’s most important building, and look what we have done to it. It used to sit on a small hill and jut out into the lake and sky. The Kahler addition to the art museum was respectful but mitigated its effect by making the pedestal bigger than the building. Its one saving grace, the deeply inset east entrance, derived from the Saarinen, was filled in when the Calatrava was built. Meanwhile, the county has let the War Memorial structure fall into disrepair.

The War Memorial is the most underrated building in the history of Milwaukee.

Overrated 

City Hall, 200 E. Wells St. (1895)


We all love City Hall. It’s rightly one of the most celebrated buildings in Milwaukee, but the party ends when you walk under the arches and through the door.

The place feels abandoned, like an old school with shiny stone floors and long hallways with closed doors. The slapdash accoutrements don’t help. Right next to the treasurer’s office is a large makeshift booth made up of cheap composite wood nailed to two-by-fours and painted gray to match the floor. In front, a red “do not enter” sign is flanked by plastic stanchions with a retractable belt, all of which you could buy for $162.

When you consider the building’s symbolic importance, you have to wonder why the first floor leaves you so adrift. Instead of racks of pamphlets, why isn’t there a modern information center to greet arrivals? Perhaps a few monitors, as in a museum, with info about what is going on in the Common Council, where to file a complaint or how to find a city official. If the lobby were streamlined a bit, there might even be places for a coffee stand and a few tables for people to enjoy its timeless and vertiginous interior. City Hall shouldn’t rest on its laurels. A center of government should be more inviting to the public.

Overrated 

The Bradley Center, 1001 N. Fourth St. (1988)


Only recently have technology and ideas converged to make a large horizontal building a beautiful form. The Beijing National Aquatics Center is clad with 4,000 thin plastic bubbles that are internally illuminated and arranged in a mathematical lattice foam. This effervescent rectangle is lighter than air, a sparkling blue fizz at night.

The Bradley Center, by contrast, was built in a black hole. In 1988, modernism had run its course. There was no style or anything we believed in to make a building like this something other than a faceless, overbearing warehouse.

So the Bradley Center tried to hide in plain sight. You would never know it’s an elongated octagon. Four triangles were added, sort of squaring the building and making sure it’s not one shape or another. To further equivocate, the corners sit on squat pedestals of fake pillars and feature four opaque octagonal windows. To shroud this inscrutable hulk, generic glassy entryways that might befit a medical building were slapped on either side.

But you can’t make something this big into nothing at all without diminishing us, its users, as well. Defensive architecture like the Bradley Center is inevitably passive-aggressive; it saps our energy with its insistent lack of imagination.

Underrated 

MGIC Plaza, 250 E. Kilbourn Ave. (1972)


It was a very good year. The Performing Arts Center was new. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill was finishing the First Wisconsin Center, an icon of American modern architecture, and the then-Sears Tower in Chicago (1973) to go along with their John Hancock Center (1970). And the firm finished the MGIC Plaza with local architect Fitzhugh Scott.

It was made to match the glowing white travertine marble of the PAC across the street, and the First Wisconsin building, for that matter. That marked the high point of modernism for Milwaukee. Never again would these bold forms be made of such glorious materials.

When the PAC (now the Marcus Center) replaced its radiant skin, rather than maintaining it, the building turned into a beige sludge. The MGIC remains as it was built.

It’s often described as an inverted pyramid. From the bottom up, each of the four square floors are half again larger. The building goes up in octaves: The fourth floor is twice the size of second, and third is twice the first.

Skidmore’s leaders were followers of Le Corbusier, who thought that mathematical order created an “organic inevitability.” The logic of the building is made from the same language Bach used to make music and Einstein used to describe the universe. For the mathematical mystics out there, when I measured the building’s proportions, they broke down to a sequence of integers that are the sum of two successive primes.

When you include all of the descending negative space between the bigger top and smaller base, the MGIC building becomes a transparent rectangle. During the day, it’s filled with volumes and gradations of shadow and reflected light. The building floats and creates space.

Nearly four decades later, the MGIC Plaza is a pristine rejoinder to the easy criticism, an article of faith among the city planning crowd, that “context insensitive” modernism wrecked cities.

Corporations don’t even imagine architecture these days. The Downtown headquarters of Manpower and Johnson Controls look like condo developments compared to the MGIC, A.O. Smith, Northwestern Mutual or Gas Company buildings.

One of the Mayor’s Design Awards calls for “context sensitive infill” that “complements its surroundings.” But why reward architecture that, by definition, doesn’t seek excellence? Great cities move forward rather than bowing before the dreams of yesterday.

Tom Bamberger is Milwaukee Magazine’s architecture critic. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.






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