Conversation on Architecture: Bob Greenstreet and Rocky Marcoux

The Dean of UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning and the Commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development chat about architecture.

Building Up

Bob Greenstreet, Dean, UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning
Rocky Marcoux, Commissioner, Milwaukee Department of City Development

In terms of aesthetics, Milwaukee is fortunate to have miles of shoreline and scenic rivers, plus a pleasing combination of historical buildings and contemporary architecture.

While the topographical characteristics are the equivalent of having good genes, the city’s built landscape isn’t just a matter of luck. Not only has there been a concerted preservation effort; there is also a great deal of planning involved in deciding what gets built. And among the thought leaders in that arena are Bob Greenstreet and Rocky Marcoux.

Greenstreet has led Wisconsin’s only architecture school for more than two decades, while Marcoux has held his current position with the city since 2004. The two are friends and colleagues, united in their enthusiasm for Milwaukee, as well as their dedication to helping make the best decisions, design-wise, for the city. They started this conversation – inside the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion – by reflecting on the factors that have helped elevate architecture in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

Read more conversations in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Read an extended version of this conversation here:

Building Up: Bob Greenstreet & Rocky Marcoux

BG: The evolution that I’ve seen [is] that the city has developed a much greater pride and awareness of its architecture. There are two reasons I ascribe to the improvement and quality: One is this building, which was a remarkable benchmark in showing that architecture could be spectacular and great and could be embraced by the city. The other thing I’ve seen from a self-serving perspective is that the School of Architecture, which was 10 years old when I came, evolved. It’s the first school of architecture in Wisconsin.

RM: And the only one, right?

BG: Yeah, the only one. And the best.

RM: That goes without saying, right?

BG: So, basically, those graduates stayed and now run all the major practices. I think that it just raised the bar in terms of quality of architecture.

RM: And it also helped that for four years, you were the city planner.

BG: We set up a design review. We were trying to raise the bar. It doesn’t mean that every building is going to be like this. But getting the lesser buildings up a little bit – they may not be great buildings, but they are better than they were going to be.

RM: The question is, how do we get a project across the finish line that meets the needs of the developer who has certain financial constraints, has some architectural value, but also advances the overall goals of the city?

The Lakefront Gateway parcel was created when the city invested about $24 million into moving those freeway ramps, and the state invested about $16 million. Now, a short-sighted view would be, sell the land and let somebody build what they think they could build there. There are a lot of developers that would do a five-story, 10-story building. That building probably needs to be 30 stories. This isn’t just about tax space. Look at the buildings that surround [the parcel]: You’ve got the Skidmore Owings & Merrill modernist design of the U.S. Bank tower, you’ve got the incredible Northwestern Mutual building.

BG: The symbolic value of buildings in a city like Milwaukee, every single one is important. So a building like Northwestern Mutual, for example, the single most important thing about it for me is the fact that it’s there. Its symbolic value says, this is the most valuable site in the city, we have committed to this city with thousands of jobs and we have faith in the future of this city.

Sometimes a smaller building is basically saying, well, that’s all that our downtown is worth. That hurts the city as a whole.

RM: The river has given us the opportunity to have a framework for development. And I think some of our better developers have really used that to their advantage. I’ll single out Barry Mandel in The North End. Those buildings, they follow the flow of the river in very unique ways. And they embrace it with the Riverwalk.

Another thing that sets us apart from other cities our size, we had the buildings to work with to begin with, like the Germania, which has just got a new lease on life. The City Center at 735. The Mitchell, the Mackie, you can’t build stuff like that today.

BG: We’ve got some good modern buildings, too. The Harley Museum is a good, solid building that reflects its function really well. The Indian Community School. That’s a wonderful project out of Franklin.

RM: Last night, the Daily Reporter had its annual construction awards at the Harley Museum, and that place was packed for that event. It was a Thursday night, so it was also Bike Night. They had all kinds of motorcycles down there. They had a fire going. It was crazy. Beautiful crazy, OK?

And then you look over and you see the Coakley water tower. That, to me, is a new landmark. And you see the Rockwell tower. The Iron Horse Hotel, the Global Water Center, the Reed Street Yards. You see people walking back and forth. The Sixth Street bridge.

I was dog tired. I was wanting to get home. But I stood there, thinking, “Oh my God” – just smiling, because it’s a real urban environment.

BG: There’s a modesty, I think, to architecture here. I don’t think there has been a desire to out-Calatrava the Calatrava. Look at Discovery World. Here is a great neighbor to this building. It wasn’t trying to be the second Calatrava. It’s like, yeah, we’re a neighbor, we can have a conversation. But we accept that some buildings are going to be more noticeable than others. That’s a good neighbor relationship. And I see that in the city.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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