Let’s Celebrate 20 Years of the Calatrava

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion – and its movable wings – mark two decades on Lake Michigan.

During his speech at the dedication of the Quadracci Pavilion in October 2001, project architect Santiago Calatrava expressed hope that the spectacular addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum would be transformational for the city.

“I hope that … we have designed not a building, but a piece of the city,” Calatrava said at the time.

Two decades later, the Quadracci Pavilion remains one of the most significant works of architecture in Milwaukee. The project changed the conversation about the city and fueled a vision of molding the area into an arts and entertainment destination. Simply referred to as “The Calatrava” by locals, the game-changing project has made the Milwaukee Art Museum a must-see for residents and tourists alike. The structure has been the backdrop for thousands of photos and remains a symbol of the city’s continuing renaissance.

It’s not only the awe-inspiring exterior of the structure that remains attention-grabbing. Inside, the Quadracci Pavilion offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan and has served, during non-pandemic times, as host to a variety of events. The addition also has allowed the Milwaukee Art Museum to expand its exhibitions and program offerings.

Twenty years after its unveiling, the prevailing sentiment is that the Quadracci Pavilion’s design is timeless and as striking today as it was at the start of this century.

“It’s been such a great addition to the city,” Milwaukee Art Museum Deputy Director and Waukesha native Robert Stein said. “I’m really proud of it as someone who grew up in the area. It was really an audacious challenge and I’m proud of the city for doing it. The building has become this iconic symbol of Milwaukee and the building is as fresh and innovative today as it was in 2001.”


 

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The Quadracci Pavilion has become an enduring symbol for the city, he added.

“You’d be really hard pressed to think of too many other buildings in the world that symbolize a city in the same way,” Stein said. “The Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Space Needle in Seattle. Ours is really unique and especially beautiful.”

Construction of the $121 million pavilion addition began in 1997 and was completed in 2001.

“It was a really bold endeavor to construct a building like this,” Stein said. “In 20 years of hindsight, we can look back and say what a success it is. But the museum only succeeds if Milwaukee succeeds. I’m proud that this building has become a symbol of what we can do. The mark of great architecture is that it holds up over time. We’re looking forward to continuing that spirit of innovation.”

Mo Zell, professor of architecture and senior associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, immediately became aware of the pavilion’s unique connection to the community when she moved to the city 13 years ago.

“One of my favorite things about the city is the truly authentic way that so many people identify with that building across all parts of Milwaukee,” Zell said. “It’s really an identifier for the city.”

Buildings like the Quadracci Pavilion must have both immediate and long-term stimulating qualities to be considered significant, she added.

“It has to wow people when they first come and it also has to sustain interest over time,” Zell said. “And that building really does it.”

Certain design aspects are important and compelling, Zell said, most notably the Burke Brise Soleil, a moveable, wing-like sunscreen that rests atop the Museum’s vaulted, glass-enclosed Windhover Hall, the museum’s grand, light-filled reception area that serves as a gateway to the museum.

“It gives us a great image, not just locally, but globally. What it has done is put a spotlight on how the city has changed in a positive way.”

– TOM BARRETT

There’s also the way light is captured inside and outside the building, material quality and the structure’s location along the shore of Lake Michigan, she added.

The pavilion jump-started a change in identity for the city and boosted conversations around architecture, Zell said.

UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, with financial backing from Milwaukee’s Marcus Corp. Foundation, in 2005 initiated a biennial, international architecture prize to recognize emerging architects.

“After Calatrava came here and the conversations around architecture happened, the architecture school created the Marcus prize to resemble that very concept of bringing in iconic, world-class architects to Milwaukee to help change the skyline of the city,” Zell said. “Every year, we host the Marcus prize winner at the school.”

Recent winners have included Mexican architect Tatiana Bilbao in 2019 and Ensemble Studio, which has offices in Madrid and Boston, in 2021.

Despite its notable presence over the past two decades, the Quadracci Pavilion, named for Betty and Harry Quadracci, who provided major funding for the project, remains in its infancy in terms of its effect in sparking change in the city’s architectural landscape, Zell said.

“Twenty years feels like long time, but it’s not. It’s youthful in terms of building change,” she said. “I’m super excited because I think we’re on the cusp of seeing that design culture pay off in the not too distance future. The next 10 years is where you are going to see a lot more of the translation of that design in the city. I think we’re poised to have a different kind of conversation around how buildings play a significant role for the city and what it means to have good design is at the center of these conversations. Ultimately, good design brings in tourism, economic development and sustains the city.”

For a skyline once bereft of significant modern architecture, other impressive Downtown building projects have come to fruition since the Quadracci Pavilion made its debut, including Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s 32-story sparkling glass tower that overlooks the Milwaukee Art Museum. Just south of the museum, construction has finally begun on The Couture, a 44-story structure first proposed more than nine years ago.

The new projects are important and exciting but shouldn’t detract from the captivating older architecture found throughout Milwaukee’s Downtown skyline and beyond, Zell said.

“Milwaukee is able to do both really well. The city has really embraced historic buildings and embraced adaptive reuse of these buildings,” she said. “But there’s also been a focus on the new and contemporary buildings that sit alongside them.”

Zell is pleased that that pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum has informally taken on the name of the Spanish architect who designed it.

“As a professor at an architecture school, it certainly excites me,” Zell said.

Before Calatrava arrived on the scene with his now iconic design, the focus in Milwaukee had mainly been on another famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs can be found in Milwaukee and other parts of the state.

“We’ve added a new name, in a sense,” she said. “It’s so important for us to recognize those architects more and focus on what they do. It helps the profession and the discipline so much for those names to be adopted. I would love it if that happened more and more. It’s a recognition of the creativity and the ideas behind these iconic buildings.”

Zell, too, stressed the importance of the overall design of the Quadracci Pavilion.

“Fundamentally, one of the things the museum does on a whole inside and outside is show that design matters,” she said. “One of my favorite things about the interior is the public nature of that space. When you go into a lot of museums there is a ticketing threshold with which you can enter the building. What I love about the Calatrava is that happens very deep into the museum itself. That main space is a public space, which means that everyone gets to come in an enjoy it and be a part of it. If you want to go to the top of the Empire State Building, you have to get in an elevator, and you’ve got to pay to go up. That’s not the case with the museum. I think there’s such a generousness with which the museum operates that’s not really talked about.”

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

The pavilion continues to attract tourists from all over the world, Stein said.

“It’s safe to say it’s a stop on the itinerary. I think it’s what great works of art can do for a city,” Stein said. “It can provide a place to gather and celebrate things together. Think of how many people have been married at the museum, gotten engaged there, had their graduation or quinceañera there. I think it’s been in more family photos than any other building in the city.”

Museum management has occasional contact with Calatrava and his Zurich-based office over the years.

“This is such an iconic project for us in the city and his name has become synonymous with the building in many ways,” Stein said.

Initial attempts to interview Calatrava for this story were unsuccessful, but the architect spoke to Milwaukee Magazine in an exclusive interview about the 20th anniversary of the building.

Although no major formal celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Quadracci Pavilion is planned, the museum will mark the milestone in a variety of ways over the next several months.

“We’ve been inviting people to share some of their photos and memories of the building with us online,” Stein said. “We’ve seen a really dramatic response. It is truly a photogenic landmark.”

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

Stein envisions an expanded role for the museum moving forward.

“We see the museum as a very special and unique gathering place. A symbol of what kind of city we can build together,” he said. “We’d like to have the museum be a place where people can convene and talk about issues that are bigger than ourselves and our daily lives. We think that great works of art can be at the center of that conversation.”

Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who stepped down in December after 18 years to become ambassador to Luxembourg, said there were great expectations when the Quadracci Pavilion was planned, designed and constructed.

“It has met or exceeded all of those expectations,” Barrett said. “It has been a fabulous addition to the city and the lakefront. It gives us a great image, not just locally, but globally. What it has done is put a spotlight on how the city has changed in a positive way.”

Barrett said the pavilion’s design was “out of the box” for Milwaukee 20 years ago.

“By Milwaukee standards, it was a gamble, but it’s a gamble that has paid off,” Barrett said. “I think it has more than stood the test of time.”

“If you want to go to the top of the Empire State Building, you have to get in an elevator, and you’ve got to pay to go up. That’s not the case with the museum. I think there’s such a generousness with which the museum operates that’s not really talked about.”

– MO ZELL

The stunning design has made the museum an attraction even for those not necessarily interested in displays of art, Barrett noted.

“Like every other institution, it’s been challenged over the last two years because of the pandemic, but the museum and the (pavilion) certainly remain a focal point, not just for museum visitors, but for lot of other events,” he said. “Many people and organizations have chosen it because it’s a breathtaking place.”

Barrett said he remains a fan of the work of Calatrava, 70, whose recent projects have included the United Arab Emirates and Qatar pavilions at EXPO 2020 in Dubai, the Margaret McDermott Bridge in Dallas, a bridge over the Crati River in the Calabria region of southern Italy, and the World Trade Center transportation hub in New York City.

“I’m an admirer, clearly,” Barrett said. “I’m glad to see other communities have benefited from the Calatrava experience. I’m proud that we are part of that elite club.”

The Calatrava-designed museum addition is so synonymous with the city that Visit Milwaukee, the convention and visitor’s bureau, uses it as the organization’s logo.

“It’s iconic,” Visit Milwaukee President and Chief Executive Officer Peggy Williams-Smith said.

It marked a turning point when the city “recruited and attracted someone to design something so beautiful for our city,” she said.

Photo by Visit Milwaukee

“By making it the logo of Visit Milwaukee, it was a sign of the evolution of our city into a destination for meetings, cultural events and the arts,” Williams-Smith said. “It put us on the map.”

As an event space, the Quadracci Pavilion serves as an accessible and affordable way to get a glimpse into the world of art, she said.

“My team uses it on a regular basis when we are promoting the city,” Williams-Smith said. “You look for differentiators. You can go anywhere and do certain things, but when you have a one-of-a-kind monument that was designed by an award-winning architect like Calatrava, it’s amazing.”

A lifelong resident of the Milwaukee area, Williams-Smith has worked Downtown for more than two decades, which has provided her with frequent views of the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Quadracci Pavilion.

“It instills an amazing sense of pride,” she said.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.