Santiago Calatrava Compares Returning to the Milwaukee Art Museum to ‘Coming Back Home’

We sat down with Santiago Calatrava for a Q&A conversation.

RELATED: Calatrava Revisits His Iconic Milwaukee Design, 20+ Years Later

Santiago Calatrava’s first visit to Milwaukee in nearly 21 years has been a whirlwind.

The heralded Spanish architect hadn’t returned to the city since the completion of the Quadracci Pavilion, the architectural masterpiece he designed as an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum that opened to the public in September 2001.

Since arriving in Milwaukee, Calatrava has been visiting with old friends and colleagues who paved the way for the project to come to fruition. He’s also spent considerable time at the museum and quickly recollected even the most minute details that went into the project while also taking in the changes that have taken place on and around the grounds of the museum over the years. And Friday has been declared Santiago Calatrava Day in Milwaukee in recognition of his work in the city.

Photo by Rich Rovito



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The passage of time hasn’t dampened the 71-year-old Calatrava’s enthusiasm for the project or the city that took him in as he tirelessly worked to create a building that has in so many ways has changed the perception of Milwaukee and become its symbol and arguably its most recognized work of architecture. 

Calatrava made special mention of architect David Kahler of Milwaukee firm Kahler Slater, who worked alongside him on the project and whom he described as a “beloved colleague.”

Construction of the $121 million project began in 1997 and was completed four years later.

Calatrava, who has residences in Zurich and New York City, spoke with Milwaukee Magazine in a one-on-one interview on Thursday in the Quad Suite, a glass-walled space that overlooks the Quadracci Pavilion’s Windhover Hall, a magnificent light-filled grand reception area where preparations were being made for an event in his honor.

Photo by Rich Rovito


Milwaukee Magazine: What was your reaction to coming back to Milwaukee and this space you designed for the first time in more than two decades?

Santiago Calatrava: (Wednesday) was very significant. We were in the building and I was with the mayor of the city and then I visited with old, old friends. My impression is that it is a little bit like coming back home. I know the building. I know all the details. But seeing that the garden has grown, the fountains, the hedges and the trees that (landscape architect) Dan Kiley put there. Also, how the exterior has changed, with more sculptures and the promenade along the lake. You remember the building from a while ago and then you see the building like it is now, and you are satisfied, but things have changed.

MM: What has changed?

SC: The skyline. Effectively, the museum is acting, the whole museum from the War Memorial to the Kahler extension and the Quadracci wing, you see the gardens and all that, they are working as a magnet. That’s very beautiful. The museum has become kind of a landmark. Going towards this area, it justified new skyscrapers, new buildings and that is interesting because it shows the role of culture in the context of Milwaukee today. So, the people are eager and have accepted culture as a magnet. It became a focus of the development of the city, and I like that very much. Of course, the scale of a city like Milwaukee is not the scale of a super large city, but still Milwaukee has attracted a cosmopolitan character and has all the elements that exist in a big city. I can say that because living in Zurich, we could also make a comparison of the number of inhabitants of Zurich and the facilities that you can find in Zurich. These cities are also destined to become much more livable.

MM: What are your impressions of the architecture of the buildings that have sprung up around the museum?

SC: It’s less important. The language of architecture is always changing. What is important is the preservation of the area around the museum as a public area. The lakeshore plays a very important role for the people. It makes joy. The parklike character of the museum on both sides needs to be preserved. That it very important because I think it is one of the characteristics in the mind of many people when you think of Wisconsin. You think of trees and a lot of green areas and lakes. It’s important to embrace this character.

MM: What did this project mean for your career?

SC: I have to distinguish two aspects. One is in a professional way. The other in a personal way. In a professional way, for me it was the first commission in (the United States) and also not an easy one. The lake and the landscape. You couldn’t have chosen a nicer place, but it also was a challenge. It was for me at the time a challenge. In a personal way, looking back places can change in life. Somebody can go to Rome and decide to stay there forever. Or somebody goes to Paris. But I came to Milwaukee with my wife, Tina. The people here have charm. They charmed us. We decided on the spot to move to the United States. We decided also that our kids should come here for university. All of them studied at Columbia University in New York. We spent many years living here with myself commuting between Europe and the United States. We still have a home (in New York City). We have four grandsons who are American. I do not regret for a second this decision.

MM: What do you hope will be the legacy of your work in Milwaukee?

SC: I look forward with a lot of hope. Somebody told me that kids are like cars. From generation to generation, they have one more speed. I have a lot of hope that the coming generation will continue this legacy. I consider architecture an art. Buildings survive us. They go ahead. Even the most insignificant buildings survive. But the people read the message we have sent through this building. This building is clearly a message. A message of hope. A message to believe in the coming generation because this is a gift for them. Many of the people who were trustees are now 20 years elder. They have sent a message and the message is unmistakable. A message of hope. A message of faith in the future. A message of love for the city and to the visitors and to the United States.

MM: Have you enjoyed your return visit to Milwaukee?

SC: I’m enjoying every second. Even the interviews, I’m enjoying it and really telling you from the heart what I think.

MM: Is there anything that you noticed that has changed dramatically about Milwaukee since you were last in the city?

SC: I see the gardens of Kiley growing and I see that as a symbol. I see the city growing as the gardens are also growing and becoming more beautiful and more perfect.

MM: What are your current projects?

SC: We are trying to conclude the (Saint Nicholas) Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero (in Lower Manhattan). Otherwise, we are working in Europe, the Middle East and China.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.