Santiago Calatrava Is In Town to Celebrate the Milwaukee Art Museum

The famous architect is back and grateful to see how well his work has been preserved.

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

Photo courtesy of Santiago Calatrava

The renowned architect whose work left an indelible mark on Milwaukee has returned to the city for the first time in more than two decades.

Santiago Calatrava gained worldwide recognition for his design of the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum along the city’s lakefront that opened in September 2001.

The attention-grabbing project was Calatrava’s first in the United States and led to other important work and commissions, most notably the Oculus transportation hub at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, which features some the same striking design elements present in the Quadracci Pavilion. 

Many were on hand to greet Calatrava as he stood in the pavilion’s atrium on Wednesday morning, his appearance culminating a yearlong 20th-anniversary celebration of the project. He eventually made his way to the pristine Lubar Auditorium, where he delivered a brief speech, fighting back tears on several occasions.

“I need to say, entering into the museum, it was for me like the opening day,” the 71-year-old native of Spain said. “It’s so well-preserved, so beautifully preserved and so much care. You see, that’s very important. It means respect to the work, respect to all the people who have been working here.”



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Calatrava said he has vivid memories of working on the project, even though he hadn’t been in Milwaukee since the formal dedication of the Quadracci Pavilon in October 2001.

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

“All who walk into the Quadracci Pavilion feel a sense of pride and a sense of awe and a sense of inspiration and aspiration,” said Marcelle Polednik, the Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“The building has also elevated our purpose at the Milwaukee Art Museum and created a truly iconic structure that matches the iconic mission of this institution. It has also elevated the stature of Milwaukee and our community at large over the last 20 years.”

The Quadracci Pavilion has had a lasting impact on the city, Polednik said.

Santiago Calatrava displaing his plans for the Quadracci Pavilion, 1996; Photo by Lila Aryan

“Back in 1994 when we began this process, we thought that we would be getting a beautiful building,” she said. “At the end of the end of the day, what we received as a gift from Mr. Calatrava was a sense of destiny, a sense of hope and aspiration for our community.”

The 142,050-square-foot structure houses a reception hall, auditorium, large exhibition space, store, cafés and parking. Windhover Hall, the grand reception area, is one of many architectural highlights. Complete with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults and a central nave topped by a 90-foot-high glass roof, it represents Calatrava’s interpretation of a Gothic cathedral. The hall’s chancel is shaped like the prow of a ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Michigan.

Adjoining the central hall are two tow-arched promenades, the Baumgartner and Schroeder gallerias, with expansive views of the lake and Downtown. The museum’s signature design element is its finned wings, called the Burke Brise Soleil, that form a moveable sunscreen 217 feet wide.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said the building has become “ingrained in Milwaukee’s DNA.”

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson credited the project for “redefining” Milwaukee.

“It’s very fitting that there are wings on this building, because the work that you did help to give lift to the city that launched a renaissance and a new sense of pride in Milwaukee,” he said.

Johnson issued a proclamation designating Friday as Santiago Calatrava Day in the city. In recognition of the honor, the Milwaukee Art Museum is offering free admission on Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Calatrava became emotional as Johnson presented him with the proclamation.

“I’m speechless,” Calatrava said. “It’s something completely unexpected. It is a great honor, really.”

Calatrava praised all those who made the project a reality and repeatedly stressed how welcome he felt in the community.

“It was worth coming here and living among you,” Calatrava said.

More Photos: 

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito

Photo by Rich Rovito



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.