The Milwaukee Art Museum

by | 02. Aug 2012

Cultural | Feature

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

The Milwaukee Art Museum, which overlooks Lake Michigan, was partially housed in a building designed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen as a war memorial.

Further exhibition space was created in 1975 by David Kahler’s addition that extends to the water’s edge and effectively creates a plinth on the axis of the Saarinen building.

The brief stipulated a new grand entrance, a point of orientation for visitors, and a redefinition of the museum’s identity through the creation of a strong image. Calatrava proposed a pavilion-like construction, on axis with Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of central Milwaukee. Conceived as an independent entity, the white steel-and-concrete form is reminiscent of a ship and contrasts the existing ensemble in both geometry and materials.

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive


Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

Being linked directly to Wisconsin Avenue via a cable-stay footbridge, pedestrians may cross busy Lincoln Memorial Drive on the bridge and continue into the pavilion. Drivers enter via an underground vaulted parking garage where pairs of canted concrete columns extend down the center of the garage, forming a skeleton-like series of elements shaped like the letter “V.”
The pavilion features a spectacular kinetic structure, a brise-soleil with louvers that open and close like the wings of a great bird. When open the shape also becomes a sign, set against the backdrop of the lake, to herald the inauguration of new exhibitions. The pivot line for the slats is based on the axis of a linear mast, inclined at 47 degrees, as a parallel to the adjacent bridge mast.

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

Photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive

The design allows for future expansion, offset from but symmetrical to the exhibition facilities, on the other side of the Kahler building. At shore level, the expansion houses the atrium, gallery space for temporary exhibitions, an education center with a 300 seat lecture hall, and a gift shop. The 100 seat restaurant, placed at the focal point of the pavilion, commands panoramic views onto the lake.

Calatrava’s designs are often inspired by nature, featuring a combination of organic forms and technological innovation. The Milwaukee Art Museum expansion incorporates multiple elements inspired by the Museum’s lakefront location. Among the many maritime elements in Calatrava’s design are: movable steel louvers inspired by the wings of a bird; a cabled pedestrian bridge with a soaring mast inspired by the form os a sailboat and a curving single-story galleria reminiscent of a wave.

Model photo courtesy Santiago Calatrava Archive


Watercolor courtesy MAM

Plan courtesy MAM

Since completion of the first model in 1995 and as fundraising that exceeded expectations, the Museum made a strategic decision to expand the scope of the project. Major visitor amenities, such as the south terrace and a parking garage, were added to the design, and space for the expansion was increased to 142,050 square feet to accommodate the additions. The expansion provides a 30 percent increase in overall gallery space, from 90,000 to 117,000 square feet.


CITY Milwaukee, Wisconsin
ARCHITECT David Kahler, Milwaukee