Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion a Sculptural Addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum

The opening of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago spurred me to finally trek out to the other great piece of museum architecture in the Midwest, Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion, a sculptural addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum which opened in 2001, and cost approximately $121 million. The museum initially hired Calatrava to design a 58,000 SF addition to the existing Eero Saarinen and David Kahler buildings in 1994.  When fundraising exceeded all expectations, the scope of the project was expanded to 142,000 SF, increasing the gallery space by 30 percent.  It was Calatrava’s first building in the U.S.

In many ways, the Quadracci is a perfect counterpoint to Piano’s Art Institute.  Where the latter is Prairie-style horizontal, a symmetrical glass and limestone box that sinks into the earth, Calatrava’s is an expressionist sculpture that ascends and twists into the lakefront air.  The signature Calatrava move (similar to his El Alamillo Bridge in Seville) is the pair of beautifully articulated wings that frame the new building, called the Burke Brise Soleil.  With a wingspan rivaling a Boeing 747 and weighing 90 tons, they open and close with the museum (and also with the ebb and flow of the wind load).  But Calatrava’s greatness is that his wings aren’t merely wings — they are part of a vocabulary of organic shapes that converse with Lake Michigan, echoing waves and stingrays and even skeletal shapes.  “The project responds to the culture of the lake: sailboats, the weather, culture, the sense of motion and change,” he said.

For all the splendor of the wings, the arrival on the inside may be the architect’s greatest reach — the Cathedral-like entry, the Windhover Hall, that recalls everything from Gothic to Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona — complete with flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings and a nave shaped like a prow that extends into Lake Michigan.  Like Piano, Calatrava is reaching back to the scared origins of art and expression to create a building that cloaks its exhibits in silence and suggestions of ancient ritual.

Calatrava has several other U.S. projects on the boards, including the Atlanta Symphony Center, 80 South Street in New York (a residential tower), the World Trade Center Transportation Hub in New York and the Trinity River Bridges in Dallas.

According to statistics provided by the Milwaukee Art Museum, attendance the year the Calatrava wing opened soared from 165,285 in 2000 to 373, 578 in 2001.  The peak year was 2002, when 538,764 people visited the museum.  Attendance was up in 2007 nearly 80 percent from 2000 – the year before the addition opened – but down about 45 percent from the year after the addition opened.