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Santiago Calatrava Reflects on Art and Community During 20th Anniversary Visit

Read the architect Santiago Calatrava’s reflections on his return visit to the Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion.

For many Milwaukeeans, the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava needs no introduction. As the designer of the Museum’s Quadracci Pavilion, he is synonymous with the crisp, expansive, and sweeping white building often called “the Calatrava.” In September, we celebrated the building’s 20th anniversary with a visit from the architect—his first since the Quadracci Pavilion’s grand opening.

As part of the celebration, we asked the Museum’s social followers to submit questions for the architect to answer during his visit. Keep reading to see how our conversation reflected on the building’s preservation, its evolution as a symbol, and the vision that informed its design.


Question: How does it feel to be back and met with so much enthusiasm?

Santiago Calatrava: My first reaction was really positive, because the building looks as well as it looked on the first day. It has been very well-maintained. It’s a very uplifting experience to come back and see the building in all its splendor.

It’s like a bow and arrow. The architect is the bow, you know, who propels the arrow ahead through the building. The community embraced it so enthusiastically, and the city has had this extraordinary evolution around the Museum, with the park, the gardens, the lakeshore, and the promenade along the lake. You see the renovation of the War Memorial Center and the David Kahler extension. And I’m seeing also some new buildings around.

Seeing a lot of people visiting the Museum effectively shows the intention all of us had when creating this building. The people have embraced the building because it belongs to them. I think people have read the message we sent through this building. This building is clearly a message, a message of hope, of believing in the coming generation, of faith in the future, and certainly of love to the city and to the visitors. Because this is a gift for them.

Q: What characteristics of Milwaukee inspired you when you were creating this design, and then how did that factor into the overall design?

SC: The people here have charm. They charmed us, my goodness! Extraordinary people…

So, the trustees, as the client, had in mind a significant building. That was the decision. This community, this city, chose a cultural facility, as an emblem, a sign. Milwaukee chose a cultural statement, as an emblem for the city. I understood they wanted to do something exceptional. They encouraged me also to do something special.

And then I knew the area, a little bit of the spirit of the area, through my studies, when studying the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, particularly, and Louis Sullivan. I knew that this area was a firmament of interesting architecture. The whole thing had for me the legendary character of a place with completely unexpected, interesting architecture. In the 20th century, even in the 19th century, very interesting and substantial contemporary architecture had been done. I came here with a lot of expectations, and, of course, a little fear, knowing the place and knowing the significance of what I could do.

Q: Thinking back on the early planning stages, how did you approach designing a building that both served and reflected the Milwaukee community?

SC: As an architect, you are surrounded by two very powerful forces. One is the client and the other is the executor. The client was purely Milwaukee. The client became, for me, the reflection of the society of Milwaukee. I visited Milwaukee more than 48 times, from the beginning of the project to the conclusion of the project. That means I was here almost every month. But looking back, it was worth it to do that. I got related to Milwaukee. I embraced the spirit of the community.

I participated also in the fundraising campaign. I met all kinds of people and all kinds of donors, from those who gave a lot, to those who gave from their heart what they could afford. I am a witness, you see, to the interest of the community in having a beautiful facility, an extraordinary facility. I had to give my very best to these people.

The other force, I will say, was the architect of record. It was my friend and colleague David Kahler, who made an enormous contribution to the quality of the museum. And the people who built it were purely from the area. They put their hands, their knowledge, their expertise into delivering the very best building you can have. But looking back, it was worth it to do that. Indeed, I embraced the spirit of the community.

Q: When you were designing the Burke Brise Soleil, what was the original purpose and what were you hoping to evoke when you included it?

SC: Architecture can be considered, and is for me, an art, not only a technique. Being an architect but being also an engineer, I have a lot of belief in technique. The technique is a vehicle of innovation and renewal. Beyond that, architecture is an art that belongs to the culture of a place.

The brise soleil is a tool that gives shadow. When it is open, it has completely changed, because you have behind you the landscape, you have all these extraordinary surroundings. It’s just like taking two tools that you use every day, like a piece of bread and a glass of wine. With that, you can do something extraordinary in the sense of raising the significance of the bread and wine to a much higher level. And you can also take a regular tool of the everyday, like a brise soleil that controls the light, and elevate its significance through the magic of the landscape and the situation and the presence of this extraordinary nature around us.

When you are approaching the museum from Michigan Avenue, you have a first reference: the di Suvero sculpture. And then behind it is the brise soleil. When the brise soleil is closed it appears like a line behind the sculpture. Once the wings are open, you are embracing the landscape, you are embracing all the birds flying around, all the boats in the lake. And these things happen in architecture.


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