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Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee Art Museum
November 30th, 2011

Good evening. I am delighted to be here, and like most of you astonished to believe that ten years have passed since this building opened. I recall the date particularly well since my visit to Milwaukee to see this building shortly before it opened was the first real trip I took after September 11th, and I remember being excited not only by the fact of this building, but by the optimism it represented at a time when all of us were feeling very doubtful about the state of the world. The opening of the Calatrava building here in Milwaukee seemed to say that architecture might in some very real way help us to recover from what had happened, to lift our spirits at a difficult time, if only because it is such a strong statement of optimism: a museum built very much as an architectural icon; indeed, a building constructed in part to serve as a symbol of its city.

I think that everyone can agree that it has been a stunning success in that category. It may not have turned Milwaukee into Bilbao, but say Milwaukee, or at least Milwaukee architecture, to people almost anywhere now and they are as likely as not to mention the Milwaukee Art Museum—or, as it is so often called, “The Calatrava,” a nickname that may not please the Quadruccis or the Burkes, but which certainly attests to a great degree of public engagement with the building. We don’t name things after architects in this country; most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge architects. So the fact that Santiago Calatrava’s name has entered the Milwaukee lexicon is no small achievement.

This building has now come to represent Milwaukee both in the minds of people in this city, and people around the world. I can think of relatively few buildings put up in the last decade in other American cities that have done this. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall, perhaps the greatest public building of the last generation in this country, isn’t really a symbol of Los Angeles, to take one example, though it surely deserves to be, and no one says “Let’s go to a concert at the Gehry.” I don’t think the reason for this is a matter of Disney Hall’s quality, or of people failing to appreciate it, since they generally do. I suspect that Disney Hall has not become a civic symbol for Los Angeles the way this building has for Milwaukee is due as much as anything to the fact that Los Angeles is enormous and complex and more or less defies any notion of being represented by any single structure, unless it were a freeway ramp, whereas Milwaukee is small enough so that the idea that a single building could stand for the whole city, or at least the aspirations of the whole city, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

But some of this surely also has to do with the fact that we as a culture have become far more attuned to art museums than we once were, far more interested in making them into iconic statements. We want art museums to be icons on the cityscape because they have become icons in our lives, since we are a far more visual culture than we once were. Art museum audiences are growing, while concert audiences are shrinking in most places.

Over the next few minutes I’d like to talk about the phenomenon of the art museum in contemporary life, and see where this unusual and special building fits into it. I’ll also, of course, talk about Santiago Calatrava himself, an unusual architect in that he is trained primarily as an engineer, and he came to public note initially in the nineteen eighties through bridges and other public works, which he produced with an elegance that set them apart from almost everything else being made then.

But I will come back to that. First, let me start with museums, and what this building means to the larger story of the art museum today. It is not news to say that we live in an age of museums, an age in which cities and even nations all across the world have come to view the museum as one of the most potent, perhaps the most potent, ways in which to draw tourists and support a local economy. A more educated, more visually literate public has come to view the museum not as the province of the elite, but as a democratic right. More important still, the museum has become the calling card, the identifiable landmark, in many cities—the building that, to use an American colloquialism, puts a place on the map. Once, it was the cathedral. I am hardly the first person to observe that the art museum has come in many places, at least in American and European cities, to serve as a kind of secular cathedral, as the special building that everyone knows and that marks that particular city as distinctive.

Of course you can’t be distinctive if you have the same art museum as the next city, any more than you could be distinctive if you had an identical cathedral. So the other characteristic of this last generation has been a desire that our museums have a more conspicuous architectural presence, and that we think of them not just as containers for works of art, but also as works of art themselves. Symbolically, at least, this view began in our time with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, completed fifty-two years ago, and for all fifty-two of those years at least as much of an attraction in New York City than any painting in its collection. In the years immediately following the opening of the Guggenheim, and perhaps to some extent in reaction to it, the modernist preference for showing art in simple, straightforward, orthogonal white rooms—a way of presenting art that we might say is exemplified by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—remained quite common, driven in part by the belief that these places were neutral environments that deferred entirely to art. That was something of a fallacy, of course, since no space is truly neutral, and white, boxy rooms are themselves a potent architectural statement.

But these anti-Guggenheims, these simple modern spaces that we might refer to as classic modernism were hardly the only way of making museums in the years following the Guggenheim’s opening in 1959; the nineteen-seventies brought two of the greatest museum projects by Louis Kahn, the Kimbell in Fort Worth and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, both magnificent, brooding buildings that reinterpreted the modern aesthetic as something no longer light, but heavy, solid, almost primal. At the same time, Richard Meier was beginning an active career as a museum architect by reinterpreting modernism in a different way, as light and picturesque, almost romantic, supremely elegant, and not at all neutral.

I think it is fair to say that as museums became a more important architectural commission, the counter-reaction to the presumed neutrality of the simple modern box grew, driven in part by the increasing democratization of art around the world, making museums more popular, as well as the gradual but steadily mounting doubts among both architects and clients that the straightforward, orthodox modernism of the International Style—the simple modernist box, that is—could provide the degree of popular attraction that they sought. Surely Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, in their competition-winning entry for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, completed in 1977, had a new model in mind. It was a model that somewhat disingenuously pretended to neutrality by virtue of its flexible, changeable interiors, but it was not, of course, neutral at all. It was a powerful statement, as powerful, in its way, as the Guggenheim had been. Piano and Rogers turned modernism into hyper-modernism, exaggerating functional elements and turning them into what for all intents and purposes was decoration. Most importantly, the Pompidou inaugurated a vast wave of highly expressionist, distinctive museums.

My point is not to review every significant museum of the last generation, which would keep us here all evening without giving us the chance to concentrate on the building we are in, but we should point out that all through the last two decades of the twentieth century, the growth of the museum as a vehicle for architectural expression seemed to expand exponentially. I.M. Pei built several museums that demonstrated his preference for strong, simple geometric forms constructed out of heavy, solid masonry: starting with the Everson in Syracuse, New York, of 1964, and moving on to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York, of 1973, and then of course one of the best known museums of modern times in this country, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a dignified statement of a brand of cool, reserved, geometric modernism that, by the time it opened in 1978, might be said to have represented the same kind of conservative, proper good taste that John Russell Pope’s original National Gallery had represented when it opened in 1941.

After the Pompidou Center in Paris, Renzo Piano moved in a somewhat different direction, toward lighter, more elegant buildings. He built, and continues to build, museums at an astonishingly rapid rate, and many of them, including the Menil Collection in Houston, the Beyeler in Basel, and the very recent Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago are important further steps in the quest to find a modernist expression that is at once light and substantial, and a vivid but not too assertive presence. And it would be wrong not to mention two architects who chose yet other different routes to break away from orthodox modernism: James Stirling, whose Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, completed in 1985, is perhaps the greatest post-modern museum built, an intense, extreme play on historical form that is almost an inversion of classicism; and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery of Art in London, completed in 1991, represented a less playful, less cartoonlike, and highly mannered play on historical form. In neither of these cases did the architects use historical form to create what in any way could be considered a traditional building. Quite the contrary; they saw their museums as very much of the late twentieth century—it is just that to them, the spirit at the end of the century, with modernism no longer new or revolutionary, called for some degree of looking back and embracing architectural history, and making of it something of a collage. In that way, the sense of a collage or an assemblage, these buildings and the aesthetic they represented broke significantly from the modernist quest for a kind of platonic ideal, for a pure and perfect object—the kind of quest that Calatrava, we might say, would pursue here in Milwaukee a few years later.

Post-modernism did not fulfill its expectations for a number of reasons, not the least of which, I think it is fair to say, is that the cartoonlike nature of many of its buildings did not seem convincing as a way of making architectural statements that would be permanent, important, and monumental, which we have always wanted our museums to be. But even more of a factor, surely, was the rise of a key figure in the architectural history of the museum at the end of the twentieth century, an architect whose impact now seems to be at least as significant as that of Kahn or Pei: Frank Gehry. Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which I referred to at the beginning of this talk, completed in 1997, is without a doubt the key museum of the late twentieth century. It is a building of great power, energy, and assertiveness, yet also of great beauty, and its curving titanium forms, in combination with elements of stone and glass, represented a truly new way of building that was less mannered than post-modernism, yet every bit as much of a break with classic modernism. And perhaps most relevant to what we are discussing right now, it became wildly popular, one of the few buildings of great architectural ambition, depth and complexity to excite the public imagination. There are not many such buildings: in the category of museums only Wright’s Guggenheim, and two works of I.M. Pei, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and then the glass pyramid at the Louvre, have managed to be so worthy of extended critical analysis and so popular at the same time.

I said a few moments ago that the rise of the museum in our age was fueled, at least in part, by the democratization of art, by the presence of at least some degree of cultural literacy among a wider swath of the population. But I have another theory as to what has been fueling the growth of the art museum, and it is this: not only are there a great many more relatively sophisticated people around, it is also the case that now we live in an age in which so many people spend most of their days behind computer screens, dealing with virtual this and cyber-that, and when you do that, and even get much of your entertainment and communication from computers and televisions and so forth, you begin to cry out for the experience of authenticity. I believe that one reason there is so much interest in museums today comes down to that very fact—the power of authenticity. It is the fact that what you come to the art museum to see, be it an illuminated manuscript or an ancient carpet or a Rembrandt, is real.

When the current wave of technology made its way into our lives there was a lot of fear that it would have the opposite effect, that it would destroy the power of the real, or at the very least blur the distinction between the virtual and the real. If you could see it all on a computer, and experience art that way, the reasoning went, then who needed to go to a museum? But of course, the opposite thing happened—that the real, by being more rare, became all the more precious. We know that authenticity, in our age, is not any longer something we can take for granted—we know that most of the visual images we see as we go about our lives today are not “real,” in the sense that the objects in this museum are real, and we value the authentic because we know it is rare. The power of the real has grown, it has not diminished, in our new technological environment, by the very fact of its being scarce. It takes on an almost holy aura—we are in the presence of the real thing, not the virtual image of it, and that aura, when everything is working as it should, extends to the very core of the museum’s being.

Another thing that has grown and not diminished in any contemporary society today, and this is also contrary to many predictions, is the value we place on good public space. Most of us spend a great deal of our time alone today, either in office cubicles or in our cars or connected to computers at home, where we function as if we were alone even if there are plenty of other people in the house, and of course everyone has heard of the predictions of the demise of public space, of the end of town squares and stores and streets and malls and, indeed, of the obsolescence of the city itself. Who needs to be in a public place when you can do everything at home—work, shop, communicate, be entertained? Telecommuting would replace offices, online e-commerce would replace stores, and so forth.

Well, now we know that this prediction, too, was wildly exaggerated—not because the technology is not a very real and potent force for change in the way we live, but because the prediction ignored a fundamental aspect of human character, which is that we do not want to be alone. We need a kind of stimulation that only true public places can give us. People want to walk on streets as well as talk online. They want to be in real places. But they demand that the real places be special, and offer them something beyond what they can get through their computers.

To return to the question of the art museum, if you put these two phenomena together—the increased power of authenticity, and the desire to be in truly special public places—suddenly the explosion in museums isn’t so much of a mystery. In truth, museums have become the most important public buildings of our time. They seem to embody our culture’s ideals, and now again we can cite the now common observation that museums, now, are the secular cathedrals of our time. They are repositories of the past, as cathedrals are; they represent a set of shared values, as the cathedrals did when they were new; constructing them is a way for a city or a nation to assert its place in the world. When museums are complete, they function as community centers as well as places of enlightenment, just as cathedrals did. And they are places in which the very idea of immortality seems always to hover above us, as we hopefully might even experience some degree of transcendence from daily life.

So it was against that background that the trustees here at Milwaukee selected Calatrava to build what would not, technically, be a new museum but an addition, although an addition so prominent that it would put the original museum more or less in its shadow. I should say a word about that building, since I didn’t mention it in our quick chronology; it was finished in 1957, predating the Guggenheim in New York, and as I’m sure most people in this room know, it was designed by an architect who would have a huge influence on Calatrava: Eero Saarinen. Strangely, the original building, perhaps because it was conceived with a double function as the Milwaukee War Memorial, is more understated than much of Saarinen’s work—to look at the building next door to us and think of it as having inspired Calatrava seems a bit odd. You certainly see none of Calatrava’s characteristic curving forms. But Saarinen was better known for buildings such as the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York, the Dulles Airport outside of Washington, and the Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale—not to mention the St. Louis arch—all of which I think played a huge role in shaping Calatrava’s sensibility.

But if you think about how this building looked when it was new, and for the first twenty years or so of its life, before the large addition for the Bradley Collection by the architect David Kahler went up, you can see at least something of a connection, because Saarinen’s building looked a lot more sculptural than it does now. It appeared almost to float in space, and it seems more closely connected to the rest of Saarinen’s work, as well as at least a little more plausibly something Calatrava might respond to.

The roots of the Calatrava building actually go back to the late nineteen eighties, not all that long after the Bradley addition, when it was clear that Milwaukee, like so many other cities, was experiencing the phenomenon I talked about a few moments ago—more and more people wanting to come to the museum to see more and more art. Not the worst problem to have, but a challenging one, especially if you have this particular building, which doesn’t seem particularly easy to add onto.
The trustees brought in a consultant who put together a list of seventy prominent architects, all of whom were asked if they had interest in taking on the project. Fifty-five said yes, and the building committee eventually got the list down to ten that it preferred. The architectural historian Franz Schulze, who has written about the history of this building, tells us that Calatrava was not among the original 70. He was added to the list when the museum’s director, Russell Bowman, saw his work in the library of the architect David Kahler, who designed the Bradley addition, and was so taken with it he suggested that Calatrava be added to the list, which went from ten architects to eleven. The committee did what these committees often do: it studied the work of the architects on its list and then cut the list back to a smaller number that it could easily manage to interview and travel to see completed work.

In this case the magic number was three, and the list was narrowed down to three architects, none of whom, by chance, were from the United States. Two were from Japan, Arata Isozaki and Fumihiko Maki, and one of course, was from Spain, Santiago Calatrava. Toward the end of 1994, the committee finished its research, did its deliberations, and decided that Calatrava, who at that point was beginning to develop an international reputation but had not yet completed any buildings in the United States, would be the architect of the new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum.

It was a surprising, perhaps even daring, decision, in part because Calatrava had not been on the museum’s original long list of architects to consider, and in part because, as I said, he had not yet built anything in this country, although he had made some designs for projects that did not go ahead—one at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where the call to design a new tower and transept in 1991 gave him his first opportunity to design in the United States. Shortly after that a structure by Calatrava that I would have to call part sculpture, part building, called Shadow Machine, made of molded precast concrete, was exhibited in the outdoor sculpture garden at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. It consisted of moving ribs of molded precast concrete. It’s not hard to see in this the early beginnings of a certain structure in Milwaukee.

But the idea of ribs, if we can call them that, has been in Calatrava’s work for a long time. One of his earliest projects in North America was the arcade in downtown Toronto, called BCE Place, designed in 1987 and completed in 1992: a huge, freestanding gallery set between office buildings to provide a grand, monumental public space. It’s a skeleton, but a light, graceful one: everything about this design suggests flowing lines, lightness, transparency—qualities that, like the idea of the moving ribs, will be familiar to everyone in Milwaukee.

Indeed, I think we can see the roots of the Quadrucci Pavilion in much of Calatrava’s work, since he has been dealing with a set of ideas pretty consistently for several decades now. As you probably know—and I won’t take up too much of our time here with biographical details—Santiago Calatrava was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1951, and after studying art and architecture received a PhD in technical sciences, and was also trained in civil engineering. He was heavily influenced by Robert Maillart, the great Swiss bridge-builder who was probably the most aesthetically oriented engineer and bridge designer of the twentieth century, at least until Calatrava, and it’s not at all surprising that even as a student, Calatrava was designing bridges.

In his bridges, we can see many of the ideas that were to inform all of his work: an interest in lightness, transparency, and curving, swooping form. Calatrava was a bit more self-conscious than Maillart, whose bridges seemed almost magical in their understatement—a Maillart bridge is strong, quiet, and direct. Calatrava wanted to be as elegant as Maillart, but he also wanted to do more, like a dancer who wanted to make that extra twirl, or a singer who wants to do a final trill. He is modern and light, but not by any means a minimalist. His bridges, and especially his footbridges, are compelling, particularly as they got lighter and more lyrical later in the 1980’s, as in the Alamedo Bridge, in Madrid, or the footbridge in Bilbao, not far from Frank Gehry’s museum. You can see how structures like this can attract some attention—this is not exactly what the average highway engineer tends to produce, not even in Europe.

As his practice began to grow in the 1980’s, Calatrava was asked to design several train stations as well as the Bilbao airport, projects that suited his talents well, since he was more comfortable designing great, monumental, light-filled space than in dealing with the complex array of small rooms and multiple functions that need to be fitted into most residential or commercial or institutional buildings. And European train stations have always relied heavily on a nineteenth-century invention, the classic, glass-roofed train shed, that what Calatrava wanted to update for the late twentieth century: the classic train shed is a generous, swooping space, not only filled with light, but feeling light itself. It was an ideal model for Calatrava, and he used it not only for train stations such as the airport station in Lyon, France, or the station in Lisbon, Portugal, but also in such non-transportation projects as the City of Science in his hometown of Valencia, Spain.

If the train shed, updated and made more flamboyant, we might say, was one architectural source for Calatrava, another was an American architect whose name I mentioned a few minutes ago, Eero Saarinen. Saarinen’s TWA Terminal had no small connection to Calatrava’s design for the Bilbao airport, as you can see. More striking still is the connection between Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport outside of Washington and Calatrava’s Lucerne Station in Lucerne, Switzerland. I think both of these projects are particularly notable because Saarinen was not an architect who worked in an easily identifiable style—he did buildings in a wide range of styles, many totally and completely different from these two airports—and while Saarinen is increasingly admired, and justly so, few if any of Saarinen’s buildings have provided much inspiration to other architects. Calatrava is one of the only architects to have zeroed in on Saarinen and found in him a source of influence.

He did this, I think it is worth noting, by being highly selective, which is something all talented artists and architects do when they look at their mentors, or at the other work that intrigues them: they see only those aspects of it that reinforce where they wanted to go, what they would otherwise be inclined to do. The St. Louis Arch and Ingalls Hockey Rink seem to have influenced Calatrava, but he certainly had no use for such Saarinen buildings as the CBS Building in New York, or the Bell Labs research center in New Jersey, both of which represented a side of Saarinen he didn’t want to see, and perhaps even didn’t like; we can certainly say these other buildings didn’t reinforce Calatrava’s own inclinations.

This is fascinating because it gets us into the complexities of influence among architects, which is as interesting as the way influence works among artists. I think we might call Saarinen not so much an inspiration to Calatrava as a confirmation—an important architect who a generation earlier did things that resonated with Calatrava’s own inclination toward expressive, highly sculptural form that had a certain easy, flowing, lyrical quality to it. In seeing Saarinen, I’m not sure that Calatrava got ideas as much as he felt confirmed in his own ideas, and confident that he could continue to develop them. And while Calatrava lacked Saarinen’s extraordinary sense of formal invention and versatility, he did have two things that Saarinen did not have: a sense of deep commitment, even conviction, to one particular vocabulary of forms; and training as an engineer, which Saarinen, trained only as an architect, did not have.

Calatrava also has had the good luck to design his unusual, lyrical shapes in an age in which technology makes them far easier to achieve than they were for Saarinen—or, for that matter, for Antonio Gaudi, the great Catalan architect who, it seems almost superfluous to point out, was also a significant inspiration to Calatrava: an earlier Spanish architect known for his lavish, highly fluid forms. But to return to Saarinen, who was designing in the 1950’s—he died in 1961—he produced remarkably original forms that engineers had to figure out how to build, which was not easy to do in the fifties and sixties. They pushed the limits of what was possible, and seemed daringly, even shockingly, new. Saarinen’s buildings still excite, even though technology has moved on to a point where the vaulted concrete roof of the TWA terminal is something you can almost afford to do in a Burger King.

Something else separates Calatrava from Eero Saarinen, and that is Calatrava’s fascination with shapes that seem to have some connection to the natural world, and particularly to living creatures. People used to ask if the TWA terminal was intended to resemble a bird in flight, and Saarinen considered such comparisons trite; he would say that people could think that if they wanted to, but he wanted to make sure that no one made the mistake of thinking that he intended anything so commonplace, and so attuned to a lay person’s way of seeing. Calatrava, of course, would probably have drawn a picture of a bird next to a sketch of TWA if he had been the designer, and encouraged people to think that the bird in flight was exactly what he was inspired by, exactly how he came up with the design. As many of you who have heard him lecture surely know, he takes delight in using a large sketchpad as a kind of prop when he talks, drawing sketches of animals or people whose shapes, he says, have inspired him. Nothing pleases him more than to have his buildings compared to birds, or athletes leaping, or turning, and he has even named his tower in Malmo, Sweden, near Copenhagen, the “Turning Torso,” saying that the genesis of the shape was the idea of a human torso twisting slightly.

This is, I suppose, all well and good, although it is probably worth noting that many other architects, including David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Frank Gehry, among others, have at one time or another come up with schemes for buildings that twist or torque as they rise, just like Calatrava’s, and have chosen to see them as pure abstract form, without making any kind of biomorphic analogy. The analogy strikes many people not so much as wrong as unnecessary: while a tower that twists does indeed resemble a person twisting or turning, why does it matter? I’m not sure that there is any reason that the creatures of the natural world should be models for the structures of the man-made world: buildings, after all, are not dancers, or leaping deer, or flying birds, and the biomorphic analogy that Calatrava enjoys doesn’t change this fact. But neither does it make Calatrava’s shapes invalid as architectural form. The tower in Sweden, like the other buildings of this type that other architects have designed, is something that the technology permits us to do today, and it is handsome and visually appealing, even compelling, which is really sufficient architectural justification in itself.

In any event, there is no question that in all of his work, Calatrava has tried to balance art, architecture, and engineering; we might even characterize his work as a consistent attempt to incorporate all of these things, and bring them into some sort of equilibrium. I can’t think of a single Calatrava project that isn’t sculptural in form as well as adventuresome and elegant as a work of engineering. This is no small achievement, and I suppose that if he feels better connecting them to the beautiful living things he so enjoys drawing, he is perfectly entitled to.

We could go on with more of his work, since by now Calatrava has achieved an extensive oeuvre, but I will show you just a couple of other projects before we turn back to Milwaukee. The first was designed to be not far from here, in Chicago, and was in fact designed because of this building: Calatrava’s so-called Chicago Spire, which would have been the world’s tallest apartment building, not to mention the tallest building in Chicago. It came about in 2005 after Christopher Carley, the original developer, saw this building here in Milwaukee and fell totally in love with it. “I stumbled out in total awe,” Carley told me several years ago. “I thought, why shouldn’t Chicago have this. Even the parking garage is beautiful.”

Carley then attended a lecture Calatrava gave in Chicago, and afterwards went up to introduce himself to the architect. Calatrava, whose English is decent but not excellent, responded graciously, took out his sketch pad and quickly drew a dove and handed it to Carley—a sign, perhaps, that he would welcome further conversation. So Carley flew to Zurich, where Calatrava was then based, and asked him to design a 115-story apartment house for him in Chicago.

It was quite different from the normal architect-developer relationship, in which the developer pushes the architect to cut costs; here, Calatrava seemed to be calling the shots, and the design was a large, more fluid version of the Malmo tower, more of a gigantic corkscrew. Most architects conceptualize the aesthetic challenge of building a skyscraper as mainly one of meeting the ground and meeting the sky, but Calatrava tends to be interested only in the middle, in the idea of the shaft itself. His shafts are not neutral floors between the bottom and the top; they are kinetic, they seem to be full of energetic motion. Malmo isn’t just a twisted torso, it’s a torso that seems as if it could go on twisting. And so with the Chicago building, that looked as if it could keep turning around and around.

Calatrava described the design at one point in terms of the smoke from a campfire, at another time as resembling the curve of a snail’s shell. In fact, the twisting, curving form is actually a structurally sound one, and Calatrava could have justified it well simply by invoking his role as an engineer—it is an altogether reasonable way to combine economics of structure with beautiful form.

Anyway, whatever the rationale, it’s a sad story, as you probably know—Carley, Calatrava’s great admirer, couldn’t come up with the financing, and turned the project over to another developer, who had Calatrava alter the design somewhat, fattening the base and reducing the taper that the original design had. But then, after starting the foundations, the second developer couldn’t keep going after the recession began in 2008, and the project ground to a halt, and was formally abandoned last year.
There was better luck in New York with a very different kind of project, a rail terminal currently under construction at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan to house the New York terminus of the commuter rail lines that run under the Hudson River to New Jersey. It is an extraordinarily complex work of engineering, and it is estimated to cost, at latest word, somewhere north of five billion dollars, so that should make everyone here in Milwaukee feel as if you got away easy. You can see a certain comradeship to the Quadrucci Pavilion, although in New York even several billion dollars will not buy you a brise-soleil that opens. The ribs will not move—that turned out to be too costly, and as a budgetary move they became fixed. But this building will have the grandest interior space for any kind of arrival or departure in New York City since Grand Central Terminal was finished nearly a hundred years ago, and I think it is fair to say that other than the recently opened memorial on the footprints of the original twin towers, it is the only piece of architecture produced during the long and troubled Ground Zero planning process that most people are genuinely excited by.

In any event, as I just said, there is no small connection to the Quadrucci Pavilion; in each case the building is essentially a huge cathedral-like hall, a soaring, tent-shaped space full of light, and serving as a great vestibule to the main event beyond—in the case of New York, the train tracks below; in the case of Milwaukee, the galleries in which art is displayed, most of which remain in the older wings, with the exception of a large gallery for temporary exhibitions beside the main hall. I think it’s fair to say that this is not a building designed primarily for the display of art. The building has been criticized by some people for giving primacy to elements other than art, but I think it’s important to remember—and I think I’m correct on this—that Milwaukee did not request a building that would consist primarily of gallery space, but wanted to provide the monumental public space that the museum had lacked.

When this building was new, I wrote that the “Quadrucci Pavilion does not so much resolve the struggle between art and architecture as dodge it…Calatrava has designed a spectacular building that has nothing to do with the display of art and everything to do with getting crowds to come to the museum,” a comment that, I must say, I did not mean to be taken entirely negatively, given that, as I said a few minutes ago, I’m generally supportive of the notion of the museum as a kind of agora, or town square, and I’m certainly in favor of architectural icons that can give a community both identity and pride. I think we can presume—at least I hope we can presume—that had Calatrava been asked to design a stand-alone museum, he would have produced something with considerably more display space, and with a different ratio of public space to gallery space. But as it is, the only fair way to think about such ratios at Milwaukee is to compare Calatrava’s space to all of the gallery space in the entire complex, not just in his addition. And in that case one comes up with a significantly more normal kind of relationship between what is devoted to the actual display of art, and the overall amount of public space.

I think Calatrava has, in fact, come up with a deft solution, and certainly an honest one, to the long debate about architectural assertiveness versus the needs of displaying art—a debate that, as we’ve seen, has been going on at least since the Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum opened fifty-two years ago. Architects have been accused, sometimes rightly, of making museums in which architectural excitement is more important than showing art to its best advantage. The fact is, as we’ve seen, you hardly need to show art in a plain, neutral box, and a thrilling container can sometimes get people more interested in seeing the things contained within it.
But what Calatrava has done in Milwaukee neatly renders the question moot, or almost moot, by separating out the flashy and flamboyant structure from the matter of actually showing art. He manages to provide both plain, or relatively plain, galleries and an icon at the same time. It’s sort of like what I.M. Pei did more than thirty years ago at the East Building of the National Gallery, where a splashy central atrium wows crowds, and meanwhile, the art is tucked into ordinary galleries off to the side. But Pei somewhat disingenuously pretended to be giving the art pride of place. Calatrava is much more honest about it.

And in any case we shouldn’t disparage the elements of this building that are not part of its great central space. The parking garage is fantastic, as most of you were probably reminded this very evening. When I reviewed this building ten years ago I remember noting the way its swoops and curves recalled Gaudi, and I said it was almost a shame to waste the space for parking cars—it could have been a wonderful place for the display of contemporary art.

Now, I haven’t talked specifically about the brise-soleil, and about its movement. It is spectacular showmanship, but you know that. What is worth talking about right now is how Calatrava’s innate sense of elegance and fluidity give this wild and surprising architectural element an unexpected dignity. That, I think, in the end is what makes Calatrava remarkable. His instincts as a showman, which are formidable and lead him to design what we would have to call some of the most flamboyant structures in the world today, are balanced by his instincts for elegance and restraint. Well, maybe restraint isn’t quite the word, but I think you know what I am saying—that for all Calatrava does, he never actually goes too far. He wants to entertain us, but he wants just as much to impress us. His buildings, his bridges, his train stations and airports have a refinement to them, and for all that they dazzle us, they never lose their dignity. Here in Milwaukee, as well as around the world, Calatrava shows us the power of structures, and even more, the power of human imagination, and what can happen when these two things come together.

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