Calatrava’s Wings

Burke Brise Soleil

I used the opportunity of a Friday holiday to take a day trip up to Milwaukee. Although Wisconsin is known for its beer and cheese (and it has a lower sales tax), the raison-d’etre of the journey was to see the art museum (and the art contained therein).

Milwaukee vaulted onto the global architectural stage when it commissioned Santiago Calatrava’s first project on U.S. soil; he has since designed a bridge in California and the World Trade Centre transit hub in New York City. Completed in 2001, the result is nothing short of spectacular. An extension of two older buildings that house the permanent galleries and the museum’s offices and library, the Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion pulls off a difficult architectural feat: it complements the waterfront while remaining distinctive. A long, shinkanzen-shaped structure runs parallel to the shore of Lake Michigan and contains the feature exhibition gallery, an auditorium, and the museum store. The entrance to the museum is at the “head” of the train, and is flooded with natural light from a soaring dome. Another section protrudes perpendicularly towards the water from the dome; when viewed from the front, it resembles the bow of a ship.

The most iconic architectural element is the Burke Brise Soleil (a brise-soleil is a permanent component of a building that provides shade from the sun), a wing-like structure of 72 steel ribs atop the dome that is anchored by a mast to a pedestrian bridge at the back of the museum. The wings open at the beginning of the day and close at the end (“flapping” at noon), a process that takes about five minutes. They also automatically close if the wind speed reaches 23 mph. The effect is stunning – the white wings look as if they are ready to take off into the horizon between sky and lake.

The repetition of distinctive shapes as interior structural elements is a distinctive aspect of Calatrava’s architecture: here, we have asymmetric levee-like arches ending at triangles braced against the outer walls. The uniformly white interior imbues the space with a lightness and transparency, and the windows covering the side walls allow views of both the city and the lake. This feeling of openness starkly contrasts with the sombre atmosphere in the brutalist 1975 Kahler building that contains the permanent collections.

The feature exhibition was a survey of Andy Warhol in his last decade of life. His camouflage paintings, Last Supper, and self-portraits present the artist in a different light; his wraith-like self-portrait is especially haunting. The permanent collection has selections from antiquity to modern art with a respectable geographical span: there are rooms devoted to Haitian art, American folk art, and pieces from Asia and Egypt. Notably, the Bradley Collection of Modern Art includes paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky, the Fauves, and Rothko.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Exhibitions

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