Be In the Know

Be In the Know. Sign up to have DesignDestinations delivered right to your inbox, weekly.

Going to Chicago to see the Calatrava in Milwaukee

It was kinda  weird thing to do.  Go to Chicago for  a weekend and instead of visiting Chicago art museums we headed up the coast to check out the Milwaukee Art Museum.  

It was a wow.  Definitely a Wow.

Since we live in Grand Rapids, MI, it did make sense.  Once we were in Chicago it was less than a two hour drive and  we did part of that on Sheridan Road through the northern suburbs.   I enjoyed viewing the grand old Tudor and Georgian mansions along the lakeshore, peppered with a few Mid century modern or International style homes.

But let’s talk about the  Milwaukee Art Museum.  It was breathtaking.  I didn’t know what to expect, but as we came over the big bridge at the harbor by the gritty industrial buildings and docks (not attractive in Jan.) and spotted the white sculptural structure, I immediately put alway the GPS and said, “There It is.”  Then I smiled.   No question about it.  It was love at first sight.

The light and open lines of the museum  blur the boundaries between engineering, sculpture and architecture.  Whether inspired by the wings of a bird, or sails of a boat the movable brise soleil are marvelous.  That central hallway and the connecting pavilion let in light and create amazing site lines for the visually attuned.

 I didn’t realize that it is so sculptural and dramatic and we weren’t even there when the 747 size wings were up. It was too windy. Gotta go back.  This addition has  become the iconic symbol of this fairly mundane Mid-western city, some times referred to as Brew City.


I also didn’t realize that what is so attention grabbing is A New Wing.  It is attached to a fine Eero Saarinen building that houses the museum’s permanent collection.  If I understand it, the new wing is home to the temporary exhibitions.  When we were there they were in between exhibitions so we focused on the architecture.  It was also enjoyable to leisurely meander the spacious areas of old main part of the museum, viewing the permanent collection.

Bertoia Scultpure with Lake Michigan in the background

I don’t think you come to Milwaukee to see the old part though.  You come to see the structure designed by Spanish architect. Santiago Calatrava.  He was asked to design a building that would be a piece of sculpture, a work of art in its own right and become an icon for the city.   His mission: create a structure that would help Milwaukee see themselves in  a new way while landing on the international “look at me” map.

He did that.

We also enjoyed the connection of his work with the architect who clearly inspired him–Antoni Gaudi, the well known architecture of what is so interesting in Barcelona.  Here is a photo of the upper level of Gaudi’s Batllo house in Barcelona.  The similarities are amazing but Calatrava has clearly taken the organic lines to a new level.



So, what did I like? The form.  The shape.  The site lines.  The views of Lake Michigan.  The light on the floors and walls.  The only lost opportunity was the mundane cafe on lower level.  I think they missed the chance to create a dining destination. Below is a snack bar on the main floor and the cafe below along with some of the stunning spots that caught my attention.











I look forward to going back sometime when there’s a great exhibition installed in the Calatrava and when it is summer and I can enjoy the grounds so intimately connected to my great love–Lake Michigan. I can’t wait to see the brise soleil in motion. From everything thing I’ve read, it is all stunning.

And the quote in the book about the building will remind me to return.  David Gordon, Museum Director said, “It is impossible to be pessimistic in this building.”

What more could one ask?



Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Feb 7, 2012 Reply

    Susan-I know exactly how you felt when you first caught sight of the museum.  It literally took my breath away it was so simple and beautiful.  I love this sculpture of a building.  Brenda

  2. posted by
    Feb 8, 2012 Reply

    Yes, wow…the Milwaukee museum is a “must see”…the time I was there this past fall, it was too windy for the wings to fly…would love to see that sometime. Okay, gotta go back.

  3. posted by
    Dec 16, 2012 Reply

    These are absolutely beautiful photographs and I really enjoyed looking at them (I’m even downloading one to use as the background on a Christmas card for my architect dad). I do have one correction to your information though: the architect’s name is actually Santiago Calatrava…Philip Jodidio (last name Jodidio, not Calatrava) has written a lot of books about Santiago Calatrava, so their names often appear together, especially when searching online. Just thought you’d like to know. Continue to enjoy your journeys!

Leave a Reply