Celebrating the iconic Calatrava 10 years later

Architect Santiago Calatrava designed the iconic Quadracci Pavillion. Photo courtesy of Kristin Settle.

Ten years ago, the dramatic addition of the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum stretched its wings for the first time.

The building has since been featured on “American Idol,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” served as a backdrop for a Victoria’s Secret television commercial and has been dubbed the sexiest building in the world by VirtualTourist.com. Now a proud Milwaukee lakefront icon, MAM will celebrate a decade of Santiago Calatrava’s architectural masterpiece.

“Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum,” an exhibition highlighting the construction of the entirely custom-made project, opens today and runs through Jan. 1. Watercolors, models, videos and photographs will trace the evolution of the design, including the Burke Brise Soleil (the wings) perched high above the Quadracci Pavilion.

It all started after a 1975 addition which – despite increasing MAM’s space – still didn’t quite reveal the museum to the public eye. In the early ’90s, the museum board craved a new, grand architectural statement, said Brady Roberts, chief curator of MAM. Following the museum’s receipt of a then-anonymous $10 million donation from Betty and Harry Quadracci, the board began an international architect search.

It took a year for the search committee to find the right man for the job: Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who began working on the addition in 1995. After three years of construction and three years of designing, the Spaniard’s first United States commission was complete in September of 2001.

“It’s interesting that the committee selected an architect who was designing extraordinary buildings in Europe, but who hadn’t yet done any work in the U.S.,” Roberts said. “This building put Calatrava on the map.”

The uniqueness and sophistication of the design took people by surprise at the start of the project. Since every element was custom-made, Calatrava had a lot of explaining to do.

“Calatrava came here every month during construction to explain to people what they were going to do,” Roberts said. “Nobody had ever done a building like this before. It was all new to everyone and they had to work with him to figure out what the concepts were.”

While many hopeful architects take their designs to engineers only to discover their ideas defy physics and cannot be done, Calatrava very carefully designed the Quadracci Pavilion with an understanding of engineering and physics from square one.

“Most buildings are boxes,” Roberts said. “There’s nothing else that looks like the pavilion and nothing standard about its design.”

Such a rare building began attracting attention as soon as the designs were officially released to the public in 1997, Roberts said. More than a decade later, the Quadracci Pavilion still attracts national and international visitors and attention.

Roberts said “Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum” aims not only to celebrate a landmark, but also to allow people a closer look into the framework of a building which in many ways has become the symbol of the city.

“There’s a lot of pride amongst Milwaukeeans. This is an opportunity to really understand [the Quadracci Pavilion] in a much deeper way, and I think it will increase people’s appreciation for the building,” he said.

Because so many people visit the Pavilion daily and snap pictures for permanent reminders of its uniqueness, the exhibition will also feature a screen with a changing matrix of submitted photos from visitors, Roberts said. The photos will be entered into a contest, with a Canon digital camera as the prize for the winning photo.

“Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and the Milwaukee Art Museum” runs from Sept. 8 to Jan. 1 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Dr. For more info, visit mam.org.