The natural, intended reaction when encountering the Quadracci Pavilion is for your eyes to follow its upward momentum, letting gravity pull your mouth agape, as your voice involuntarily escapes; grasping for words that aren’t quite there, it settles for a measly, “wow.” There’s no way to avoid this. Even living near it, driving by daily, and recognizing the silhouette more as an icon of Milwaukee than a museum, cannot inoculate us from our awestruck response when approaching this structure by the lake.
That’s because Spanish architect and sculptor, Santiago Calatrava, has carefully crafted this place to be more than a building: it’s an icon, a symbol, a sanctuary. It is divine, in every possible way and definition, both in its architectural beauty, and its relationship to the spirit and and heavens. The former should be clear to anyone with fair sight and good taste, but the latter is just as apparent once the time is taken to explore every nook, cranny, and angle left waiting for us to find.
When approaching Calatrava’s structure from outside, every window, white column, and curved beam slants upward, forcing our attention to the sky. The massive wings of the Brise Soleil catch and continue that upward momentum with the power of their 72 steel fins/feathers soaring in the wind. The dual-spires help complete that upward momentum by throwing us high into the sky, and as we slow down, stop, and fall back towards earth, we’re immediately caught by the same white curves, as they slide our attention out onto the water of Lake Michigan, which extends beyond the horizon.
The inside of the Pavilion is almost as wide open and dizzying as it was from the approach. This is achieved through endless amounts of natural light spilling through a curved glass nave reaching 90 feet high, and continuing down the halls by windows and skylights on every imaginable exterior surface. That other world, just beyond the flowing white supports and seamless glass, manages to reach right through and share the space with us. The only break in this formula of glass, light, and sky is in the main exhibit hall, smack in the center of the hallways leading from the Pavilion to the rest of the museum. There, we see the demands for a curated, temperature and light controlled environment take priority over architectural beauty. But even with this compromise, Calatrava’s high ceilings and invisible supports allow the gallery space to feel airy during even the busiest days.
All these elements of the Quadracci Pavilion work together to constantly force us to look up, and around, and be in awe of the natural world. Like a painter imbuing their art with a higher purpose, Calatrava leverages heavenly light as a spotlight to direct attention. He uses the sky to inspire awe and sublimity, and the seemingly endless lake as a symbol of purity and life. However, he takes these initial cues and pushes them even further through some very powerful symbolism.
Stepping back outside, it’s important to look again at the Brise Soleil to not just see the resemblance to a bird’s wings, but to a whale’s tail. Standing in downtown Milwaukee, Calatrava’s addition to the art museum almost appears to rise up for air from the depths of Lake Michigan, tail poised to playfully splash water behind it. The parking structure, underneath the main building and to its right side, enhances that mammalian imagery by looking like the mouth of a giant whale ready to consume drivers whole as they look for a parking spot. The support structures inside the main Pavilion help that imagery by looking like the skeleton of a whale; the main ceiling support as a spine and the beams as ribs.
However, like the bird or whale imagery before it, we can’t choose to ignore the nautical imagery either: the mouth could very well be a ferry boat’s entryway, the spine and ribs the supports inside a boat, the bridge from downtown a gangplank, and the overall shape of the Pavilion that of a ship ready to sail out onto the water; sail hoisted high, waiting for the steady Milwaukee breeze to push it off the coast and out to the Great Lakes.
Are we Jonah being swallowed whole then spat out changed and new by the museum? Are we Noah, boarding an ark to pass on our history of art and culture for future generations? Is the building itself a reference to the divine via the Holy Spirit, often portrayed as a white dove? None of these alone are the point in and of themselves. Calatrava, instead, is commandeering the power of these symbols and stories to connect art directly with the divine. As the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp once stated, Calatrava’s success and “expertise… allows us access to ebullience, lightness and delight” (NY Times, 2004).
The structure, the art, and the experience is all meant to fundamentally change us before being released back into the world. When totally successful, we become prophets and heralds of the museums cause, tasked with sharing our story and further humanizing the city. All the while, this cathedral of culture sits on the lake beckoning, its arm outstretched to Milwaukee — a gateway between the mundane and the heavenly — inviting the city to take a break from its routine and gather to worship at the pedestal of culture and creativity.
This critique won a critical writing contest and was thus published in MIAD’s “Third Word” Fall 2014 literary magazine. The judge, Norene Lindsay, taught composition at the University of Toledo, Ohio for over 25 years. She is also the founder of the technical writing business “the Working Word,” and author of twelve books used in school systems across the United States.