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Milwaukee Art Museum Takes Flight

Credits: ©2011 Santiago Calatrava

The Milwaukee Art Museum addition, known as the Quadracci Pavilion, was architect Santiago Calatrava's first built U.S. project, completed in 2001 on the shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, USA. Time Magazine named it the Number One design of 2001, a list that included buildings, furniture, cars, fashion and movies. Perhaps its most dramatic feature is a set of “wings” - the Burke Brise Soleil (from the French for "sun breaker"). The Brise Soleil forms a movable sunscreen with a 217-foot that is raised and lowered throughout the day to provide shade to the interior of the museum, while creating a sort of kinetic urban sculpture. The brise soleil is made up of 72 steel fins, ranging in length from 26 to 105 feet, weighing 90 tons. It takes three and a half minutes for the wings to open or close. Sensors on the fins continuously monitor wind speed and direction, and whenever winds exceed 23 mph for more than three seconds, the wings close automatically. The Quadracci Pavilion added 142,050-square-feet of primarily public spaces to the museum—a reception hall, auditorium, café, store and parking, plus 10,000 square feet of flexible space for temporary exhibitions. A 1975 addition had increased space five-fold to the original building by Eero Saarinen, but the museum remained hidden from public view on the lower floors of the War Memorial Center. Calatrava said that thanks to his clients, the “….project responds to the culture of the lake: the sailboats, the weather, the sense of motion and change.” The structure incorporates both cutting-edge technology and old-world craftsmanship; the hand-built structure was made largely by pouring concrete into one-of-a-kind wooden forms, coupled with steel and glass, in a city that has a strong tradition of craft. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)


Milwaukee Art Museum Pen Sketch

Pen sketch of the Milwaukee Art Museum. ©2011 Santiago Calatrava

Architecture Highlights
Windhover Hall is the grand entrance hall for the Quadracci Pavilion. It is Santiago Calatrava’s postmodern interpretation of a Gothic Cathedral, complete with flying buttresses, pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and a central nave topped by a 90-foot-high glass roof. An average-sized, two-story family home would fit comfortably inside the reception hall. The hall’s chancel (the space around an altar) is shaped like the prow of a ship, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking over Lake Michigan. Adjoining the central hall are two tow-arched promenades - the Baumgartner Galleria and Schroeder Foundation Galleria - with expansive views of the lake and downtown.

According to Calatrava, “in the crowning element of the brise soleil, the building’s form is at once formal (completing the composition), functional (controlling the level of light), symbolic (opening to welcome visitors), and iconic (creating a memorable image for the Museum and the city).” The wings open daily, although the schedule is subject to change due to weather, special events or maintenance.

Relevant books:
Santiago Calatrava: Complete Works
Santiago Calatrava: The Bridges

Architect Michael J. O'Brien of Texas A&M University created a portfolio of the Milwaukee Art Museum that shows many architectural details of this dynamic building.

The following article is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Reinforced Concrete Design in Milwaukee Art Museum Addition
Structural Engineering Study of the Pavilion

Structural elements dominate first impressions of the Quadracci Pavilion addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, the building has received international acclaim from the day it opened in late 2001.

The 142,000-square-foot building, with its iconic wing-like sunscreen and sweeping prow and canopy elements, is a remarkable achievement of engineering and architectural vision. The design using reinforced concrete is a study in how Calatrava, in collaboration with other structural engineers and members of the project team, met the challenge of implementing his idea of a showcase project that portrays a sense of motion and change.

Initially proposed in 1994 when the Museum invited the Spanish-born architect, structural engineer, and artist with a reputation for daring and innovation to submit a design. Calatrava's concept, his first U.S. commission, takes inspiration from the site along the Lake Michigan shoreline where the building stands as a dramatic, memorable presence.

The Milwaukee-based engineering firm of GRAEF joined the project in 1996. GRAEF's team, led by John Kissinger, PE, served as structural engineer of record, site/civil engineer, co-landscape architect (with the office of Daniel Kiley), and preliminary environmental engineers.

In 2008, Kissinger presented the Quadracci Pavilion as a case study in a session for a workshop on Reinforced Concrete Design at the University of Wisconsin–Madison examining various aspects of structural design. This article expands on comments from that talk along with additional insights from Lou Stippich of Kahler Slater Architects in Milwaukee architect of record.

Engineering a vision
The approach Kissinger and the GRAEF team took to implement the design and meet every expectation of constructability and presentation begins with effective use of a reinforced concrete structural system.

"The shape of the building lent itself to the use of concrete," Kissinger says. "It was the natural choice for the job and complements the structure's sculptural look." He adds that concrete fits with Calatrava's preference for using a local material with fluid, moldable qualities. He notes that today, their use of concrete would earn the project points for sustainability.

The other primary materials are metal and glass, evident in features like the steel of the movable sunscreen and the glass roof that soars 90 feet above a central hall.

Stippich and his team acted to translate and meet Calatrava's vision, working closely with the owner and the project team. He explains that aesthetics played a big role on the Pavilion project, more than on most projects. "The Museum wanted this to be an icon, a piece of art in and of itself."

Floating the foundation
Creating a structure that commands visual prominence on the City of Milwaukee skyline was at the heart of many design decisions. But one of the first challenges was designing the foundation. The building site was an abandoned landfill along the lakeshore. Beneath the fill and below lake level, however, Kissinger says the site had competent bearing strata.

The team designed a mat foundation to spread the load and allow installation of a more-robust waterproofing system‚ important in a facility used to store and exhibit valuable artwork. He describes the mat as a thick slab of concrete "built like a raft." The foundation takes advantage of the buoyancy of such a system and, because there are no pilings, it avoids excess edges and turns where moisture can penetrate.

Models meet challenges
The project team relied on three-dimensional mock-ups‚ some full-scale‚ to identify solutions for translating the concept into reality. Kissinger says this process proved invaluable in designing the exposed concrete arches, some with arresting compound curves that define the interior spaces.

The unique trapezoidal shapes of the arched support structure create a focal point as they sweep from slender base to deep sculpted beam in the upper reaches. The arches vary in subtle ways from the main hall to the jutting south canopy. Multiple arches come together here in a complex juxtaposition of angles, curves, and connections. Using a physical model helped the construction team execute the formwork and position the arches to meet aesthetic requirements.

"Among the several valuable revelations I took away from this experience is the result we got from using these mock-ups," Kissinger recounts. He recalls that, at the time, Calatrava did not trust computer models to answer the difficult questions. "Even with advances in the technology, I think physical models often are the best way to resolve the tough issues."

Kissinger says the models ultimately helped all the trades understand how this complex area affected their work. Stippich agrees, noting that they gave the contractors an opportunity to study how to achieve the proper smoothness and shape of the concrete as prototypes for the finished concrete work.

Some of the physical models also doubled as valuable tools for fund-raising, an active effort throughout construction of a facility entirely funded with private dollars.

Concrete finishes: achieving distinctive look
The luminous appearance of the Pavilion's reinforced concrete design is one of its most distinctive features. The exterior expanses are strikingly white and the inside arches appear flawless and unblemished.

Stippich describes researching how to achieve the look of a uniform white (or off-white) concrete on the exterior‚ Calatrava's preference. He explained to the lead architect that the appearance of concrete placed in different temperatures and under different weather conditions is likely to vary, especially the color. Because the concrete work extended over at least a full year, the material would be cast or placed in Wisconsin's mix of high heat and humidity, extremely cold and dry conditions, and everything in between. "Calatrava understood and agreed this was a concern, so we investigated other solutions."

The one they found was to finish the concrete with a coating that allowed a variety of white options. Stippich says it gave the construction team an opportunity to match the finished concrete to the white color in other design elements. They assured proper bonding by careful preparation of surfaces with light sandblasting according to the supplier's instructions. Doing so also helped the project negotiate a 20-year warranty on the coating and achieve the goal of controlling maintenance costs.

Paint is the finish of choice on exposed concrete surfaces inside the welcome hall and exhibit spaces. The goal was to create the look of clean, distinct lines and a smooth feel to the surfaces as far as people can reach. The team used drywall compound rather than a cement wash to fill the minor "bug holes" in the concrete before painting it to produce the desired tactile and visual appearance. Kissinger comments that this is less of an issue today thanks to advances in concrete mix technology. But in the late 1990s, it took some testing to find an effective approach.

"It was important to us and others on the team," he says. "We all felt the building demanded attention to detail, and we wanted to get it right."

Ensuring the smooth finish of the concrete members started with the forms. The contractor had them made on site from solid pieces of wood planking, many of them displaying furniture-quality craftsmanship. Forms were shaped to the exact curves specified for each arch and then coated inside with a fiberglass material.

The construction team then developed a concrete mix using a smaller-than-normal aggregate that allowed the material to flow evenly into the forms and around heavy steel reinforcement.

Finally, they removed air bubbles by applying external vibration to the forms. The result gives the cured concrete surfaces a distinctive elegance that belies the raw materials.

Good communication promotes collaboration
Charged with communicating the architect's vision, Stippich concentrated on understanding design intent and documenting key issues in the early stages. His advance work helped the project team establish shared goals and set a standard of collaboration‚ important on a building everyone from the donors to the sub-contractors expected to become a landmark. "We thought through every detail in accord with the design concept requirements, taking time as we went to consider what's right and what's not," Stippich says.

An example of taking the time to get it right was coordinating placement of mechanical and other elements in the interstitial space between floors. The main level has no ceiling to hide pipes and ducts, making it a challenge to accommodate the size of utility chases necessary for the Museum's complex mechanical requirements related to climate control, back-up systems, and other demands. Structural and mechanical engineers worked together to determine the size and position of openings in the concrete beams. Ultimately, the team succeeded in placing a series of oval openings to meet mechanical needs without compromising structural strength or visual impact.

Stippich and Kissinger both describe the Museum addition as a special project where they routinely researched such major decisions and made modifications cooperatively. Stippich stayed in regular touch with Calatrava and the owners to review solutions, and the project team moved quickly to find and apply them. Thanks in part to this approach, the project stayed on track and opened to considerable fanfare in October 2001.

Concepts advance innovation in reinforced concrete design
As with other structural systems, advances in reinforced concrete design depend on understanding materials and methods. The Quadracci Pavilion demonstrates how the project team proved the method's constructability by exploring and adapting some exceptional approaches to the complexity of unusual and changing concrete shapes.

Kissinger says he and others on the project gained insights throughout the design and construction process. "Several concepts I embraced and continue to apply came from working with Calatrava, in particular the idea of leaning elements that create the kind of counterbalance and symmetry we find in nature." He concludes that Milwaukee's modern masterpiece is a good example of aesthetics supported by the material and method, a unique canvas for innovation in structural design.

Structural engineers can benefit from similar case studies and the latest technical information provided by many top experts by attending workshops offered by the Department of Engineering Professional Development (EPD) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Landscape Architecture for the Museum
JJR Landscape Architecture designed 1,900 linear feet of Lake Michigan shoreline and offshore breakwater for the Milwaukee Art Museum including a public promenade. With the museum expansion designed by Santiago Calatrava, the challenge was to keep the lakefront site protected from the severe effects of Lake Michigan waves and flooding, while still allowing continuous public access along the lake and enhancing Calatrava's world-class sculptural statement.

JJR's comprehensive solution merges art and engineering. It combines offshore and onshore wave protection technology with overland drainage concepts to withstand the severe Lake Michigan wind, wave and ice environment through the full range of water level changes. The design blends so well with the surrounding architectural forms that the public strolls through the site unimpeded and unaware of this vast shoreline protection system. The project also incorporates a regional bicycle path system into the design of the promenade, providing links to numerous cultural and recreational facilities and used by over a million people annually.

To protect the Art Museum expansion site from wave overtopping, a unique low profile "eyebrow" breakwater was designed in a way to preserve views of the horizon. A trench drain and surge pool system effectively collects waves that overtop the revetment and returns the water to Lake Michigan while hydraulically isolating the trench drain from the lake at times of high water levels. State-of-the-art heat tracing and thermal protection technology provides freeze protection of the trench drain and surge pools. To develop the innovative design, JJR created a state-of-the-art physical hydraulic model of the entire project area. Using detailed computer models and actual topographic and bathymetric data, JJR engineers put the model to the test under numerous storm events. The resulting data helped determine the optimal design geometry and aided in preparing construction documents for accurate bidding and construction.JJR developed design sections that minimized the impact on the aquatic habitat during the modeling and testing of the shoreline protection.

Corbin Design designed signage that would integrate the pavilion with the rest of the museum without intruding on the soaring architecture.

Working closely with the architect, Corbin achieved the goal through the use of subtle white, metal and glass signage that matches the materials used in the architecture itself.

Outside, white aluminum entry signs were mounted atop white granite bases, and stainless steel plaques were engraved with the names of major donors. Inside, freestanding directional signs use paper inserts sandwiched between sheets of glass. Engraved glass squares on the donor wall were painted white and then blue on the back, and mounted an inch off the wall. Ambient light hitting the back of the squares casts a subtle blue blush on the wall.


  Milwaukee Art Museum Structural PowerPoint (3,107 kb)

  Milwaukee Art Museum Structural Case Study (1,781 kb)

  Winged Victories of Santiago Calatrava Article 2008 (221 kb)