building a masterpiece: calatrava in milwaukee

 Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion, Milwaukee Art Museum,  (Photo by mjuzenas)

News  services and online media are reporting on the excitement leading up to next month’s ‘Building a Masterpiece: Santiago Calatrava and The Milwaukee Art Museum’ exhibit (Sept 8-Jan 1). The Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) is celebrating the anniversary of the building with a self-exhibit of the Quadracci Pavilion- now a world famous architectural icon for the city.

The exhibit marks 10 years since 2001, when the art museum’s opening saw its distinctive robot wings first machine into life, their movements beckoning visitors into the facility.

Exhibiting the ‘masterpiece’ – locals refer to the building simply as ‘The Calatrava’- signals the long-term gains, to the museum and the city, of a bold, imaginative architectural statement, and the creative courage on behalf of its architect and Museum board.

Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the futuristic exhibition space was the Spanish-born architect’s first completed work built in the US. Submitting to the building’s design competition, Calatrava conceded the relatively new city had given the designer pause after a lifetime career designing  modern bridges and stations against the backdrop of Europe’s more historic centers. The year of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s new pavilion completed however, TIME Magazine hailed the architecture ‘Top Design of 2001’.

Quadracci Pavilion, Interior by Santiago Calatrava (Photo by O. Palsson)

Despite critics’ initially railing against its ‘exhibitionist’ design and construction continuing amid reports of cost over-runs the art museum building’s daring originality, strong lines, and bridges to the surrounding landscape have proven itself a true exhibit, a financially repayed landmark and tourist destination.

‘Building a Masterpiece’ also displays the architect’s watercolors and models, “works of art in themselves—that track the evolution of the building’s design” reports Chief Art Museum Curator Brady Roberts to the Chicago Tribune. He says,

Calatrava’s “models reveal the complex development of the moving wings … one of the most spectacular architectural elements in the world.”

Viewers will witness through Calatrava’s drawings his search for design sources in Nature and the body, rather than architectural precedents.

Calatrava has trained as artist, engineer and architect. Rare in an age of specialization it has perhaps allowed a celebrated blending of function, dizzying mechanical feat and pure fantasy. ‘Building a Masterpiece’-  housing and forming an exhibit- builds on this blend and offers insight into Calatrava’s art.

If only more of our civic structures could repay as much ♦

(Photos sourced and attributed from Flickr Commons]


introducing calatrava

I once read that, Calatrava, one of the world’s most acclaimed modern architects, keeps a skeleton in his studio. A skeleton of a dog

Through the years of my college degree in architecture, I’d also admired early modern architect Louis Sullivan for his principle that, Form follows function. Sullivan, believer in studying natural forms, not just referred to them in his buildings, but studied the processes Nature refined plants and other living things; the way bodies and forms efficiently and capably suit a function, their means of survival.

Window detail of Carson Pirie Scott Building, Chicago. (Photo by Terence Faircloth)

In Sullivan’s 1890’s, this challenged the many architects of his time who borrowed from classical styles of Greece and Rome, building skyscrapers and modern American institutions that mimicked forms from ancient temples, or revivalists building in the gothic styles of medieval Europe.

Millenium Park, Chicago, simulating the Doric construction of Ancient Greece (Photo by Patrick Malon)

This ‘borrowing’– we notice some variants today- sees a building as for appearance, with little heed to the function these buildings serve or their true construction.

Sullivan, and a great many of my favourite modern architects to follow, instead set out to create their own individual styles, many as I discovered in Santiago Calatrava holding the notion that buildings’ form must suit the purpose for which they are built.

In Calatrava’s works, I see today’s Louis Sullivan. Admiring his buildings, I can’t help but notice Calatrava’s incorporation of natural forms and ideas striving both practical purpose and to delight us in their ‘fitness’ to perform.

I’d like to share with you in following posts how, importantly, Calatrava harnesses this principle in designing exciting, dazzling architecture, reviving  form following function.

Looking up through the ceiling of Calatrava's Allen Lambert Galleria, Toronto (Photo by A. Schoeberlein)

1) Individuality. Calatrava has a unique and recognizable style, yet no two of his buildings or bridges appear the same, but designed as a reference to a problem solved, the individual nature of each setting.

2) Movement. Many of Calatrava’s buildings incorporate machined movement, so his dynamism becomes literal. Themes and designs of his buildings are enhanced by ornamentation, and living action, creating new language in architecture.

3) Optimisation.† What this term means can be best illustrated by looking at the body. Carrying a heavy load, our arm flexes its muscles, broadening along the line of force.

Calatrava's Leige Station, Leige. (Photo by Bert Kaufmann)

The bones of the arm are also thicker at the points of stress, the joints of connection. To ascertain what makes Calatrava’s style, I’ve noticed how Calatrava designs supports and beams of his buildings to taper and lean into the line of force, so we viewers see  the weight load of a building’s shelter actively supported. The result? His buildings don’t appear to stand, so much as more efficiently shoulder and thrust, creating the dynamic emphases we find in Nature.

It explains why for Calatrava, even a canine skeleton can be an important model for study. ♦

† see Tzonis, A. (1999) Santiago Calatrava: The Poetics of Movement Thames & Hudson: London.

[images sourced and attributed from Flickr Commons]

buildings that wave to us?

When we think of stone and concrete buildings the words movement, flow and waving don’t come readily as descriptors. For centuries, architecture has exploited inert stability to create feelings of permanence from these favoured materials. The Parthenon, its stone base atop the Acropolis, the stone buttresses that guard like giant sentinels around gothic cathedrals. These buildings ‘move’ us, yet stand quite still.

Now these feelings may change- change being the ‘operative’ style of architect Santiago Calatrava.

The Spanish-born designer/engineer is the purveyor of a revolution in architecture, devoted to displaying Nature’s constant ability to move and shift.

Montjuic Tele-Comm. Tower, Barcelona (Photo by Christopher Michel)

Famous for his dramatic bridges which often feature tensioned masts suspending huge spans across rivers, there are also buildings such as his Lyon TGV station, where sweeping organic forms depict the sense of speed and excitement of travel.

His Montjuic Tower, Barcelona, leans and counterbalances, supported like a dancer in ballet, limbs outstretched at the most dramatic moment of equipoise.

These buildings have an easy imagination of movement, of physics diagrams – all pressing forces – drawn large and imposing. Instead they form and function as telecommunications towers and town halls.

Calatrava’s latest projects however, literally move, machines gesturing for our closer attention. With Calatrava, his robot buildings can unfold, rotate and undulate, acting as we act, describing movements as living sculpture. Calatrava’s work- often bare, white, and sharing many of the forms of the body, are not decorative in any traditional sense. Instead, moving parts provoke our own movement and function.

This is Calatrava’s most astounding achievement. Consider the widespread sense that we approach buildings only as passive viewers, leading to buildings decorated or ornamented as something primarily of appearance. Yet buildings critically house our active movement, and shape them.

Milwaukee Art Museum (Photo by Ken Ilio)

Consider his Milwaukee Art Museum, describing its lakeside connection to the water with mechanical arms, symbolising the wing motions of birds in the surrounding landscape. When the museum closes, so do these arms, or change according to other movements in Nature- wind and solar conditions in an architecture that is responsive.

In his birthplace Valencia, Calatrava designed its planetarium, a spherical planet form, with its opening and shutting roof acting like an observing, moving eye.

These forms and motions do not simply adorn these buildings- they are the buildings themselves. Rather than functioning as signs for the building- they are the buildings signalling. Not only are they important visual elements, but kinetic ones also- occupying and defining space, but also moving and describing it. They symbolise what buildings seemingly never do- change.

This literally moving architecture challenges us to imagine not only changing Nature to live in it, but living in a changing Nature. A ‘future written in stone’ now waves to us instead with the hand of Calatrava.♦

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia (Photo by Victor Abellon)

[images sourced and attributed from Flickr Commons]