Winged Victory

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2001


For the past two weeks local folks have been coming in unprecedented droves to marvel at the great gizmo by the lake -- the soaring sail, the bird in flight, the matador's cape -- that Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava created to adorn his new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.

It is an astonishing thing, an engineering feat made of 72 fins of white painted steel that unfurls at the touch of a button. In the course of a few minutes the hydraulically powered tubes rise into the air, transforming a steep, stable conelike form into a graceful creature whose mighty wings, spreading 217 feet, run parallel to Lake Michigan's distant horizon.

Technically, the kinetic steel structure performs the humble function of preventing bright sun from overheating the interior of the glass-and-steel cone, which serves as the museum's new entrance lobby and ceremonial space. Hence the structure's French-inspired name -- the Brise-Soleil, or sun screen.

But such an everyday end could easily have been attained by more conventional means. Normally, sun screens do not move, much less radically change the architecture of the building they're attached to, or transform the character of the site they occupy.

This one does both. Intentionally designed to grab attention, arouse emotions and heighten expectations, the Brise-Soleil is the signpost of a $100 million, 142,000-square-foot expansion of the museum. Most of the added space is enclosed within a long, low building that extends along the lakeside directly south of the existing structure, a boxy 1957 building designed by Eero Saarinen.

Calatrava's horizontal building, also sheathed in white steel, is in essence the low-key workhorse of the architecture -- it shelters a new temporary exhibition hall, an auditorium, a retail store and two long, stunningly engineered corridors that double as showcases for art. Then, near its southern terminus, it erupts into that cone-shaped lobby pavilion -- a dramatic ending even when the sun-screen fins, in the down position, sheathe it like a second skin.

When the fins are raised, the pavilion flies. By metaphorically identifying the mathematics of engineering with natural phenomena, Calatrava intended the structure to celebrate a place where water meets land and sky meets sea.

He also wanted to dramatize a union of the architecture and the art it was designed to house. Literally and figuratively, the Burke Brise-Soleil -- so titled after Milwaukee real estate developer John Burke and his wife, Murph, secured naming rights with a donation of $1.5 million -- is itself a moving work of art.

There is nothing else like it in the United States. That is because Calatrava, 50, had not built in this country before.

The Milwaukee building does not duplicate any of the museums, theaters, airports, train stations or bridges that he has designed throughout Europe. But it was conceived in the same spirit as a suspension bridge in Seville, Spain, that resembles a startling white harp; a steel-and-glass train station in Lisbon that mimics an ordered planting of towering trees; a railway depot in Lyons, France, that has the presence of a prehistoric skeleton; and a semi-spherical planetarium in Valencia, Spain, with an immense, arc-shaped steel superstructure that opens and closes like the lid above a giant eye.

Not all the things Calatrava has designed echo natural forms so directly. In particular, most of the Calatrava bridges adorning European cities today are more purely geometrical. Yet even the most abstract of his striking designs possesses the fluidity and grace of natural objects or forces.

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