Milwaukee Art Museum's 2001 addition broadened architect Santiago Calatrava's career. He's back in the city with a transforming lakefront.

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Milwaukee Art Museum architect Santiago Calatrava returned Wednesday to the city that helped broaden his career internationally — and saw a lakefront that has been transforming since the museum addition opened over 20 years ago.

His return was marked by a mayoral proclamation of Friday, Sept. 16, as a day to honor Calatrava. It will include a day of free admission to the museum.

It also saw Calatrava reflecting on the changes to the area near the museum over the past several years.

"It's beautiful, very well done," Calatrava said. "The museum is an anchor."

Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, addresses the audience during the 20-year anniversary celebration of the pavilion on Wednesday in downtown Milwaukee.
Santiago Calatrava, who designed the Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum, addresses the audience during the 20-year anniversary celebration of the pavilion on Wednesday in downtown Milwaukee.

Calatrava designed the museum's Quadracci Pavilion — the nautical-inspired addition that created a new Milwaukee landmark.

"It has helped redefine Milwaukee," said Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

Said County Executive David Crowley: "It has inspired us."

The pavilion, with its cathedral-like Windhover Hall, prow-like feature jutting toward Lake Michigan, and movable wings that serve as a sunscreen, known as the Burke Brise Soleil, has attracted global attention to both the museum and the city.

"It has elevated the stature of Milwaukee and our community writ large," said Marcelle Polednik, Donna and Donald Baumgartner director of the museum.

New developments near art museum

And, since the addition opened in fall 2001, several new developments have emerged near the museum.

Just to its south, Discovery World Science and Technology Museum opened in 2006 at 500 N. Harbor Drive  — with a design that pays homage to the Quadracci Pavilion.

To the museum's southwest, an underused Milwaukee County Transit System facility was demolished to make room for The Couture, a 44-story apartment tower at 909 E. Michigan St. It was proposed in 2012, with construction finally beginning last year.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson, left, smiles as he’s presented with a signed copy of Santiago Calatrava’s book by Calatrava himself, who made a return to the Milwaukee Art Museum on Wednesday. The museum welcomed Santiago back to Milwaukee for the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Quadracci Pavilion, the Spanish architect’s first project in the United States.

Just west of The Couture is the 18-story 833 East office building, 833 E. Michigan St., which opened in 2016 and is anchored by the Godfrey & Kahn law firm.

Also, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.'s 32-floor Tower and Commons opened in 2017 near East Wisconsin and North Prospect avenues. And Maier Festival Park has undergone a series of renovations in recent years, including the upgraded American Family Insurance Amphitheater that opened in 2021.

More: Milwaukee Public Museum offers a first look at the design of the new downtown museum. It is inspired by a well-known Wisconsin state park.

More: These Milwaukee high school students use their art exhibition at Charles Allis Art Museum to send a message

Meanwhile, more new development could be coming near the lakefront.

The improvements to the Hoan Bridge and portions of I-794 from 2013 to 2016 included reconfiguring ramps near North Lincoln Memorial Drive.

The removed ramps opened up 2.66 acres south of East Clybourn Street for new development. That state-owned site is being marketed by Colliers/Wisconsin commercial real estate brokerage.

I-794 remake gains steam

Also, there is an emerging campaign to demolish portions of I-794 running west of the Hoan and replacing them with a surface boulevard. That would open additional land between downtown and the Historic Third Ward for new construction.

For Calatrava, whose visit Wednesday marked the end of the museum's yearlong celebration of the addition's 20-year anniversary, those changes show the power of art and design.

The Quadracci Pavilion has "opened more, in my opinion, Wisconsin Avenue and Michigan (Street), the city to the lake," Calatrava said.

"I mean, after 20 years, it's nice to see that more things are happening," he said.

Calatrava's design set the tone for lakefront projects, said Couture developer Richard Barrett.

"Developers and architects working along the lakefront have to ensure that their designs are harmonious with Calatrava’s work and pay tribute to that level of design — elevating Milwaukee to a new, higher, standard," said Barrett, co-owner and president of Barrett Lo Visionary Development LLC

"It was certainly a consideration when we were envisioning the Couture," said Barrett, whose firm hired the Rinka architectural firm for that project.

A career booster

The art museum project also helped boost Calatrava's name throughout the world.

"When Calatrava was selected to design a new addition for the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1994, he was still largely unknown in this part of the world," wrote then-Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art and architectural critic Mary Louise Schumacher in a 2011 column.

"The Milwaukee Art Museum would be his big break, his opportunity to soar. Completed a decade ago, it was more than his American debut, it was his entry into a celebrity class of architects," Schumacher wrote.

The Quadracci Pavilion "quickly captured worldwide attention and a torrent of accolades. It was Time magazine's "Design of the Year" and a "wonder of the world" according to Condé Nast Traveler," she wrote.

Calatrava, a 71-year-old Spanish native, praised the United States as a welcoming nation to others — including he and his wife, Robertina, who lived here for several years.

During his remarks to an audience at the museum's Lubar Auditorium, he praised the museum's board members for their vision and work on the Quadracci Pavilion, as well as Milwaukee architect David Kahler, of Kahler Slater, whom he called the project's co-architect.

He also was moved by the mayoral proclamation.

"I'm speechless," Calatrava said. "This is something really unexpected."

Tom Daykin can be emailed at and followed on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee Art Museum architect Calatrava sees transforming lakefront