Seeking an icon other than beer

SUN JOURNAL

Building: Some believe the striking new wing being added to the Milwaukee Art Museum will capture the city's unique spirit.

January 07, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE - Milwaukee is building a promise to itself in concrete and steel and glass and lots of white paint.

From different angles, the new $100 million addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum resembles a ship with unfurled sails nosing into Lake Michigan, a plant unfolding its leaves, or the bleached skeleton of a giant bird.

The new wing designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is scheduled to be completed in July and might be a triumph of engineering as much of as aesthetics. Parts of the building arch into the sky or hang over Lake Michigan with no visible support, giving the massive structure a giddy, optimistic feel.

To stay aloft, the building will have to contend with powerful forces - gravity, and the hopes of a city trying to articulate its identity. Milwaukee is the city that strangers can't quite place. People confuse it with the other Midwestern city with the Indian-derived name beginning with "Mi." But Minneapolis is 335 miles to the northwest. Closer to home, Chicago gets all the attention.

So Milwaukeans hope the Calatrava wing will be more than just a pretty place to hang paintings. "Every great urban environment has some kind of visual symbol you connect it with," says Bill Hanberry, former executive director of the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Sydney has its Opera House, and New York has the Statue of Liberty. I submit to you that this will be our icon."

Any successful icon embodies both the way a city sees itself and its hopes for the future. And to understand how Milwaukee sees itself, it's important to know something about its relationship to Lake Michigan. Milwaukee's character probably was formed equally by the solid, 19th-century structures built by the German beer barons and the mutable lake.

The lake borders the entire eastern edge of Milwaukee County, from such southern, blue-collar enclaves as Cudahy to the northern monied suburbs of Fox Point and River Hills.

The Milwaukee Art Museum's existing galleries are in a building designed by architect Eero Saarinen that seems to float above the lake. The Calatrava wing will bring even more attention to a lakefront characterized by more parks and fewer buildings than many other urban waterways.

Take Chicago. Lake Michigan runs the length of the Windy City from north to south, but its lakefront has an aggressive, muscular feel, with a jumble of high-rise buildings separated from the water by a highway. There are biking and jogging paths and beaches, but it's a narrow strip with relatively little green space.

Milwaukee's lakefront is comparatively undeveloped, lined with beaches, bluffs and wooded areas. And because the metropolitan area is roughly twice as long as it is wide, a great many people live or work within eyesight of the water. But for even those who don't, Lake Michigan is part of the background of their daily lives.

They drop off pants to be hemmed at the tailor shop in Bayview, take a shortcut to the airport via Lake Drive, and their kids study the clarinet at the lakefront Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. On misty nights, the last sound that many people hear as they fall asleep is the lament of foghorns.

The view balances out the weather, which can be harsh. The city gets an average of 46 inches of snow annually, and every few years, wind chills reach 80 degrees below zero on at least one night.

But if the weather is something that Milwaukeans have to buffer themselves against, the lake is pure pleasure, and every casual sighting provides an instant jolt of well-being. So Milwaukeans have a hard-nosed, pragmatic streak derived from their awareness that life can be tough, but it's balanced by the optimistic belief that life freely provides a bounty and there's enough to go around.

A concrete outgrowth of this belief is Milwaukee's long, proud history of socialism. "Milwaukee was unique among cities its size in having socialists actually control the levers of government," said John Gurda, a Milwaukee author and historian.

"Partly, it's because it had a lot of settlers raised in the Germanic free-thinking liberal tradition, and partly it's because Milwaukee had a very large working class that developed an awareness of its own interests."

Milwaukee's last socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, presided over the city from 1948 to 1960. Now in his 80s, he remains a beloved figure in city life.

When Milwaukee socialists came to power in the 1920s, they curbed development along the skyline, wresting control of the lakefront from the city's elite and deeding it to the citizens. "They wanted to preserve Milwaukee's most important resource for public use," Gurda says.

But the socialists were too shrewd to make enemies of the capitalists who provided the money that built Milwaukee. And Calatrava doesn't neglect them either; his design makes a concerted effort to link the lakefront with centers of commerce.

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