The Milwaukee Art Museum is an iconic contemporary building overlooking lake Michigan in Wisconsin, USA. Founded in 1888, it was formed when Milwaukee Art Institute and Layton Art Gallery merged their collections which were then partially housed in a building designed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen as a war memorial. In the latter half of the 20th-century, the museum underwent a process of expansion. It then came to include the War Memorial Center in 1957 as well as the brutalist Kahler Building (1975) designed by David Kahler, and the Quadracci Pavilion (2001) created by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava: A spectacular kinetic structure - Sheet1
Milwaukee Art Museum ©Alan Karchmer

The Milwaukee Art Museum addition completed in 2001, also known as the Quadracci Pavilion, was  Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s first built project in the USA. Time Magazine named it the Number One design of 2001.

Design | Milwaukee Art Museum

Design Philosophy 

The Milwaukee Art Museum is one project that blurred the boundaries between engineering and architecture. It combined the latest technology with the strong craft tradition of Milwaukee. Calatrava’s proposal was a pavilion-type construction on the axis with Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of the city center. The structure was evolved paying heed to the original building by Eero Saarinen, the topography of the city, and with due consideration of the surrounding lake context and culture. 

Design Elements and Solutions 

There are multiple elements in the structure inspired by its location facing the lake: mobile steel blinds inspired by the wings of a bird, a wired pedestrian bridge with a raised mast inspired by the shape of a sailboat, and a curved gallery of a single floor resembling a wave. According to the architect, the design “responds to the culture of the lake: the sailboats, the weather, the sensation of movement and change”. He said, “the shape of the building is both formal, completing the composition; functional, controlling the level of light; symbolic, opening to receive visitors, and iconic, creating a memorable image for the Museum and the city. ”

Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava: A spectacular kinetic structure - Sheet2
The pedestrian bridge and mobile blinds ©Jan Bitter

The striking set of “wings” – the Burke Brise Soleil (from the French for “sun breaker”) – that adorns the Milwaukee Art Museum is a feature one cannot miss. The wings form a movable sunscreen that can be adjusted throughout the day to shade the interiors of the museum while giving the building a sense of mobility. It takes three and a half minutes for these censor-clad fins to open or close. 


The 13,192 m² four-storied structure adds a variety of spaces to the museum, primarily public spaces. At the coast level, the expansion comprises a reception hall, an auditorium with 300 seats, meeting spaces, a store, an educational center with a conference room, and a 1500 m² gallery space for temporary exhibitions. The functional areas of the main building include the parking garage, the gallery space, the pavilion (ring beam and A-frames), and the south terrace. The restaurant is placed at the focal point of the pavilion providing a panoramic view of the lake.

The Windhover hall is a large reception hall serving as the grand entrance of the pavilion. It is the architect’s interpretation of a Gothic cathedral composed of flying buttresses, propped arches, ribbed vaults, and a central nave topped by a 27.43 meters high glass roof. The presbytery of the hall is reminiscent of a ship’s bow, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing Lake Michigan.

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Windhover Hall ©Jan Bitter
Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava: A spectacular kinetic structure - Sheet4
floor-to-ceiling windows facing the lake ©Alan Karchmer

Materials/ Construction | Milwaukee Art Museum

Construction Materials 

A massive white form of steel and concrete taking after the form of a ship, the Milwaukee Art Museum sets itself apart in both geometry and materials. The prominent use of reinforced concrete was an offshoot of the material’s fluidity and moldability. Metal and glass were the other primary materials put to use while constructing the pavilion. The application of metal is noticeable in elements like the mobile sunscreen while the glass is used in places like the glass roof above the central hall and the windows. 

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Milwaukee Art Museum ©Santiago Calatrava Archive

The Structure 

One of the first challenges while developing this project was designing the footing. The construction site was an abandoned landfill along the lakeshore. But below the filling level and the lake, there was a presence of competent bearing strata that could support construction.

A base slab of concrete was designed to extend the load and allow the installation of a more robust waterproofing system. The raft type slab is extended without any pillars or pilings where moisture could penetrate.

The carefully placed concrete arch elements transfer the loads to the foundation wall and the central beam. The size and position of openings in concrete beams were carefully determined. 

structural members <span style=©Reddit Inc." width="673" height="900">
structural members ©Reddit Inc.

Cable-stayed Bridge  

A cable-stayed pedestrian bridge 85.34m long, 4.87m wide with a 58.52m pylon that supports 10 main sections through 9 cables with closed bovine and 18 backup cables. With a span of 73 meters, the bridge links downtown Milwaukee to the museum perched at the lakeshore. The pylon of the bridge and the backbone of the pavilion are tilted 48 degrees to the pavilion and are on the same axis.

the pedestrian bridge <span style=©Reddit Inc." width="675" height="900">
the pedestrian bridge ©Reddit Inc.

Burke Brise Soleil 

The Burke Sunbreaker rests on the domed upper part of the Windhover hall. With a wingspan of 66.14 meters,  it consists of 72 steel fins, which vary in length from 7.92 to 32 meters and weigh 90 tons. The pivot line for the slats is based on the axis of a linear mast which is inclined at 48 degrees.

opened and closed museum wings <span style=©KevinRevolinski" width="1440" height="900">
opened and closed museum wings ©KevinRevolinski

Sustainability | Milwaukee Art Museum

The mobile sunscreen of the Milwaukee Art Museum is one of its sustainable features. The sensors that cover the fins are constantly monitoring wind speed and direction. The wings are adjusted according to the wind as well as the light and shading requirements making it responsive to the weather.

A 3,840 square foot green roof is a source of aesthetic and environmental benefits including the extension of roof life, energy conservation, and stormwater management.

Green roof <span style=©" width="1561" height="900">
Green roof ©

The hand-built structure was made by pouring concrete into wooden forms, some of which displayed a craft of quality typical to furniture, coupled with steel and glass. The Milwaukee Art Museum is an amalgamation of cutting edge technology and old craftsmanship, conserving the city’s strong tradition of art.


An architecture student, who loves to be able to translate the most mundane things into something magnificent, using her words. Trying to find her place where the tangible forms and intangible emotions meet.