Wings Over Milwaukee | Midwest Living

Wings Over Milwaukee

When’s the last time you got emotional over a building? Not what happened there, like when you pass the church that hosted your wedding or the stadium that witnessed the championship game. But the stone, steel, glass and overall structure itself. For those of us who don’t quite geek out over architecture, buildings may inspire occasional awe. But warm fuzzies? Not so much.

Which is why I was taken so off-guard by my latest visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum. The museum’s signature structure is the Quadracci Pavilion, which quickly became the iconic building in a city already known for such things. The pavilion, built in 2001 from designs by architect Santiago Calatrava, is a sweeping white shape reminiscent all at once of a tall-masted schooner, a spaceship and a sea gull. 

Those elements alone draw visitors who wouldn’t otherwise drop in on an art museum. But the pavilion’s showstopper is a 217-foot-wide set of steel wings that sweep upward each morning, creating the sense that the museum is about to launch over Lake Michigan like a hang glider. Every evening, the wings close, transforming the pavilion into an enormous lakeshore triangle.

On a recent Milwaukee boat tour, I wound up in the city harbor at 4:55 in the afternoon. Our guide announced that the wings would close at 5:00, so the captain idled the engines, and a boat full of travelers gathered on the starboard rail.

5:00 came without a budge of the wings. Then 5:02 and so on. At 5:05, the tour guide clicked on the microphone and said, “Folks, maybe there’s a special event, and the wings are staying open.” But before his voice faded across the lake, the wings’ edges wobbled, then moved downward. We snapped photos and strained to pick up the movement—nearly as subtle as flower petals closing. As the wings dropped, you noticed that the outer edges curve inward so that the tips wrap around the building. Three-and-a-half minutes later, it looked unquestionably as if an enormous bird had ducked inside its own feathers and settled for the night.

The sun was still shining, but with the museum tucked in, I felt an overwhelming urge to go nest myself. Find a place to eat. Enjoy the company around the hearth, if I could find one. No building had ever aroused so primal a homing instinct in me. I don’t know a lot about architecture, but I know that however much Calatrava earned for his design, Milwaukee got a great deal.

For more on the pavilion, visit the Milwaukee Art Museum.