Let’s skip the drama and build the MAM addition

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Jim Shields’ current design. Photo: Public

The Milwaukee Art Museum brass and architect Jim Shields have resolved their differences, and Shields is back as lead architect on the museum’s renovation/addition plans. On May 6, the museum released Shields’ revised plan, which would extend the 1975 Kahler annex eastward toward Lake Michigan.

A murky dispute between Shields, Milwaukee’s star architect — designer of both the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend and Discovery World on the Milwaukee lakefront — and MAM curatorial staff cropped up a few of weeks ago. Shields withdrew — temporarily, as it turns out — as lead architect for the museum expansion. That occurred as museum director Dan Keegan unveiled, on April 8, renderings of a cantilevered building that would add 17,000 square feet of exhibition space. Mary Louise Schumacher, of the Journal Sentinel, blasted that version of the building in a column on May 2. Her tirade followed Tom Bamberger’s “It is a monumental blunder and cannot, must not be built” battle cry in Urban Milwaukee on April 10.

Keegan’s evasiveness at the April 8 press event made things worse. In an obvious attempt to smooth over hard feelings with Shields, he refused to answer questions about the architect’s withdrawal from the project on the grounds that it was a personnel matter — a preposterous argument for an outside contractor involving an important public space. I understand that he was trying to spare everyone’s feelings while moving the project along. But evasion never helps.

Both Schumacher and Bamberger zealously took on the role of aesthetic defenders of a holy lakefront site. They decried the plans as generic. Bamberger, always a champion of the prerogatives of genius over all other considerations, also became incensed at his perception of museum officials dissing Shields. In the same Urban Milwaukee commentary, Bamberger approved of an earlier Shields proposal for an 8,000-square-foot addition. That idea was to feature a “diaphanous cloud with gradated transparent glass.”

That might well have been entrancing in reality. But in the preliminary drawings, it looked like a generic white cube and displayed no more charm than the draft that Keegan unveiled on April 8.
I wonder if Bamberger will change his tune now that Shields is back on board with a more detailed and nuanced version of the same building the writer torched in Urban Milwaukee?

Keegan should have been clearer and more frank, but both Schumacher and Bamberger ignored his caveat that the drawings were preliminary. Yes, the sketchy rendering left a lot to the imagination, but that’s the nature of a place-holder design. Schumacher and Bamberger should know that. I knew that. I doubted that the broad expanse of blank wall at the base would remain in the final design, and it hasn’t.

Shields has set back the galleries from the exterior glass wall. This allows for a lighter and more welcoming face toward the bike path and room for a cafe and a court filled with sculpture rather than light-sensitive paintings or photos. I like that idea. I also like Shields’ new cutouts in the pointed cantilever over the path.

But even the new renderings don’t fill in all the blanks. I can imagine some very welcoming landscaping in that green wedge, where passers-by can rest in the building’s afternoon shade or sit and watch the sun rise over the lake. And I can imagine new bridges and pathways that take pedestrians over Lincoln Memorial Drive to a lofty but welcoming plaza atop the new annex and down stairway to that lakeside haven.

All of this will vastly improve the atmosphere along the bike/pedestrian path between the seawall and the east side of the museum complex. I have biked through that stretch many times and felt MAM’s cold shoulder. The ability to see into the museum from that viewpoint, stop and drop into a cafe with its own entrance will change that experience.

The new addition will provide some dramatic framing, too, especially for those biking north to south. You’ll glide toward that point where the cantilevered corner covers the path and kisses the edge of Lake Michigan. You’ll glimpse blue sky through the glass cutouts on the approach. And when you emerge from the overhang on the south side, boom — the gleaming prow of the Calatrava addition.

Both Schumacher and Bamberger have insisted on a brilliant if not spectacular building on this site or no building at all. Sorry, but that’s just silly. This site is a key one if you’re in a boat, in the Harbor House restaurant on in Veterans’ Park. Otherwise, not so much. Most people view the museum from the bluff to the west or in passing along Lincoln Memorial Drive, from which the new addition will be invisible.

Cool down the rhetoric, please; it’s an important site, but not a sacred shrine.

Schumacher argued passionately for at the very least delaying any new construction to await a coherent plan that would aesthetically unite the entire complex. Good luck with that. The Saarinen War Memorial masterpiece to the west and the Calatrava masterpiece to the south inhabit different aesthetic worlds. And the Kahler box is there, too. You can’t really harmonize Calatrava and Saarinen with a third building. You do what you can — duck down a little, create a buffer and let them shine separately.

Finally, any homeowner who’s lived through a major remodel knows that the time to add that wing is when the electrical, mechanical, drainage, roofing and climate control are in play. Crumbling infrastructure within and around the War Memorial and Kahler addition prompted all this in the first place. Fixing that now and adding space later would be absurdly more expensive and doubly disruptive to museum operations.

The museum and the site need a clean, light, understated, human-friendly building that nestles elegantly but unobtrusively between Saarinen and Calatrava. It must enhance the experience of both museumgoers and passers-by and show the Milwaukee Art Museum’s growing collection to best advantage.
Shields, his team and museum staff, board and donors have met those needs in the design made public on May 6. It will certainly be subject to new rounds of criticism and refinement, but this is the right idea.

Build it.

For more of veteran cultural writer Tom Strini’s insights, vist his blog at striniwrites.blogspot.com