In response to:

The Bird Man from the December 15, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

In his recent article on the art and architecture of Santiago Calatrava [“The Bird Man,” NYR, December 15, 2005], Martin Filler unfortunately perpetuated a misunderstanding about the cost of Mr. Calatrava’s 2001 addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and about the nature of his contribution to the museum and the city.

The museum used to be hidden from public view as it was on the lower floors of the War Memorial Center, designed on the Milwaukee lakefront in 1957 by Eero Saarinen, and in the 1975 Kahler Slater extension to that building. The brief given to the architect was to put the museum on the map. There was never any intention of creating new galleries for the permanent collection, which was to remain in the War Memorial building. Mr. Calatrava was asked principally to design public spaces, a reception area, a café, a store, an auditorium, and a parking structure, as well as to create 10,500 square feet of flexible, unencumbered space for temporary exhibitions. That’s what he achieved, in spectacular, brilliantly successful fashion. These spaces work for what they were designed to do. He also succeeded in linking the museum to the downtown by putting one of his beautiful pedestrian bridges over the wide road separating it.

As for the price of his achievement, one needs to make a basic distinction. On the one hand, there were indeed substantial cost overruns, which may be attributed in some measure, as Mr. Filler notes, to flaws in project management. On the other hand, there were substantial increases in the budget due to changes in the project’s scope. As the community became excited by what Mr. Calatrava had to suggest—an excitement that in fact accelerated fund-raising efforts—the scale of the work expanded, and the budget rose accordingly. One may question the community’s judgment in commissioning a larger, more expensive project; but one would then need to ask whether the community today is satisfied with what it bought.

The citizens of Milwaukee have taken this building to their hearts in a way that few other pieces of contemporary architecture have managed to achieve anywhere in the world. The city’s marketing agencies have made the brise-soleil the icon of the city. Where else in the world besides Sydney has a piece of architecture succeeded in doing that?

Did Milwaukee and its art museum get good value for their money? In answering this question, it is important first to note that Mr. Calatrava’s addition is a hand-built structure, made largely by pouring concrete into one-of-a-kind wooden forms. It is a building that could have been done only in a city with Milwaukee’s strong craft tradition. By its nature, such a building will be more expensive than an off-the-rack structure. Had the museum commissioned the building from contractors on a fixed-price basis, we are told the cost would have been $180 million. The total cost of the project was $121 million—of which only $100 million was for the Quadracci Pavilion. The rest was for the Dan Kiley gardens, the costs of refurbishing the permanent collection, capitalized interest, and $5 million for the endowment.

The other old chestnut that seems to go from press cutting to article is that attendance has not met projections. Attendance to the museum in the four years before the addition averaged 166,000 a year (excluding outreach, special functions, and the like). The only projection made public was that attendance would reach 350,000 in the first year, with the expectation of a subsequent decline. Attendance in the first year was 500,000, there was then the expected decline but attendance has not fallen below 313,000.

Mr. Filler is entitled to believe, as he evidently does, that this $121million was spent extravagantly, on a building that should have fulfilled some other function. He is also entitled to quote only a few snippets—uncomplimentary ones, at that—from one of the books that occasioned his article, Cheryl Kent’s Santiago Calatrava: Milwaukee Art Museum, Quadracci Pavilion. But for those who might be interested in a more representative quotation than any that Mr. Filler uses—a quotation that expresses the feelings of the great majority of the people who live with this building—I cite my own reaction—the sentiment that brought me from London to Milwaukee that is the first sentence to the foreword of Ms. Kent’s book: “It was love at first sight.”

David Gordon

CEO and Director

Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Martin Filler replies:

I am grateful for David Gordon’s succinct confirmation of my argument that the current mania for exhibitionistic museum design inverts the proper relation between architecture and works of art displayed within it, as epitomized by the recent addition to the institution Mr. Gordon directs. That he says so little about art in his defense of Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion would be more surprising were it not for the fact that many other museum administrators also see their new buildings more as promotional tools than as frameworks for presenting art to its greatest advantage. He appears untroubled by that shift of priorities, implicit in his reporting that “the brief given to the architect was to put the museum on the map,” just as he finds it significant that Milwaukee’s “marketing agencies have made the brise-soleil the icon of the city. Where else in the world besides Sydney has a piece of architecture succeeded in doing that?” Bilbao, of course—although Frank Gehry’s infinitely superior museum there, which served as the business model for the Milwaukee scheme, is perhaps better left unmentioned.

As for whatever the Quadracci Pavilion cost—in actual expenditures or the deleterious effects the project’s budget overruns reportedly have had on Milwaukee’s other cultural institutions—that city’s taxpayers will have to decide whether the trade-off was “good value for their money.” I have no objection to large sums being spent on good architecture, but a crucial factor in judging any building must be how well it fulfills its principal function. I may err in presuming that a museum should focus on making art more accessible, comprehensible, and enjoyable to the public, but it is remarkable when a museum director deems “some other function” more important than that, although his other role as CEO may prompt him to do so.

Mr. Gordon suggests that the Milwaukee Art Museum got a bargain because the Calatrava addition might have cost $80 million more, but it is naive to claim that “by its nature, such a building will be more expensive than an off-the-rack structure.” Although certain prefabricated structures—including mass-produced housing, industrial buildings, and storage shelters—could be termed “off the rack,” all mainstream museum buildings are custom-made, however complicated the construction of the Quadracci Pavilion may have been.

Far from doubting the popular appeal of the Milwaukee museum addition and other works by Calatrava, I explained why I think his buildings speak so directly to a mass audience in these unsettling times, though I remain baffled by his constituency in the art world.

This Issue

March 9, 2006