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Designing Milwaukee

Courting the Cool Factor

May. 28, 2008
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Some of the most prestigious awards in architecture were handed out earlier this year. But while the initial flurry of excitement greeting the annual American Institute of Architects awards or the much coveted Pritzker Prize has subsided, one set of accolades still remains for Milwaukee’s design and development community: the Mayor’s Urban Design Awards. Fortunately, the wait isn’t long. The winners have been chosen and the award ceremony takes place May 29 at UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

The awards recognize everything from renovations of existing buildings to the construction of new ones, from streetscaping to facade makeovers, covering a breadth of design that includes architecture, landscaping, interior design, commercial development and more. Though initiated 11 years ago by the previous mayor, John Norquist, it’s a tradition Mayor Tom Barrett was happy to continue.

“It does two things,” Barrett says. “It really does give positive reinforcement to the designers and builders and businesses and homeowners who contribute to the city through innovative design. Secondly, it raises the bar for future development.”

Over the years the number of categories, nominations and winners has grown, and has been endowed with the current mayor’s taste for all things green. “What we did when I became mayor was to add a couple of new categories to reflect my interest in green design and the conversion of under-used buildings,” Barrett says.


Twenty-two projects will be given awards this year, representing 11 of Milwaukee’s 15 aldermanic districts and displaying an extraordinary range in scale and substance. Included are a small rain garden planted in the asphalt playground of a school, a couple of Walgreens stores, including the East Side’s Oakland Avenue location, large-scale assisted living facilities and community parks. According to Bob Greenstreet, city architect and dean of UWM’s architecture school, it’s a testament to the “incredible variety in the city.”

Whether or not you agree that Walgreens deserves such distinction, it’s clear that this year’s winners stretch the definition of “urban design.” The impact some of them make on their surroundings is more immediately perceptible than others. The Intermodal Station, for example, is far flashier than the modest Old South Side Settlement Museum or Maxie’s Southern Comfort restaurant in West Allis, yet who’s to say which of them has the greatest bearing on the surrounding community? Greenstreet says this broad application of the term “good design” is a positive thing. “There’s always a danger that we think design begins and ends with the [Milwaukee] Art Museum,” he says. “While that’s a great building, that’s just one building. The city is composed of a staggering level of fabric, and the reason I like to see things like Walgreens on [the awards list] is that people are beginning to expect more of those buildings.”

The awards ceremony takes place on Thursday, May 29, at UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning (2131 E. Hartford Ave.), beginning with a reception in the commons area at 4:30 p.m. While the complete list of winners is included below, I’ve highlighted a few projects that indicate the breadth and quality of this year’s winners.

Winners of the 2008 Mayor’s Urban Design Awards

The Milwaukee Intermodal Station, Alterra Coffee’s new Riverwest headquarters, Shea Community Garden, the North Point Lighthouse, Menomonee Valley Community Park, Lloyd Street Global Education School Rain Garden, 161 First (a mixed-use building on First Street), Brocach Irish Pub, Capitol Crossing LLC/Lad Lake School, the storefronts of 2212 and 2214 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., The Moderne Sales Center, the Old South Side Settlement Museum/Urban Anthropology Inc., Walgreens on Oakland Avenue and on 27th Street and National Avenue, the Dr. Wesley L. Scott Senior Living Community, the streetscaping on East Kilbourn Avenue, the renovated interior of 840-844 N. Plankinton Ave., Convent Hill (a public housing development for the elderly), General Mitchell International Airport Midwest Concourses, Let’s Party (a retail store), additions to Mortara Instrument headquarters and Maxie’s Southern Comfort.

Alterra Coffee 2999 N. Humboldt Blvd. Kubala Washatko Architects

When describing the common thread connects all of this year’s winners, Mayor Tom Barrett says, “Each contributes to the cool factor of the city’s image.” This is most evident in Alterra’s headquarters, roasting facility, cafe adjoining retail spaces in Riverwest. The architects took a former brownfield on the corner of Humboldt Boulevard Chambers Street and turned it into a and edgy oasis.

The building can be roughly divided into visually and spatially distinctive elements. A retail area on the south end of building that’s clad in a mixture of smooth site-cast and roughly textured poured-in-place concrete has a quasiindustrial appearance. Adjacent to it, a red-brick retail area that’s home to The Loop Yarn Shop bears a warmer, more inviting look connecting in scale and materiality with neighboring residential buildings.

Between the cafe and the retail wing generous patio set back from the street and partially shaded by a webbed canopy of rusted steel trusses. Beyond is a sumptuous deck clad in honeycolored Douglas firs that leads to the caf proper—awarded the “Keeping it Green” award for the reuse of salvaged steel beams and wood.

What’s striking here is that despite the varied palette of materials, the overall development avoids looking too busy. Enough common elements are reiterated throughout to give it an overall unity while maintaining a dynamic aspect. The scale the building and its materiality also blend in well with surrounding structures—mostly low-lying residences—with out emulating their homey appearance.

The Menomonee Valley Community Park 3500 W. Canal St.

This 35-acre park runs adjacent to Canal Street beside the Menomonee River and is just one example of improved access to the city’s natural amenities. It also represents a subtle approach to park design that’s becoming increasingly apparent elsewhere along the area’s rivers and in the beautifully designed but sadly never built Eerie Street Park. Thoughtful little touches like slender, recycled glass panels in the handrails that bear what look like petrified plants, wooden mushrooms poking through the earth in unexpected places and picnic benches made of salvaged wood are dispersed throughout the park.

The river’s edge is marked by a stepped terrace of recycled Cream City bricks, which further on gives way to a wooded bluff planted with native species of trees and flowers: spiderwort, wild bergamot and prairie clover. The squat, beetle-like form of Miller Park loses its frightful sting at this distance, and the sound of vehicular traffic from Canal Street gives way to the twittering of birds and the soft gush of water. What’s more, the park serves a utilitarian function as a storm-water retention basin—making it a valuable amenity for the surrounding businesses as well as their employees.

The offices of Boyle Frederickson 840-844 N. Plankinton Ave.

If, like me, your notion of a lawyers’ office is populated with oversized upholstered furniture and the reassuring smell of furniture polish, old books and leather, intellectual property firm Boyle Frederickson’s headquarters inside an existing 19th-century building will come as a surprise. Exposed structural columns and ceiling joists, slender steel cable stair rails, suspended track lighting and a largely open plan contribute to the kind of exuberant modernity we’ve come to expect of lofts and restaurants in the Third Ward.

And like many such buildings, elements of new and old coexist quite becomingly. However, what’s particularly noteworthy about this building’s internal makeover is its attitude toward structural elements, both existing and new. When Boyle Frederickson bought the building, the interior had been completely gutted, so they were free to do as they pleased. Instead of erecting a series of floor-to-wall partitions that would hide the structure, a hands-off approach is implemented, giving the interior a sense of openness. While traditional cellular spaces occupy the periphery of the building, the main core is occupied by low spaces whose walls fall shy of the ceiling and give a sense of being contained within the structure rather than being wedded to it.

Mortara Instrument 7865 N. 86th St. New additions by Plunkett Raysich

Although the Mortara Instrument headquarters was given the “New in Neighborhood” award for new additions the building, it’s the existing building erected in 1986 that’s most interesting.

Neighboring a dense block of woods, corporate headquarters of the international Milwaukee-based cardiology and clinical equipment company goes against grain of many of the surrounding corporate buildings. For one thing, it doesn’t share their proclivity for aggressively glassy exteriors displaying all the charm of an aircraft hangar. Instead, it’s a low-lying structure that seems to hug the contours of the and bears a pleasantly rounded, matronly kind of charm.

The unruffled smoothness of its lightly textured, gray concrete walls is disturbed only by a narrow band of reflective glass, giving it the spare quality of a Loosian exterior. The only decorative element is a band of red running parallel to the windows gives it an art deco feel and a definite semblance to a steamboat, were it not somewhat extraneous irregularly placed glass arches that bear the stamp of ’80s postmodernism. The interior is hinged around a generous deck and a sunken den planted by employees. Spaces within interact well with the surrounding areas— the reflective glass gives the building concealed quality that encourages rounding wildlife to venture close.

New additions to the building include renovation of common areas and the creation of a green roof, which is composed of areas of planting separated from roof insulation by layers of drainage, water storage and waterproofing and intended reduce storm-water runoff and improve insulation and air quality. It’s currently a rather Spartan affair, but one can imagine that if employees tackle it with the same gusto as the sunken garden, it could become a very attractive common area.



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