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Milwaukee’s Rising Talent

Local architects raise the bar

Jan. 20, 2009
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It's hard to predict the ramifications of the recent economic meltdown. For Milwaukee's architectural scene, what was widely considered the best of times may rapidly devolve into the worst. The rampant speculative development over the past few years has left a legacy of unoccupied condos looming on the horizon and commercial infill projects standing tenantless as one small business folds after another.

Yet the past decade has also seen a significant shift in the city's architecture scene. "I think the architecture client has changed since Calatrava," says Sebastian Schmaling, one of the principals of local four-person architecture firm Johnsen Schmaling Architects. "After that I think people were willing to take chances and find alternatives to the boilerplate commercial architecture predominant here before."

Johnsen Schmaling is one of a handful of emerging architectural firms challenging this boilerplate commercialism. Driven by a creative impulse that rarely flourishes in the corporate setting, Schmaling, and the firm's other principal, Chicago-born Brian Johnsen, decided early on they only wanted to play the game on their own terms. "We were young and wanted to explore materials and all the great things of architecture rather than being pigeonholed," Johnsen says.

In 2003 the duo established their own practice, and set about doing what they love best: conducting deep investigations of the site for each project and using model-making as an essential design tool. As a native of Berlin, Schmaling's international outlook flavors the output of the firm. None of the buildings they produce bear the stamp of regionalism. Nevertheless, each brings to bear the unique qualities of the project site through a contemporary language that's become an antidote to the more flamboyant forms of many of today's brand-name architects.

"We don't create an explosion on architecture," Johnsen says. "It's more about a subtle taking in of context that we try to weave together."

Schmaling grasps for a more evocative description. "We are poetic rationalists," he says. "We look for the poetic reading of context, but everything you see is very rational and disciplined."

Nurturing Young Talent

Another burgeoning local firm, La Dallman Architects, is headed by husband and wife Grace La and James Dallman. Though the firm was founded nine years ago, they are glad to consider themselves new. "As soon as an architecture firm begins to consider themselves established, I think they stop taking risks," La says.

Originally from the East Coast, La divides her time between her busy practice and her tenured position at UW-Milwaukee's School of Architecture and Urban Planning. The latter offers her unique access to the city's emerging architectural talent. The 10-person firm, the majority of which are under 30, draws talent from local graduates and those further afield. Among them is P.J. Murrill, a native of Charlotte, N.C.

Hired as construction manager for two of La Dallman's projects, Murrill found the firm, and the city as a whole, a welcome break from the corporate environment he entered upon graduation.

"It was interesting working on projects for clients who were truly interested in design that was built to last, and not for a developer who was just interested in making money," he says.

Like many new graduates, he came to the professional world with a sense of wide-eyed optimism. "I had the idea you could make a change and bring ideas to the table, but oftentimes because of the budget and a client disconnected with design and interested more in money, I soon became quite jaded," Murrill says.

Working for a selective and youthful firm like La Dallman has proven a fortuitous move. "You have a lot more responsibilities, but it's more rewarding," he says. "In larger firms you tend to work on the same kind of projects over and over because they will group certain people in certain studios… whereas in a smaller firm I could be working on a student union one day and a bridge the following year."

Brain Gain

La's role at UWM allows her to gauge the burgeoning talent that passes through Milwaukee. Unfortunately, not all of it can be absorbed-a situation that can only be exacerbated by the recent economic downturn. Nonetheless, the fact that she and other top architects are transplants to the Milwaukee area challenges the accepted notion of the city's brain drain.

"I love Milwaukee," Murrill says. "It's totally different from Charlotte, which is very car-dependent and all the old buildings are torn down."

Schmaling, however, notes some of Milwaukee's shortcomings. "In a city like New York or Chicago…there's a lot of energy that feeds itself-a lot of mutual exchange. That doesn't really happen here that much," Schmaling says. "There are three or four good firms that work parallel to one another without much intellectual interaction."

But, he adds, Milwaukee's smaller architectural community also has its benefits. "This place isn't crowded. You can raise your voice and you'll be heard," he notes.


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