Bucks Arena Design Is Anti-Urban
Its generic, well-mannered and probably won’t improve with “tweaks.”
The form has a “powerful, simple geometry,” said Bob Greenstreet, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Greenstreet is the official validator of architecture in Milwaukee. “You are going to see these glass slots that go up six stories, that curve over your head,” said Greg Uhen of Eppstein Uhen Architects. They are the local firm working on the project.
Public opinion has been mostly upbeat. People like the wave but the new arena could be a little nicer to pedestrians on the street. “Public space appears to be an afterthought and reveals a real weakness in this team’s approach,” Mary Louise Schumacher said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She suggested some landscaping and public art could improve things.
The building is more of a logo than anything else. The new arena is decorated like a wedding cake. It’s just packaging, big ungainly rectangles with swirl of “Milwaukee” on top. And sugarcoated in zinc to go down easy.
That would be the “hand-crafted zinc patina exterior,” according to the Bucks press release, part of a design “inspired by Milwaukee’s proud architectural heritage and bold outlook, coupled with the region’s natural environment of rivers, lakes and forests,” the release goes on.
Which means what? Put a big wave on a building near a Great Lake. And that’s it. Brad Clark of Populous, the architect of the arena told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We think there’s beauty to the region and water is a big part of that. We know that’s important to your community.” He should know, Clark lives in Kansas City.
These kinds of buildings are everywhere today, the mall-version of an arena. Not the Bayshore Town Center, but its equivalent. They are very efficient and of the moment. You buy them off the shelf and give them a local flavor. The arena is a highly functioning bunch of boxes with an clumsy motif draped over it that doesn’t quite stretch across the whole shebang.
It’s the product of a culture that lost its innate ability to produce stature in ordinary buildings. All you have to do is compare an old post office with new one to see how things have changed. Governments used to take pride in architecture, like the Federal Building on East Wisconsin avenue.
Today buildings get their mojo when local philanthropists want to impress their friends. And hire architects who don’t need to consult with alderman about the principles of architecture. It’s personal. The Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava — with donations from many of the city’s wealthy people — is an example of this. The same could be said for Michael Cudahy’s Discovery World next door. But the three owners of the Bucks, Marc Lasry, Wesley Edens and Jamie Dinan, live in New York.
So we are left to worry about manners. Make the arena more congenial to all of us little people on the street. Tweaks they are called. Everyone has one — the City Planning Commission, zoning committee, the Common Council, and critics.
It’s painful to watch the city nitpick a generic design and make it worse. A few benches thrown around, a mural, and some trees will not do the trick. Adding texture to a blank wall to make it “friendly to the street” is just a hollow gesture. The solution of public art is almost insulting, especially considering its dismal record in Milwaukee. Really, how is a cut-rate, $30,000 sculpture supposed to blunt the force of a $500,000,000 building?
“It’s exactly what I was afraid of,” said Sebastian Schmaling of Johnsen Schmaling Architects told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel comparing early and final renderings. “The more detail they put into it, the worse it gets.”
None of these tweaks matter. Manners are overrated in architecture. A city full of well-behaved buildings is no fun. Polite buildings are just insincere. When all you do is make stuff less rude you end up with Mequon.
The same firm that designed the Bradley Center is doing the new arena and architect Chris Carver admitted they failed the last time to make the Bradley Center a catalyst for downtown development. Why would they succeed this time? The company’s client isn’t the city but the team, whose main concern is building profit generators it controls. Like malls, the arena is fungible.
Inevitably, buildings like this are designed from the inside out. And that’s what Populous does. It is the one of the best firms in the world for innards of arenas. They were hired to put a highly functioning arena inside the Millennium Dome in London. But you wouldn’t find their buildings in dense urban areas like New York or San Francisco.
The arena is designed to look good at 60 MPH. It’s essentially a suburban building near a freeway. For people in cars rather than people on the street. The building is built for today, for the empty west part of Downtown that’s a problem, not the dense urban fabric you’re seeing created in areas like Brady Street, the Third Ward and Bay View, the Milwaukee of tomorrow.
But we didn’t have to give the Bucks 4th Street. Taking a right away from the public with all the constitutional rights that go along with it. The Department of City Development officials and the Bucks tell us it’s needed to better connect the area with their entertainment center and the restaurants and taverns on Third Street.
That’s what streets do in a city. People move to the suburbs so their kids don’t play, ride a bike or walk in street. The better the suburb, the less you see from the street. But in cities streets are an asset, functioning like the internet or the circulatory system in our bodies.
The one thing urban planners have figured out over the last 30 years is the grid is our friend. Violating it cuts off the oxygen supply in a city. It’s one of the reasons downtown malls (like the Grand Avenue) have withered and failed.
The Bucks could always close the street on game days or other festive occasions. In cities, it’s fun to play in the streets.