No, the Domes Aren’t Great Architecture
Beloved perhaps. But let’s be honest about their kitschy design.
Mary Louise Schumacher writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that The Domes “represent a fascinating moment in architectural history” which embodied “an idealism about the future.” Writing in Urban Milwaukee Virginia Small cites a website that rates The Domes as one of the ten most significant buildings in Wisconsin. She says this puts Grieb in the company of Calatrava, Saarinen, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
I think it is fair to say the “genius” of The Domes has become a premise to the discussion of what to do with a building nearing the end of it’s natural life. “When it comes to the qualities of great architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright or Buckminster Fuller, former,” Schmacher writes, “Milwaukee architect Donald Grieb had a host of them.”
Mostly hubris, it turns out. “What’s admirable about Grieb is that he was operating way out on the edge of his capacities,” Jim Shields of HGA Architects and Engineers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
When Grieb was working within his capacities he did the Courthouse Annex that used to hang over the freeway. With the exception of the Amtrak Station that was recently replaced by the Intermodal Station, Grieb’s career was a disaster for the city. Schumacher seems to concede this, writing that his “courthouse annex, demolished to make way for the Marquette Interchange, was a horrible hulking mass, and the inhospitable civic center spaces contributed to what’s long been regarded one of the city’s great urban design disasters.”
Yet she argues his Domes were so inventive that “everything should be done to preserve” them.
First of all, The Domes are not domes. “Grieb tweaked Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic model for the Domes,” according to Small, “to accommodate taller plants and other features.” “Tweak” is putting it kindly. Greib’s changes destroyed the Platonic coherence which made Fuller’s geodesic dome a modern icon. Schumacher calls them “beehive-shaped domes.” Does that mean we can have pear-shaped or car-shaped domes too?
The Domes’ misbegotten shape has been turned into a virtue by the press. “It was all uniformly slightly off kilter, but that just made it really kind of interesting,” said Bill Kissinger, a trained architect and director of business development at Kahler Slater, to the Journal Sentinel. Schmacher adds, “those wee design wobbles are part of the charm of the Domes, adventurous structures that remain unique in the world.”
Small says, “They’re architecturally unique. The Domes are the world’s first—and only–cone-shaped conservatory. Among horticultural conservatories, Milwaukee’s Domes are unique.”
There a reason for that — “unique” sounds good on paper but the results are almost always bad. There are exceptions, but our Domes is not one of them. Grieb was like a folk artist who looked at some pictures in magazines and decided to do “Modern Art” without understanding the underlying values and principles of what he was trying to do.
He had no idea how to execute. If the domes needed to be higher, then why not make the base bigger instead of bastardizing the forms?
The Domes have none of the virtues of Modern domes, or Modern buildings for that matter. I have always wondered why the lattice work is so fussed up. It looks crocheted except two thirds of the way up someone dropped a stitch. There is no pattern or palpable structure.
The Domes are neither transparent or translucent. They lack the beauty of Modernist rationality. The waves on the entrance of the building look like they were squished when the domes were shoved together. There is no space in this place. The whole thing is heavy when it should be light.
The Domes may be very popular with Milwaukeeans (though we’ve seen no survey on the subject). But I am pretty sure no one has ever taken their architecture class to The Domes to show students how to make a good building. Grieb created a hackneyed oddity, more architectural kitsch than anything else. There may be reasons to save The Domes. For the record, architecture is not one of them.