Welcome to Milwaukee’s Eighth Wonder — Pier Wisconsin!

By - Sep 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Raymond Johnson

Could there really be a better idea than to build a Great Lakes freshwater education center on the Milwaukee Lakefront, as proposed by Pier Wisconsin? Especially after a few years of our local water utility MMSD fouling up Lake Michigan by dumping (oops, “blending” ) raw sewage into our rivers? Those people should be given free lifetime passes once it is built — and be required to go every week. Thankfully, the project is back on track.

The story So far.

Local philanthropist Michael Cudahy agrees to give millions of dollars to Pier Wisconsin to build a freshwater education center. There is one condition — Mr. Cudahy chooses the architect. The firm — McClintock Architects — designs a badly over-scaled building that some (though not I) complain too much resembles the recently built Quadracci pavilion for the Milwaukee Art Museum, known as “the Calatrava.” The design is so bad (according to its detractors) that everyone freaks out, including said Quadraccis and Mr. Calatrava himself. Ideas are floated to keep the design but move the center. The Harbor Commission decides to reject a lease agreement for the center — reasonably citing the views that the six-story building would obstruct. Michael Cudahy freaks out — saying he will never give another penny to the city for anything.

Fast forward a little. Mr. Cudahy reconsiders, and the Harbor Commission, turning 180 degrees, gives Pier Wisconsin a lease, with the stipulation that the building be redesigned. Apparently this design will be reviewed by several municipal agencies. The new design itself will be handled by said McClintock Architects, who will work closely with city planning director Peter Park, with some moderating by Larry Witzling, a professor of architecture at UWM.

All this is good stuff, and the building produced by this team will probably be acceptable, maybe even decent. The problem is, decent is not good enough for our lakefront. Buildings on the lakefront need to be excellent. And moderation rarely produces excellence.

Let’s open it up.

What we need here is an open design competition. Open, meaning anyone can enter. Design as has been happening around our city over the last decade, though rarely in whole buildings. Competition is that principle upon which market economies are based, whereby excellence in everything from plumbing to philosophy is produced.

The ingredients for an incredible open design competition are already in place. You have a benefactor (Mr. Cudahy) who appreciates excellence and could bankroll an open design competition for probably 1f the project cost. You have a city representative (Mr. Park) who knows a thing or two about design. And you have a moderator (Mr. Witzling) who is a nationally recognized leader in putting together open design competitions.

You’ll notice I keep referring to an “open design competition,” instead of shortening it to “competition.” This is because all three of these words are equally important. The process must remain open, and be anonymous. A local woman who has been doing fabulous restaurant/bar renovations around town must have just as much of a shot as one of the large local architecture factories (ahem, … firms), who should have just as much of a shot as Mr. Calatrava himself (actually — can we ban him from entering?).

This is how competitions work all over Europe, and the results are wonderful. Open design competitions allow all sorts of young new designers a critical forum to explore their ideas and occasionally start or maintain their own practices. The result is less reliance on the large architecture conglomerates (sorry! … firms) when it comes to producing both the major new architecture and the everyday designs of a city. Which results in better, more adventurous work, less constrained by the conservative tendencies of large architectural bureaucracies (Dang! I keep doing that! … firms).

Focus on design.

The process should also focus on design, which means most of the decisions should be left up to the entrants. There is no need for the competition to stipulate what it doesn’t need to — you want designers to explore ideas that may have been overlooked. Little need be prescribed other than a basic, general program.

Take the site for instance: is Municipal Pier really the best place for this project? Valid arguments could be made for half a dozen other sites. How about on the river in the Third Ward, bringing a schooner back into downtown? Or my personal favorite, at the current Port of Milwaukee — so 19th century shipping can rub elbows with its 21st century counterpart, all the while shaming the folks at the nearby MMSD Jones Island water treatment plant. The point is to give designers wide latitude to comment on the project through their entries.

The competition is the thing.

And finally, there must be competition. A solid range of design professionals from the local area and around the country, along with a few local officials, someone from Pier Wisconsin and Mr. Cudahy himself should sit on the jury. They should have plenty of time to review the submissions, selecting several finalists that would then be given a stipend to further develop their proposals. After this, the public should be allowed to weigh in through an exhibition, and after a period of local dialogue, the winner would be decided by the original jury. Now Mr. McClintock could certainly enter this competition, but realistically, he already had his shot. If Mr. Cudahy wants to keep him involved, perhaps he could become the technical architect for the project, working with the winner. This is the role that locals Kahler-Slater performed for the MAM addition, bringing Caltrava’s vision to reality. This may be all the more necessary if some local young gun wins the competition, but lacks the manpower or technical skill to build a project of this size.

The project has recently been moving in the right direction. The Harbor Commission was able to look a $30 million gift horse in the mouth and say “no, not with this design.” Mr. Cudahy, after an initial period of understandable frustration, was able to agree to a redesign. Milwaukeeans should be extremely thankful for both of these developments. Who knows, the current process could lead to a wonderful building. Good design rarely comes through moderation. Let’s have — say it out loud — an open design competition.

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