Northwestern Mutual Plaza Is a Triumph
Gardens and landscaping for NM Tower and Commons create a strikingly urban campus.
It’s rare to find a rectilinear landscape in Milwaukee. There’s Dan Kiley’s grid of Horse Chestnut trees just south of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (1969). And Kiley’s master plan for the Milwaukee Art Museum (1998): a straight-lined 600 foot fountain set into a grid flanked by two groves of trees. Now we have the new Northwestern Mutual plaza, which can’t be fully appreciated without considering the influence of both Kiley and Frederick Law Olmsted.
Dan Kiley (1912-2004) started out in his profession in 1930 as an unpaid apprentice for Warren H. Manning, an associate of Olmsted. He went on to work closely Eero Saarinen, the designer of our War Memorial, and rose to become probably the most influential landscape architect of the 20th Century, and really the only Modernist working with straight lines and 90-degree angles during America’s postwar building boom. (A retrospective of Kiley’s work is currently on view thru January 12, 2018 at the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning.)
In the late 19th Century, Olmsted designed a system of parks and boulevards in Milwaukee. His landscapes were conceived as relief from the suffocating pollution and depravations of mid-19th century American cities.
Olmsted’s fabricated nature was an antidote to the afflictions of urban life. Wavy lines and pods of grass stood apart from the grid. His legacy is enshrined in Lake Park’s undulating pathways and soft rounded open spaces.
To Olmsted, nature was good and cities were bad.
An adulterated version of Olmsted’s acadian landscape dominated America in the 20th Century and became the backdrop for office parks and suburbs built after WW II.
A typical green space in America, like the former corner park in front of the Northwestern Mutual building on Wisconsin Avenue, used walls of trees to buffer the green space from the buildings and the street. In Milwaukee’s building and zoning codes, there are 58 mentions of “buffer” defined “as a wall or landscaping that provides a visual barrier between uses.”
The suburbanization of the city began to wane as people started moving back to urban Milwaukee with a different set of values and concerns. Connectivity became a virtue. No more walls of trees. Urban spaces became more open and started snapping back into the grid.
The commissions of Olmsted and Kiley, who were each pre-eminent landscape designers in their time, were examples of rare ambition for Milwaukee. Now we can add James Burnett of OJB, a highly regarded landscape architect who designed the green space that sweeps around the new Northwestern Mutual building. (While there may still be some tweaks to it, the work is largely finished.)
Like Kiley, Burnett’s landscape has a lot of straight lines.
The Gardens, as it the company refers to its new plaza, grows out of the urban fabric of Milwaukee, celebrating the geometry of the city instead of diffusing it.
The geometry doesn’t stop here.
The rectangles from the landscape run up into those in the building and echo each other.
The rectilinear grammar of the building extends to the most beautiful bus shelter I have ever seen in Milwaukee. The structure’s transparency and form is lighter than air and luminous in its own right.
(Note to readers — architects do better bus stops than artists at one tenth the cost.)
Staggered layers — the foreground, middle ground, and deep background — are optically compressed into an illusionary cross-section; an ambiguous space that collapses the distance between the street and the building, flips the horizontal plane on its head, and sets the building on a pedestal.
The lateral planes of The Gardens drop out of the picture until you walk up into a grand plaza, which is a solid piece of stone work. As the trees mature, the plaza will become an open negative space and the fulcrum for The Gardens.
The plaza felt a bit leaden and lonely during my recent visits—too formal and desolate for my taste. It was probably designed to accommodate public events; a great place for something like a wedding.
In an earlier rendering, the plaza was an amorphous grass lawn, which would have softened things up and probably made The Gardens a little mushy and unfocused.
The zig-zagging path on the left side of the rendering has also been redesigned for the better. The new path meanders somewhat, finding its way like a creek to the main stream of Wisconsin Avenue.
This, the coziest part of The Gardens, tempers the spectacle of the site and the building. The intimate scale and gentle curves take the edge off the connection to the street and add a ripple to the layering of the place.
This nook would make Olmsted happy.
Finally, the Gardens had to follow the architecture around the arc of the building.
The Gardens is all about structure—the classicism of Bach and Kiley rather than the romanticism of (late) Beethoven and Olmsted. From this slight elevation the landscape expands in all directions and is embroidered into the fabric of the city.
Burnett’s rigorous configuration of plants will require a lot maintenance. That’s as it should be. The Gardens is not about nature. It’s about our nature to create order — the beauty of which is reassuring yet wakes us up to the world we’ve created.
Photos by Tom Bamberger