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Seagull Going to Church

(I am wondering if this will even post. For the last couple of days I have not been able to post comments on anyone’s stories. It just goes to a blank screen or  a server error message)

Santiago Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum is one of the strangest buildings I have ever seen or heard of.


I have no supernatural beliefs at all. Nada. Zero. Anyone who wants to make a bet that I won’t spend a night alone in “The Most Haunted House in Wherever*” had best bring cash.

But, one time that I can remember, I have known inexplicable magic.

Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum is one of the strangest buildings I have ever seen or heard of. It sits right on the Lake Michigan shore, and it looks like a giant seagull. It actually has hydraulically powered  “wings” (ostensibly they are a sun screen) that can flap. I think they actuate them twice a day or so.

It’s cool. It’s unique. It’s weird. It’s quintessentially Calatrava! When I first saw it I was amused, impressed. I liked it, but also thought it was more a novelty than art.

And then I went inside.

The narrow columnar walls soar upward. The latticework formed by the windows and the “brise de soleil” gull wings catches and reticulates the light around the central “Great Hall” The window tint softens that light as it reflects from the lake and shines from the sky, filling the interior with a soft, ethereal glow.

It all seemed to hit me at once. I could only stand there in childlike wonder, overwhelmed by a work of surpassing genius. I felt a bit like crying. My hairs stood up and I shivered… a classic “frisson.”

I don’t believe in a God. I don’t know what seagulls believe. But if they have religion, if there is a seagull god or goddess, then the gulls that soar and play around the Milwaukee Art Museum must surely believe that they are in The Presence.

*Every other town seems to have one




Profile photo of Dave Ventre Dave Ventre
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.

Tags: architecture, Calatrava, atheism, God
Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Dave Ventre says:

    I can’t seem to post a comment on anyone else’s stories. I wonder if I can on my own?

    No difference using my phone; I can only comment on my own story!

  2. Thanx Dave for your story about Santiago Calatrava’s museum, it sounds like a good reason to visit Milwaukee!

    And what you experienced sounds like the Stendhal syndrome that Marian has written about and as I experienced when The Gates were in Central Park!

  3. Suzy says:

    It sounds like the building is amazing! What about the art? Or is everyone so blown away by the architecture that they don’t even notice the art?

  4. Marian says:

    I can identify with your “frisson,” Dave. There is one place I’ve been that, while architecturally different from the museum, had the same effect on me: Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona. It is huge and all concrete, but with organic features. Looking up, I expected the concrete pillars to sway like trees, and the stone leaves to flutter. Unlike visits to most churches, we stayed for hours, just experiencing a place that seemed to breathe. No Catholic or other Christian religion in my background, just admiration for the sheer architectural magic of the place.

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Having lived in Milwaukee for a number of years recently, I know and often visited MAM — as it is called locally. And I, too, was often capticated by the Calatrava wing, Dave. Both the outside “wings” and the inside space are amazing, awe-inspiring sights and ones I never tired of.

    But, as is usually the case, knowing a fair bit about something often tends to “bring it back to earth,” so to speak. (Sausage factory analogies also apply.) There were huge disputes over the construction of the wing, mainly due to cost overrun disputes with Calatrava, something which he is apparently noted for (and thus engendering any numbert of “I told you so….” comments from MAM trustees and others). Also, oddly, there is virtually no art exhibited inside the wing. It is virtually entirely devoted to an event space upstairs — and I’ve gone to a couple of lovely weddings in it — and a cool cafe, that feels like a ship on Lake Michigan, downstairs. The vast majority of the art is still housed in the “old” part of MAM — designed by Eero Saarinen, so also not too shabby — and an even older connected building.

    But thanks for reminding me, Dave, about the “magic” that Calatrava has created.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    I know of the structure you speak of (we lost a Rose Director to the museum years ago), but have never experienced it personally. Yes cultural buildings, like cathedrals, are meant to inspire the masses, whether they house religious ideals or art work that can move people to the heavens. That is what great art and architecture can do.

  7. I like that you chose a building or structure as an example of “magic.” It’s really important that sometimes, the built, human-engineered environment can give us those “aha” moments.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    It is a spectacular place. I’ve only been there once but hope to go again

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