Midwest Express Center design

Midwest Express Center looks, works first class
The contrast couldn’t be more stark. And Milwaukeeans will have another few weeks to observe the dramatic difference.
Along Kilbourn Avenue stands Milwaukee’s old convention center, formerly known as MECCA. It’s basically a box that severely separates the inside world from the outside.
Immediately to its south stands its replacement, the Midwest Express Center – a decidedly non-boxy structure that speaks well to Milwaukee’s architectural heritage but also boasts of modern design.
The first phase of the new center occupies four square blocks between Wisconsin and Wells streets, Fourth and Sixth streets. But to limit the new facility to its immediate geographic boundaries would fail to do justice to its stature. The architectural team, led locally by Engberg Anderson Design Partnership of downtown Milwaukee, designed more than just a building. They designed a physical and emotional presence that carries many blocks beyond the physical site. It is woven into the urban fabric rather than standing apart from it or being a stain upon it.
“There is no finer convention center in America,” said an understandably proud Bill Hanbury, president of the Greater Milwaukee Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is the premier architectural structure in America when it comes to convention centers.”
The center will be inaugurated Aug. 1-4 when Milwaukee and the center play host to the National Governor’s Conference. A series of grand opening celebrations for the facility will be held the weekend of July 25, including a community open house that Saturday and Sunday.
The Midwest Express Center will do more than host conventions and other meetings, say Chuck Engberg and Scott Smith, partners in Engberg Anderson Design Partnership. Its function goes beyond that. And thus, as form follows function, its form goes beyond the physical constraints the old MECCA is held to.
Consider the challenge that Smith, who coordinated the project, and his fellow architects faced. They were to design what would become the largest architectural design/build project in Wisconsin – a structure which required vast interior spaces and which could hold up to 14,000 people – more people than live in most Wisconsin cities. Yet they had to blend that structure into a downtown neighborhood without overshadowing nearby buildings. “It was not simply a building that we were charged with designing,” Smith said. “It was, rather, an urban design problem that we were to solve.”
Further complicating the planning was the failure of state building codes to make reference to issues such a huge structure would face, such as those involving exit plans. And locally, the team had to work with the city on determining whether the portion of Phase II which will be built over Wells Street would fall under “skywalk” regulations or normal building regulations – building regulations won out.
Because it’s so huge, it was designed to allow the passerby to take it in pieces. “When you have a four-square-block building, you can’t take it all in at once,” Engberg notes. “So our thought was, ‘What do the pieces look like?'”
Colonnades, roof peaks and false-front parapets add a style to the building. But the glass is what really stands out in the design, and it is the element that so clearly sets the Midwest Express Center apart from MECCA, and which so powerfully makes the center a part of its neighborhood rather than an affront to it.
The extensive use of glass, however, would be a change from the way convention space was thought of. Exhibit planners have basically wanted a “holideck,” Smith says, referring to the get-away space on the USS Enterprise of the Star Trek TV and movie world. That space is really nothing to begin with but walls, a ceiling and a floor. Such a basic environment allows the planners to control and create their own environments, just as the holideck users create their own.
Widespread use of windows, therefore, would seem contrary to the function of an exhibit hall. But in the early stages of planning during two days of meetings with event planners from around the country, the widespread use of glass was welcomed.
Major changes in design concept arose from those early meetings with the center’s prospective “customers,” notes the GMCVB’s Hanbury. The size of the ballroom was increased and its position within the center was changed. And more pre-function space was added.
The tie to the community is more than visual, however. City planners are banking on the Midwest Express Center to be a major catalyst for downtown development – in addition to that already under way or accomplished. Even the design of the Phase II section which will be built over Wells Street will serve that purpose, acting as a new, arched gateway to downtown, Smith notes.
“In the old building, there’s no tie between the inside and outside,” Engberg says. “Ours, on the other hand, functions with the city both from the inside out and from the outside in.”
Phase II will commence once MECCA is razed. It will extend the facility onto about a third of MECCA’s four-square-block parcel. A possible Phase III would fill the block to Kilbourn Avenue.
The visual appeal of the Midwest Express center won’t just come from its architectural elements. More than $1 million has been allocated for art to be placed in or integrated into the new convention facility. Works have been commissioned specifically for the center. And the center will play host to the Millennium Art Project which will primarily embody the talents of professional artists and students in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Hanbury calls the center “a very friendly space with a lot of intimate spaces for impromptu gatherings.” That “friendly” atmosphere isn’t something that’s expected from massive convention center facilities, but it’s one which gives Milwaukee a competitive advantage.
While other second-tier cities have built new convention halls, Milwaukee was behind in that arena – until development of the Midwest Express Center. “We could not previously compete with the Indianapolises and the Kansas Cities out there,” Hanbury said. “Now, we are winning in that arena.”
The center is expected to create an estimated 2,000 new jobs for the area and pump $300 million annually into the Milwaukee economy.
July 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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