New Work: Harley-Davidson Museum
Listen closely this weekend and you may hear a rumble coming from Milwaukee, where the Harley-Davidson Museum opens on Saturday. Designed by Pentagram Architects’ James Biber with his team and associate Michael Zweck-Bronner, the $75 million, 130,000-square-foot museum complex showcases the history, culture and engineering of this American icon.
The museum sits on a twenty-acre reclaimed industrial site directly across the Menomonee River from downtown Milwaukee and has been conceived as an urban factory ready-made for spontaneous motorcycle rallies. The three-building campus includes space for permanent and temporary exhibitions, the company’s archives, a restaurant and café, and a retail shop, as well as a generous amount of event and waterfront recreational space. The museum’s indoor and outdoor components were inspired by the spirit of Harley rallies in towns like Sturgis and Laconia, where thousands of riders congregate every year.
Creating a museum for an icon is an enormous challenge, and Pentagram conducted a massive amount of research to gain a thorough understanding of the complex cultural phenomena that revolve around the company. We even became Harley riders ourselves. The story of how we designed this major new museum after the jump.
Harley-Davidson was founded in Milwaukee in 1903, and the company has a pride of place and history within the community that made the museum’s location key. Sitting on a peninsula surrounded by water, the chosen site is one of the oldest remaining industrial areas in Milwaukee and has the advantage of being directly connected to downtown via the pair of newly constructed Sixth Street bridges. Addressing the site’s design, we began with a few basic goals: integrate the site back into the city; respect and reflect the site’s history; make the water an important recreational element and plan for future development. From these objectives, we developed an urban design that essentially restored the area’s lost street grid and, by doing this, connected the site to the surrounding city by giving it a scale and “grain” that felt like a neighborhood within the city.
At the same time, we believed that the Harley-Davidson Museum should create its own street-level rally atmosphere, attracting the community of Harley riders at their most enthusiastic. Rally participants cruise the streets, ogle the parked bikes and enjoy the party atmosphere. These gatherings are unique in that they concentrate a great many riders in a small network of streets creating an enormous outdoor happening. It is as if the streets filled with motorcycles create a level of social interaction that exists nowhere else. These rallies are such an essential part of the Harley-Davidson experience that we felt it was essential to create a place that captured their spirit, but where those who are new to Harley-Davidson would feel welcome. Therefore, we proposed the museum should have an outdoor and an indoor component. We called the outdoor component the “Museum on the Street” and it became the counterpart to the formal museum.
The combination of site features and the idea of the Museum on the Street helped us to define the museum as not a single building, but as a group of three buildings that line both sides of Canal and Fifth Streets creating a real urban context. This notion of a group of buildings is not new; it appears in architectural compositions as diverse as factories and college campuses, but here we used the buildings to create an urban experience while letting the streets become truly special places for social interaction.
The idea of the factory, a place defined by one basic style and with a single purpose, seemed especially appropriate as riders refer to the Milwaukee headquarters of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company as “the factory” and in acknowledgment of the site’s industrial history. When looking for images to inspire the look of the museum, we leaned heavily on the history of factories, rather than the history of museums or of Milwaukee’s cultural architecture. While we were looking at these images, we were also thinking about how the museum should function.
We developed an interior layout for the museum building that was organized like a factory; that is a large open space (the factory floor) lined with mezzanines (the factory office) and featuring a kind of processing silos (the towers). This model made sense for a number of reasons: it resonated with the sense of Harley-Davidson as the factory; the contrast of large open areas and more defined rooms was good for big and small exhibition spaces; it embodied a sense of straightforward design; and it seemed honest and even a bit modest compared to some other possibilities. In the end, the factory model prevailed.
The museum houses the permanent exhibition, designed by Pentagram partner Abbott Miller, and developed in close coordination with the building. Over the past hundred years, Harley-Davidson has grown far beyond its humble beginnings into an international success story. Inside the museum, the exhibition traces the company’s history through a chronological and thematic narrative that draws from Harley-Davidson’s extensive archive of historical documentation as well as their collection of motorcycles that begins with Harley’s first, the Serial Number One built in 1903.
The three-story annex, across the street from the museum, contains ground-level temporary exhibition space with large glass garage doors that allow the building to open to the street. In this way, the building acts like a covered open-air market at times, while at others it houses exhibits or events. Meanwhile, the top two floors contain the company’s immense archive of historical artifacts as well as restoration and conservation areas. Both floors are hidden within a solid box that protects the artifacts from light while it conceals the workings within. In a motif used throughout the site, this box is “slipped off” the building’s one story base and the resulting overhangs create covered areas for special events. The retail building is a similar “box-on-frame” structure that overlooks the river and contains the museum shop, the restaurant and café, and space for special events.
The site design required interior connections between the various buildings, and so glass-enclosed bridges were also designed to allow the facilities to act as one while they provide sheltered connections and terrific views. Like the buildings, the bridges reveal their structure on the outside, holding the glass to the interior. Their industrial quality is not added on, but is part of the real support mechanism.
Rather than find a decorative skin for the buildings, we turned to the motorcycles themselves for inspiration, and we found it in the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The parts are not concealed behind plastic or metal, but are simply and honestly expressed as structure, function and, most significantly, as a jewel of an engine within the frame of the bike. Form follows function in Harley-Davidson’s iconic designs. With this inspiration, we developed an expressed structure, an exoskeleton of exposed supports in a frame of galvanized steel. Both the inside and outside of the structure is simple and honest utilizing I-beams and columns, exposed gusset plates and cross-bracing to stiffen the frame. The hot-dipped galvanized steel is not a perfect, painted finish, but an honest expression of an industrial process and the structures are weatherproofed and permanent, not shrouded or concealed.
The infill materials are tough, and traditional finishes in a simple palette are used on all the buildings in black, white, silver and orange, the colors of Harley-Davidson. Infill materials include polished and stained concrete for the floors in black and grey; white double-layered insulated polycarbonate sheet for diffused light; glazed black brick for solid areas of important volumes; grey corrugated and enameled steel for secondary areas; orange corrugated and enameled steel for entry areas and stair/elevator towers; and galvanized and blackened steel for counters, trim, railings and other elements. By carefully selecting the materials and using each for a clearly expressed and consistent purpose, we wove the buildings together into a larger whole.
The iconic moment of the museum’s design is the four-sided Bar & Shield tower suggested by Willie G. Davidson, chief styling officer and grandson of one of the company’s founders. Willie G. arrived at the museum offices one day with a solid steel, four-sided logo model to suspend in the open tower of the museum. He said, “the engine is the jewel in the frame of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle” and this piece of signage is prescribed as the jewel in the frame of the museum.
Also creating a gracious sense of entry are a series of framed and covered spaces that line the walks that connect the buildings offering protection from the elements and adding a sense of depth in the buildings. The street side of the museum itself, meanwhile, is lined with a monumental colonnade of supporting columns.
The identity of the museum at the street level had to be unique, yet also had to blend into the surroundings enough to be a “neighborhood” within the broader context of Milwaukee. Landscape architects Oslund and Associates helped us to achieve this delicate balance. We have all been in neighborhoods that feel a bit too themed or contrived, but here, the site feels genuine and uniquely Harley-Davidson. To maintain this balance, elements of the street furniture and site were carefully designed including special district light fixtures, planter boxes and site benches all made from steel I-Beams. Guardrails, transformer enclosures, dumpsters and other various elements utilize the same galvanized finish and standard pieces as the building structure.
For the landscape, Oslund and Associates took our basic site outline and developed it within the grid established by our urban design. Site areas were adapted to act as shaded gathering areas; flexible event spaces; a continuous river walk that meanders along the water’s edge; street termini were carefully designed; and trees and plantings to act as sculptural elements.
Finally, to further emphasize the rally atmosphere created by the intersection of Fifth and Canal Streets, Oslund created a broad, orange “crossroads” that extends into each of the four central site blocks. The orange concrete identifies the “Sturgis-style” parking that will make riders feel immediately at home, while letting everyone know that there is something unique about this neighborhood.
One of the most significant references to the industrial past of the site is the preservation and repositioning of the giant orange hoppers within the landscape. Oslund placed them at the north and south ends of the reconstituted Fifth Street axis to anchor the site and provided aesthetic interest. In a coincidence almost too good to be true, the hoppers were previously painted orange and their weathered finish has been kept in its original condition.
Throughout the design process, we worked with a remarkable set of collaborators. On the one side are all the Harley-Davidson folks who, though they had never before produced a building purely for the public, helped us refine the design to reflect the company they love. We worked with Museum leadership and the Museum Advisory Board throughout the design and construction process. We also met regularly with Willie G. Davidson who, as a designer and icon in Harley-Davidson culture, helped keep us true to the best ways to make the buildings a part of the Motor Company family. He had a number of small and large observations that made the buildings better, truer and smarter.
On the other side of the equation, there were a huge number of talented consultants who helped execute the design, added to the various aspects of the project and made it real.
Client: Harley-Davidson Motor Co.
Stacey Schiesl, museum director,
Jim Fricke, curatorial director,
Grayson Albert, Kurt Jansen, Barbara Mannion, Willie G. Davidson (and many others)
Design Architect: Pentagram Architects
James Biber, FAIA, partner in charge
Michael Zweck Bronner, AIA, associate and project architect
Alex Mergold, AIA, Suzanne Holt, Dan Maxfield, James Bowman, Marshall Brown, Denise Ramzy
Exhibition Design: Pentagram Design
Abbott Miller, partner in charge
Jeremy Hoffman, associate
Graphic Design: Pentagram Design
Michael Bierut, partner in charge
Landscape Architects: Oslund and Associates
Tom Oslund, partner in charge
Architect of Record: Hammel Green & Abrahamson, Inc.
James Vander Heiden, partner in charge
Ray Sachs, associate
(and many, many others)
Civil Engineer: Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer and Associates, Inc.
Environmental Engineers: The Sigma Group
Construction/General Contractor: M.A. Mortenson Construction
Robert Nartonis, SVP in charge
Ben Goetter (and many, many others)
Exhibition Consultant: ISG Productions
Exhibition Lighting Design: Howard M. Brandston Lighting Design
Exhibition Fabrication: Maltbie
Exhibition Media: Batwin and Robin
Signage Fabricator/Consultant: Poblocki
Project photography by Paul Warchol