Kern Center at the Milwaukee School of Engineering
The Kern Center had the daunting mission of uniting 19 athletic programs—previously in makeshift and rental spaces—of the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) into one space.
"It was like putting eight gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket," says Jack D. Patton, AIA, with The Sports Studio at RDG Planning & Design in Des Moines, Iowa, which focused on the programming, planning and design of the Kern Center. "Some of the initial design concepts didn't even fit on the site itself."
Situated in the growing near-north side of downtown Milwaukee, the facility marked the first project on land that was freed up when the city tore down an elevated freeway ramp.
"It's in an urban setting, but one of the new kids on the block, so to speak," Patton says. It is also the newest building on campus in 15 years.
"In that sense, it took a great leap of faith for MSOE to make such a statement and spend such a significant amount of money," Patton says. The 210,000-square-foot center cost more than $25 million in construction costs alone, funded almost entirely through private donations, the largest of which was from Robert and Pat Kern.
"I think a lot of what the facility does is to become a landmark for the campus and this part of downtown Milwaukee," says Raimund Stelter, Kern Center facility coordinator. The challenge was to complement, rather than overwhelm the adjacent, century-old Grace Lutheran church. Taking the church's history and dominant presence into consideration, the Kern Center provides something of a bookend.
"The large rotunda, which houses the primary fitness space, is as far away from the church as it can get on the site," Patton explains. "That provides visual balance. If it had been closer to the church, we were worried that part of the site would be too heavy visually, with too much in one place. Although it's primarily a private facility, the building never turned its back on the community."
The glass rotunda, with its visible structural components, also serves as a bold statement of the school's academic backbone.
"Seeing the skeleton of the building was important to the engineering-based client," Patton says. Extensive use of glass like this keeps the facility from feeling cramped and creates a spacious and light-filled feel. To spice up the necessary opaque wall of the basketball arena, designers added vertical bands of windows, a clerestory band beneath the cornice and other artistic touches. Another fašade makes a statement with more windows and a semicircular balcony cantilevered over the street, showcasing the indoor running track.
The diversity of activities housed in the facility played a large role in the design decisions. Maintaining that diversity meant plans for a 200-meter competition track had to be set aside.
"Upon inquiry and soul-searching on the part of the institution, it was decided that the diversity of spaces was more important, so this was dropped," Patton says. Instead, the facility has a 160-meter track with large-radius turns that facilitate proper running and defines the sweeping curves of the building.
The 210,000 square feet, spread out among five levels, also include a basketball and volleyball gym with retractable bleachers seating up to 1,200; field house for track-and-field practice and student recreation; fitness pavilion; and 1,600-seat ice arena on the bottom floor, which is visible from above. Besides athletics, the space also squeezes in counseling and wellness areas, campus ministry programs, athletic offices, classrooms, and administrative offices. That five-gallon bucket is holding up well, it seems.