Thursday, October 23, 2014

Concrete Nostalgia

Part of being the author of "Looking for Art" is being able to sense which kinds of people are going to agree to take an interview with a total stranger.

The other part is being able to sense which kinds of people have a lot to say about a subject I know nothing about. 

I only met Keith Stachowiak once at a picnic, but I had a hunch that he was majorly qualified to be featured, and I was right. 

Keith with the butt of polydactyl cat "Fanvry" 

I met with Keith on a foggy fall evening while he was in the midst of studying for one of seven exams he has to take on his path to becoming a licensed architect. This was another reason why Keith was a stellar interviewee: He took time out of his otherwise busy life to meet with some random girl (me) who wanted to talk about architecture on a Thursday night. In addition, Keith provided ME with a beer and parting gift despite the fact that he was the one doing the favor; proof of my philosophy that most people feel rewarded by having someone take an interest in their niche. (It was a good beer, by the way. One of Keith's avocations is brewing).

I chose Keith because, as I embarrassingly admitted to him during our interview, my limited knowledge of architecture comes from the novel "The Fountainhead," which is pretty pathetic considering architecture is a pretty major art form. Although I could easily have taken one of Keith's walking tours that he gives through Historic Milwaukee, I decided I would just get the answers myself.

So, without further ado, here are those answers. My questions are designed to help me understand what it is like to be an aspiring architect in the small/big city of Milwaukee, and what it means to create architecture in a time where there is a return to individuality. As usual with my interviewees, I got more than I expected from a few lame questions (and no, I'm not just talking about the beer).


Me: First things first. You seem to be really passionate about Milwaukee, are you from the area?

Keith: Yes, I'm from Franklin, Wisconsin.

Me: How did you become interested in architecture? 

Keith: (Laughing-probably at me) I would like to say there was one reason that I became interested in architecture, but that's not the case. I was really interested in Legos when I was a kid. Actually I was more interested in K'nex, so maybe I should have been an engineer. Later on I became interested in art, and I was looking for some way to apply that. I also became really interested in history. When I was a kid my parents both worked downtown and I became fascinated with the architecture there. I would ask people if I could gain access to buildings, see if I could get on the roof, etc. I read John Gurda's book The Making of Milwaukee, which is also an educational documentary that schools use as a teaching tool. This book revealed that architecture is visible, historical link to the past. It also really defines who you are as a city, and this comes back to the history part of it for me.

Me: Where did/ do you go to school?

Keith: I went to UWM, I graduated with my undergrad in 2008 and with my masters in 2011.

Me: Tell me more about the walking tours that you give?

Keith: I volunteer, and the goal is to teach people about architecture and history. We try to teach people enough about those things so that there will be an appreciation of architecture in the future. The downtown tour runs everyday throughout the week during the summer. There is also a skyline tour that goes through the winter, starting soon. I give the Brady Street tour and that's my favorite tour to give because Brady Street has a lot of history. 

Me: Can I have an example?

Keith: The Polish immigrants that moved to that area were very thrifty. They didn't like to throw things away, so it was not uncommon for houses to be picked up and plopped down in a different location. There is a lot of Polish influence in that area. Pulaski Street, which is actually a pretty atypical street for Milwaukee because it does not lie on the grid system, was built up by Polish immigrants who noticed that nothing else was built on it (the reason being that it was actually a ravine that ran down to the river in a swampy area). They started building houses three deep. It was actually because of them that Milwaukee enacted zoning laws.

Me: What are your plans? Do you want to stay in Milwaukee and be an architect?

Keith: Yes, after I get certified I'm going to stay in Milwaukee. I like Milwaukee because it's small yet it has all the things that much larger cities have, like major sports teams. In the long term, I'm not sure that the traditional practice of architecture is actually what I want to do, though. Not to say that I'm going to stop practicing architecture as soon as I'm licensed, but there are parts of architecture that I don't like. In the end though it's so rewarding to see something that you've designed built. 

Me: Is Milwaukee a good place to be an architect?

Keith: Yes it is, it's a great place to be an architect in Wisconsin. It's competitive here though because of the architecture program at UWM and the fact that it's not big enough to provide jobs for every architect who wants to work in the city. When I graduated with my degree in 2008 there were no jobs. Now there are more. I work for a small firm right now, which I've been at for seven years. I worked part time through school and full time now. I'm still technically an "architectural intern," which is misleading because people think I'm still making coffee for people. 

Me: It seems as though there is a return to individuality in architecture these days, do you think that's true? You can tell me if that's a dumb question.

Keith: No, I think that's THE question. Utilitarian buildings weren't built in the past like they are today. They were still designed well and with an architectural style. The ones that get built today are more like pole barns and warehouses. And then there are iconic buildings that are place-making, that define space, and that can define someone's memory. I still believe that the utilitarian buildings are uninhabitable and terribly oppressive to be inside of...the buildings look like war zones. They're ugly, BUT, if we tear them down now, it's the same thing as if we tore down Grand Central Station. We would feel nostalgic for them. You can't entirely abandon your history. A huge part of architecture is "how do we renovate these buildings that we hate right now?" For example, one of the other things I try to impress on the Brady Street tour is that there are so many Queen Anne's storefronts, but if you look at the bottoms of them they were renovated with 1960s sandstone. It's ugly, but it's a reflection of how our culture has changed over time. 

Me: Any favorite buildings in MKE?

Keith: Yes! City Hall.

City Hall ornament

Me: Any other hobbies/ interests you have?

Keith: I brew beer, I collect a lot of shit, I do some woodworking and crafts, and I bike. I think biking is a really awesome way to see the city.


One thing Keith and I agreed on is that Milwaukee is a place that you can explore for years and still find new things. I actually saw City Hall for the first time the other day, and was amazed by the stark contrast between it and other buildings in the same area, like the Pabst. 

Interior shot of City Hall

I now look forward to exploring Milwaukee with a more regional and contemporary outlook on architecture than I gained from reading "The Fountainhead" (published in 1943 and set in NYC). Keith is definitely not a Howard Roark type, I'll tell you that much. 

Thanks again, Keith!

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