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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Mapping the Lakes

Ecosystems made accessible

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Whether it's a line in the sand or the politicized plotting of an expanding empire, maps reveal the predominantly human need to sift through space: to weigh it, name it and own it. This primal urge to locate ourselves within a broader context underlies the "Great Lakes Future" exhibit at Discovery World. It transforms the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world into a 4,000-square-foot, three-dimensional topographical map that begs to be touched, walked through, manipulated and studied from every possible vantage point.

The architects responsible for the design are Milwaukee's La Dallman Architects, whose other work includes the lofty Kilbourn Tower and the Marsupial Bridge. Paul Krajniak, executive director of Discovery World, describes La Dallman's strong aesthetic sensibilities as one of the reasons why they were chosen for the project: "They make things that are beautiful, and beauty is really a lost ecology."

 

Visual Counterpoint

Perhaps Krajniak understands as well as anyone Discovery World's need for a visual palliative to its mute appearance. As if in deliberate contrast to its show-stealing neighbor, the Milwaukee Art Museum, Discovery World's HGA-designed structure depends largely on elements within and without to lend it the interest and variation its restrained geometries lack. La Dallman's design serves this purpose well.

"I think one of the intuitive responses was to make the exhibit a counterpoint to these Platonic geometries," says Grace La, one of the founding partners of La Dallman.

Snaking its way through the space without quite touching its perimeter walls, the exhibit is composed of a fluid-like form made of green-hued fiberglass that reveals the topography of the Great Lakes watershed and is inhabited by species of native fish. It rests upon a waist-high wood plinth into which various interactive elements, touch-screens and glass display cases containing plants, animals and fossils are inserted.

Suspended above the map is a Deconstructivist's dream: an undulating canopy of translucent triangles held in place by slender cables. Behind it, hundreds of LED lights change color to evoke different moods and are designed to receive live-fed weather and atmospheric data from the lakes, which at a future date will be used to simulate actual atmospheric changes and weather patterns as they occur over the Great Lakes. A recessed balcony accessible by the adjacent "sky bridge" allows an aerial view of the exhibit through an irregularly shaped aperture within the canopy, contrasting with the more immersive experience offered below.

 

Reviving a Lost Art

Today even the most utilitarian function of maps is being usurped by portable GPS devices. Perhaps it's the fact that it marries some of the care and craftsmanship of early maps with the very technology that's stamping out their existence that makes "Great Lakes Future" an intriguing exhibit. The architects have combined the high-tech process of GIS data-driven design with a deliberate attempt to lend it a tactile, furniture-like sensibility. "To understand it as an object, as a piece of furniture, is to give it a certain level of consciousness," La says. "To objectify it is to give it a meaning you couldn't necessarily convey in a two-dimensional map."

The exhibit invites you to clamber into crawl spaces beneath the lakes or slip your hand into niches where you'll come across secret buttons that magically give rise to simulated thunderstorms and fog clouds. In some ways the exhibit resembles a carefully crafted toy replete with both the exciting possibilities of high-tech gadgetry and the poetic possibilities of nooks and crannies.

 

Side-stepping the Science Fair

Krajniak admits that taking on a subject of such immense geographical, physical, geological and historical import as the Great Lakes is a daunting task. Instead of trying to show everything at once, he says the exhibit aims to "present people with a constellation where they can start triangulating their understanding and build their own perspective." That said, the exhibit does sometimes cross the line between breaking down a complex ecosystem into digestible chunks and ironing out its idiosyncrasies into rudimentary forms. A case in point is the way it renders a breathtaking phenomenon like Niagara Falls as a pathetic trickle of water, or portrays mighty cities like Chicago as inanimate blocks of resin.

And despite their weariness of what La calls "science fair antics," there are some occasional lapses, such as the jets of water spouting out of the cities at the touch of a button, or future plans to place remote-controlled boats on the mock-Great Lakes. These are minor criticisms, but they do raise the age-old question concerning maps: Where do you draw the line between understanding an area and betraying a sense of unrestrained ownership? Where does thoughtful exploration end and mindless fun begin? However, on the whole "Great Lakes Future" is a timely exhibit that helps to situate us within a large and complex ecosystem.

To read an online exclusive interview with Grace La of La Dallman Architects, go to the "Cityscapes" blog at www.expressmilwaukee.com. For museum opening times and information on "The Water Speaks," a symposium on American-Indian perspectives on the lakes that takes place on Sept. 4, go to www.discoveryworld.org.

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