The three-building Harley-Davidson Museum complex opened in July of 2008 to honor the company’s 105th birthday. It sits upon 20 acres of newly redeveloped industrial brownfield land along the Menomonee River in Milwaukee. Surrounded by water on three sides, the peninsula feels removed, but is amazingly close to downtown Milwaukee, thanks to a couple of recently built bridges connecting it to the heart of the city.
The Harley-Davidson Motor Company always has been affectionately known as “The Factory” among dealers and riders, so it made sense to forge a link with Milwaukee’s industrial past and create a factory feel. It also made sense to reconnect this long-abandoned industrial site to the city itself. The campus has been landscaped to feature green parking gardens made up of trees, grass and porous stone to help control water runoff, as well as a riverwalk that frames impressive views of the city.
Connected via steel and glass bridges, the three buildings each serve different purposes. The first and largest is the museum building. The next holds offices and temporary exhibition space, as well as housing the company’s archives. The third building houses a restaurant, café and shop, and also provides space for special events.An Honest Approach
The exterior and interior were designed to be reminiscent of a factory. Like a factory, the floor is large, dark and open. Above the main floor, steel mezzanines line the perimeter. Although these are walkways to exhibits, they are reminiscent of factory offices. Throughout the interior and exterior of the museum, large steel beams create the frame. “We really wanted to create an honest building that showcased the steel frame instead of hiding it,” says James Biber, partner in the New York office of London-based design firm, Pentagram. “Harleys are honest, open bikes that show their own frames, so it works.”
The metals used in the interior spaces are, for the most part, rolled, perforated and fabricated steel. Gray, corrugated, enameled steel was used for the exhibit areas, while orange corrugated and enameled steel was used for all of the entries, as well as the stair and elevator towers. Black galvanized steel was used for railings, counters and other details. Silver steel louvers improve and control daylighting while, on the outside, black steel louvers mask the chillers and the building’s mechanical systems. Throughout the exhibit space, the exposed steel I-beam bracing creates several “V’s” within the interior. This serves as a constant visual reminder of Harley-Davidson’s famed V-Twin engines.The Experience
The lobby, which can accommodate close to 200 people, features a close-mesh bar grating on the treads and landing of the entry staircase, which leads to a suspended pedestrian bridge. The galvanized metal bar grating also is used on the bridge and is the primary material on the museum’s interior pathways.
From the lobby, visitors climb the grand staircase to the top floor, where the exhibits start. “The Road” is a continuous line of pristine Harley-Davidson motorcycles built throughout the company’s 106-year history. The Engine Room presents a disassembled classic motorcycle to explain the mechanics and stylistic details that make up a Harley. On the orange walls of the gallery, a history of the engine is presented.
Perforated metal is featured throughout the museum’s interior on accent walls and lighting fixtures. It is particularly striking at Café Racer, the museum’s café, where gray powder-coated perforated metal panels wrap around an orange elevator shaft, showing off the colors through the holes. The perforated metal also serves a backdrop for photo murals of famous Harley-Davidson racers.Grate Bridge
The centerpiece of the lower level is a massive, grated steel bridge that rises from the floor to display several variations of so-called purposed bikes, such as hill climbers, drag racers and stunt bikes. Large screens have been installed to the underside of the bridge so that, when raised, video footage of extreme motorcycling can be viewed.
Enclosed in frosted glass, the Design Lab takes a stark and clinical look at how engineering and design are interwoven in all of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycles. Models and prototypes are featured. The Design Lab also discusses Willy G. Davidson’s Product Development Center. Davidson, whose family name is the “Davidson” in Harley-Davidson, has had a hand in virtually all of the motorcycle designs since 1976. He also worked with Biber and Pentagram on the design of the museum itself.
“It was his [Davidson’s] project and it was a pleasure to have a relationship with a Harley-Davidson designer on this building,” Biber says. “The thing that makes me most happy is the degree with which people have embraced [the museum] as their own, Biber says. “Not just the company, but the riders. People are very comfortable and really feel that the museum is theirs. That’s incredibly satisfying.”
- Adam Miller writes about metal and architecture from Chicago.