Hog Heaven

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Yet another destination for motorcycle devotees—Harley Davidson recently opened a museum in Milwaukee that's both a shrine to all things Harley and a space for the brand's loyal following to rally. Pentagram helmed the $75 million project, designing the 130,000-square-foot museum complex and exhibitions that span the motor company's history, biker culture and motorcycle engineering.

On a 20-acre reclaimed industrial plot on the Menomonee River, the complex consists of three buildings: the museum proper, archives and temporary exhibit space, and the shop and café. Pentagram Architects partner and project lead James Biber, whose research found him atop many, many hogs, says opting for three buildings instead of one sprung from the need to organize outdoor space for Harley loyalists.

"One thing that's very simple and clear is that riders feel most comfortable at and really enjoy the camaraderie of the rally," he says. "It's pretty simple to create a space that works for a spontaneous rally. To define the central core, the main crossing, we designed the streets before the buildings. The streets had to house the ongoing weekly rallies, really the accumulation of all the visitors. Had it been one building, none of the streets would have been defined to be real outdoor rooms; we needed buildings on both sides."

The complex also reflects its industrial surroundings with an exposed-support structure, factory-inspired design and urban materials in the Harley palette of black, white, silver and orange. Oddly enough, Biber also says that Harley riders happen to call Milwaukee, the birthplace of the company, "the factory."

Inside, Pentagram partner and lead exhibition designer Abbott Miller says he had a rare opportunity to weave content with formal arrangement and "intervene with the building and its development." For example, a canted wall in the engine room, a thematic exhibit celebrating what Harley considers the jewel of the motorcycle, was designed so that items at all heights on the wall would maintain the same distance from the observer—an effect that could not have been executed in an existing space. "The engine room wall slopes out toward you and carries about 30 engines which are quite heavy, as well as two motorcycles hung on the wall, all leaning out to you," he says. "We had to go through pretty intense architectural and engineering coordination in order to be able to do that."

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