belay MKE - milwaukee, wisconsin
Belay MKE is a mixed-use development at the northern edge of downtown Milwaukee, a formally restrained building that combines an 18,000-square-foot indoor rock-climbing gym with 46 small apartment units. The project occupies an urban brownfield site known as Humboldt Yards, where the repair shops of the now-defunct “Milwaukee Road” Railway were located until the early 1970s. After sitting idle for decades, Humboldt Yard has seen sporadic construction activity in recent years to absorb some of the pressure from the city’s rapidly growing downtown population.
Contrasting the typical developer fare slowly pervading the area – uninspired, bromidic buildings, each plastered with a myriad of cladding materials – Belay MKE was conceived as an intentionally solid, monolithic block, a defiantly raw building designed to reverberate the physical scale and muscular presence of the unpretentious industrial structures that used to define the fabric of Humboldt Yards.
The building’s restrained exterior palette – weathering steel, accentuated by fiber concrete panels, aluminum, and glass – reflects the inherent contradiction between a site profoundly shaped by Milwaukee’s historic role as the “Workshop of the World” and the aspirations of a swiftly transforming city attracting white-collar jobs and young people interested in an engaging urban environment: A slowly transforming skin of oxidizing corrugated steel panels wraps almost the entire building volume, its weathering skin in a carefully edited dialogue with the crisp, precise lines of aluminum extrusions and concrete panels.
The hybrid building program was organized as a simple 4-story rectangular volume. Lining the south and east edges of the building, the modular apartments take advantage of expansive views of the adjacent community greenspace and into the recently re-naturalized Milwaukee River basin. The 60-foot high long-span gym space itself projects out to the north to accommodate a pair of vertical glass walls at the end of the building – tall apertures that expose and effectively advertise the climbing activities on the inside to the passers-by on North Avenue, a busy east-west thoroughfare connecting Lake Michigan to Milwaukee’s western suburbs.
The gym’s north wall, required to be windowless to maximize the usable climbing surface inside, transforms into a highly articulated, cadenced plane organized by a series of oblique aluminum fins. The fins’ gradually shifting shapes create an animated vertical texture that changes depending on light conditions and the angle from which they are viewed, an abstract echo of the undulating climbing surfaces inside. The fins are spaced by horizontal light strips, their green acrylic lenses adding an unexpected splash of color that further activates the wall after darkness. As it reaches the top, the north wall folds into a horizontal roof plane floating five feet above the top of the main building volume to accommodate a continuous clerestory that provides the gym with an abundance of natural light throughout the day. At night, the clerestory gives the building an iconic presence, transforming it into a softly glowing neighborhood beacon illuminating Humboldt Yard’s somber urban sky.