In Wonder

Turtle-like, I retract into the depths of my fuzzy pullover while balancing my translucent bubble umbrella atop my head to create a slightly steamy dome of warmth against the grey […]

Turtle-like, I retract into the depths of my fuzzy pullover while balancing my translucent bubble umbrella atop my head to create a slightly steamy dome of warmth against the grey and the damp.

Twenty-two years I’ve waited for this.

Every other viewing attempt over the past twenty-two years has been foiled by high winds, scheduled maintenance, or the misfortune of my being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I will not be deterred in my efforts today by the cold drizzle, the gloomy skies, or the grumpy looking seagulls bobbing sullenly on Lake Michigan or perching testily on any available surface.

I don’t have a watch with me, but I can see a clock on the side of a nearby building if I take a few steps to my left and look over my shoulder or turn around. Three minutes to go. The show starts at noon.

I pass the time by counting the number of fellow humans who are curious enough or hearty enough to brave the weather for the sake of the show. There are nine of us, in total. I wonder how far the others have traveled to be here today, if they’ve seen the show before, how long they would be willing to wait for the show. Mostly, I wonder how much longer those three minutes until noon can possibly last.

One of the fellow humans on the bridge that connects the museum to the parking garage inadvertently answers the last of my questions by gazing at his watch, gazing at the roof of the museum, then gazing at his watch again in a series of gestures which suggest that the show is running late or that we might somehow have missed it.

I turn to look at the clock. It is, indeed, noon. I turn to look again at the wings of the museum. They look stubbornly the same as they had twenty seconds ago. Why has nothing happened? Have I been foiled again by scheduled maintenance? Surely it’s not the wind? There is a breeze, to be sure, but nothing strong enough to shut down the wing show. I think?

I look at the clock again: almost 60 seconds past noon.

I look at the museum again.

I squint.

I squint some more.

I tilt the umbrella back on my shoulder, so that my head is still protected from the drizzle, but my vision is not blurred by the clear plastic of the umbrella. I squint again.

And I see it. Others see it, too: I hear sounds of surprise and excitement as one or two humans point in the direction of the wings, admonishing their companions to look!


With tiny slowness, the white wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum have begun to fold gently in upon themselves, tracing an elegant arc against the grey sky. If the color contrast between sky and wings were less stark, my fellow watchers and I might not even see the movement in its microscopic slowness. The moment of obvious motion comes when the wings, in a stunningly organic move, shrug with the massive power of well-toned muscles stirring to life. After the shrug, the motion becomes unmistakable as the wings fold themselves steadily and smoothly into a tidy white cone. I can almost hear the rush of feather against feather.


It’s an anticlimactic reaction, but it’s the best I can do. So I do it again.


But the show isn’t over yet. As I ponder the merits of running to the lake-side side of the museum to view the unfurling of the wings, wondering if I could possibly get there in time, I realize that I am too late to make that decision. The unfurling has already begun. Gently, and with a grace that belies what must surely be a tremendous weight, the wings rise from their tidy white cone and settle into their resting state, a delicate curve ready to glide into the Heavens.

Unaware that the wings have not yet come fully to rest—a few imperceptible adjustments must still be made before the wings can settle into their resting position—I stroll into the museum. Once inside, I hear the last whirrings of machinery as the mechanisms that control the museum’s wings, like the wings themselves, come to roost.

I later learn that the museum’s 90-ton sunshade is controlled by 22 hydraulic actuators pumped by a dual-set of 30-horsepower motors. In case of a power failure, the pumps can be powered by a backup diesel generator or even a backup-backup propane-powered generator. The wings are equipped with a variety of sensors that would trigger a defensive shut-down reaction in case of nearby lighting strikes or winds in excess of 23 mph for 3 seconds or more. Perhaps most impressively, the wings can close themselves under the force of their own weight as a last resort in a power failure. In short, the Burke Brise Soleil designed by Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava for the Milwaukee Art Museum is a wonder of science and engineering. Incidentally, the word “wonder” is related to the German word “Wunder,” which means, among other things, “miracle.”

The scientific and technological miracles of the art museum’s wings are wondrous enough, but one aspect of the wings’ being is even more wondrous still: the organic mimicry of their movements. It would surely have been easier to design a sunshade (a 90-ton sunshade, no less) that slides back and forth or tilts or otherwise does not imitate the delicate, intricate movements of a bird stretching its wings. Yet the designer chose to emulate the natural world. Why?

I like to think the artist was trying to remind Milwaukeeans and visitors that scientific and engineering feats are not a sign of Man’s triumph over Nature; rather, they are a joyful celebration of the gifts and knowledge we’ve been given. They are expressions of our delight and awe at being part of a Cosmos huger than our own concerns; they are reflections of the Love that pulses through all of Creation.

How will you use your gifts and knowledge today, tomorrow, and always to celebrate alive-ness, to express your delight in Creation, to reflect Love?

-Lori Randall

Click here for more information on the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Burke Brise Soleil.

Click here for a musical celebration of the natural world and the Love within it.

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