About the Building


Built into a hillside adjacent to the Sheboygan River, the Art Preserve’s 56,000-square-foot, three-level building will provide exhibition space and visible storage for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s collection of more than 25,000 works by art-environment builders and will serve as a center for academic study and research.

Located near Lake Michigan an hour north of Milwaukee in the city of Sheboygan, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is known for its exhibitions, study, and preservation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists. It holds the world’s largest collection of artist-built environments, a unique art form resulting from artists transforming spaces such as their homes and yards into multifaceted works of art.


The Art Preserve is located on a natural hillside and meadow setting on 38 acres on the west side of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, adjacent to a protected property owned by Glacial Lakes Conservancy. It is three miles from the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

Tres Birds, a Denver-based planning, architecture, and general contracting firm, was responsible for site planning, architecture, interiors, and collaboration on exhibitions and landscape design under design principal Michael Moore and project architect Shawn Mather.

Design Overview             
A Walk in the Woods
Because the potency of much of the Arts Center’s collection is found in its relationship to nature, the walk-in-the-woods design approach for the Art Preserve allows moments of interaction between the artwork and the natural environment. Engaging the landscape in its design, the building feels as if it has grown organically out of the hill and meadow site. Visitors will view the artworks with nature as a backdrop.


Just as the form of the building has been shaped by the trees and topography of the site, its materiality has been influenced by the artwork in the collection. The artists whose work is in the Art Preserve often used humble materials that they had readily available, and the palette of materials used in the project—concrete, masonry, glass, and wood—reflect this approach.

The building is a primarily concrete structure, a material choice in keeping with the prevalence of concrete as a medium in the creation of many artist-built environments. Eighty percent of the composition of the concrete is aggregate from thousands of tons of regionally sourced river rock, a nod to the adjacent Sheboygan River, a glaciated riverbed full of river rock. This multicolored and abundant material can be experienced throughout the building façade, floors, stairways, and structure.

The façade of the Art Preserve emerges from the trees at the southern base of the hillside. Visitors enter the building through a “forest” of timbers angled like the trees growing on the site. The timbers also act as sunshades, preventing direct sunlight from entering the interior and thus protecting the art.

In response to the surrounding hillside, bridging the lower meadow and the upper meadow, the untraditional floor plan incorporates views, inlets, and outcroppings allowing nature to enter into the collection space and the collection to appear against the backdrop of nature. Opportunities for viewing the art from the exterior of the building exist through the apertures that are created in the façade.

Within the structure, there are visual cues to indicate where in the hillside the visitor is situated. On the first level, the concrete perimeter walls indicate that the visitor is almost entirely below grade. Ascending the hillside, the second level has a mix of concrete and white studio walls. The third level has all white studio walls. This serves to provide each floor with its own character.

The stairway walls, constructed with concrete masonry units, indicate the striations of the land. Color differentiation within the courses of the blocks helps to “map” the topography of the building site.

The climate of the building interior is impacted by its location within the hillside which achieves a “wine cellar” effect, thus helping to stabilize interior temperatures. 

Size / Functions
The Art Preserve comprises approximately 56,000 sq. ft. of overall floor space over three stories, including more than 37,000 sq. ft. of dedicated gallery space with visible storage, an education area, a library, a study collection, and archive room.

3 levels

Building Dimensions
Roughly 180 ft. x 120 ft.

Facade Material
Precast concrete panels with regionally sourced river rock aggregate

Day Lighting
Natural sunlight is a key element of the design and provides cues to aspects of the work featured on each of the three floors. A skylight illuminates the central stairway. The first floor is grotto-like, while the third floor offers views out to the surrounding landscape.

Artificial Lighting - LED Lighting
As a measure of energy conservation and to limit the artwork’s exposure to light, the default state of artificial lighting within the space is darkness. When a visitor enters an artist’s tableau, the lighting is motion-activated, and lights that are specifically curated to each exhibition illuminate the artwork.

Construction Started—May 2018