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St. Louis Arch Competition Weaves Together a City, a River, and its History and Culture
Multidisciplinary teams from around the world look for ways to work with (and around) Eero Saarinen’s Modernist icon.
By Zach Mortice
There are not many monuments in the world that stand up so exceptionally well against their site and city skyline as does the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Eero Saarinen’s mega-scaled sculpture is a graceful, silver steel Modernist icon, designed to honor America’s western expansion. Formally known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, it was conceived and designed in the exuberant post-World War II days, but decades later it now looks over a down-on-its-luck Midwestern city of red brick, vanished industry, and past glories.
Given this context, it’s not surprising that the Arch’s site seems remote and cut off from the city, even though it is only blocks away from its central business district and a revitalizing loft and residential area. The Arch was completed in 1965 at a time when formerly prosperous industrial cities across the nation were losing confidence in their ability to withstand the forces that beset them: stagnating industry and rampant suburbanization. What emerged from this in St. Louis was a plan that wrapped the Arch in freeways and set it aside from the tenuous life of the city. From the west, a haphazardly connected series of semi-civic public plazas lead visitors to the Arch only after traversing an underpass of Interstate 70 and an isolated plot of green designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley. Across the river in East St. Louis, Ill., the Arch might as well be in a different country. Saarinen’s original plans to connect St. Louis and his Arch with this troubled satellite city were never realized.
This, then, is one of the primary goals of the international competition to redesign the Arch grounds around Saarinen's monument--to finally give St. Louis the confidence and infrastructure to fully embrace the Arch and integrate it with the city and the cities across the Mississippi.
The five shortlisted plans in the competition, dubbed The City + The Arch +The River, all reinforce that the St. Louis region has a unique and valuable culture and ecology to offer the world. They share numerous design elements (more pedestrian access to the river and the arch, remediated natural landscapes, ancestral topography), but perhaps the most important feature they have is what they refrain from doing. Each plan resists bringing another singular, iconic design presence toe-to-toe with Saarinen’s Arch. The plans are united in their belief that the city and Arch can work together better, but also in their belief that St. Louis belongs to the Arch alone.
For now, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, none of the proposals have budgets. When a winner is selected on Sept. 24, this new relationship between monument and city will be unveiled, and it will be realized by 2015, when the competition mandates that the plan must be completed. Organizers are also seeking public comments about the design.
The team lead by German architecture firm Behnisch Architekten adds the most new programming to the site, including a museum of the musical cultures of St. Louis that looks like a series of luminous, polished river stones; a performance venue covered in Stefan Behnisch’s, Hon. FAIA, tensile fabric canopies; and a circular, crescent-shaped ecological research center. The plan (created by Behnisch’s Los Angeles office under the leadership of Christof Jantzen, AIA) shares these cultural amenities with the underutilized Illinois side of the site, and visitors can use a gondola over the river to get there. Jantzen and his team seem to have the most detailed understanding of St. Louis and Missouri’s popular history and culture, but the design sensibility of this multidisciplinary team’s work is decidedly European: abstract, experimental, and freewheeling.
The entry by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ (MVVA) team is one of two that focuses on increasing landscape and flora diversity in the Arch grounds--adding prairie meadows, shrub woodlands, and other native, natural ecosystems. This team’s plan adds an ice skating rink, amphitheater, and playgrounds, but its primary charm comes from restocking the local ecosystem. The best example of this is across the river in Illinois, where a network of tree-top elevated pedestrian trails snake through restored wetlands, and let visitors with binoculars and a bit of patience take advantage of the Mississippi River Valley’s penchant for attracting migrating birds.
Foster + Partners, PWP Landscape Architecture, and the urban planning firm Civitas collaborated on an equally pastoral (though more strictly ordered) design than the MVVA proposal. This team’s design also adds diverse native landscapes, but also includes a rigid procession of colonnade-like trees marching towards the Arch. This English garden-like sensibility (as well as the soft and warm, nearly Impressionistic manner of the team’s illustrations) gives this proposal the quaint aura of a George Seurat painting. The view corridors through the Arch are enhanced by removing riverside berms and adding a 65-foot earthen mound (a reference to the nearby Native American Cahokia Mounds) on axis across the river. The Illinois side of the site is also graced with an agricultural and ecological research center next to acres of rectilinearly divided croplands and greenhouses for study; an approximation of a typical Midwestern farmstead.
The plan proposed by SOM, Copenhagen-based Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), and landscape architects Hargreaves Associates is most notable for the way it blurs ground plane elevation levels with abstracted and sloping landscape enclosures in a richly sculptural way. This occurs at the northern end of the west side of the park, and at the pedestrian covering of Interstate 70 directly west of the Arch. This “Magic Carpet” pavilion gradually curves a slab of concrete from a floor, to a wall, to a ceiling, similar to the “urban carpet” at Zaha Hadid’s, Hon. FAIA, Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. On the east side of the river, this team’s plan calls for a large public amphitheater and a series of earthen mounds punctuated by monolithic sculptures, all weaving through a network of streams and circular pedestrian paths.
Weiss/Manfredi’s team concept perhaps does the most thorough job of synthesizing the diverse array of urban, natural, and cultural conditions of the Arch’s site. On the Missouri side, it features a series of glass and steel canopied retail, dining, and commercial pavilions powered by photovoltaic panels, and both of the bridges spanning the Mississippi are given pedestrian promenades. But this plan’s most intriguing features are across the river in Illinois. There, thick bands of disused freight rail tracks become the site of an open air museum exhibit, reminding the world of St. Louis’ former preeminence as an industrial rail hub. Terraced, asymmetrically triangular earth mounds lurch out of the landscape with pedestrian paths and streams lining their perimeters. These forms are rounded and organic, yet still rational and precise; an ingenious mix of past industrial scars and regenerative ecology, similar to Weiss/Manfredi’s Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.
Visit the Competition’s Web site: The City + The Arch + The River
Watch this video about this history of the Arch and its site.
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The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the article “Saarinen’s Bell Labs Waits to be Unshackled,” by Michael Calafati, AIA.
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