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Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Team Will Recreate Urban and Natural Ecologies with Winning St. Louis Arch Proposal

New urban vistas and programming will make the archgrounds a landscape for everyone

By Zach Mortice

Associate Editor

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’
(MVVA) winning proposal for The City + The River + Arch competition to remake Dan Kiley’s grand stage for Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis Arch draws its energy from a simple observation of how cities draw people together. From the team’s proposal: “Successful city connections give people two inseparable things: ways to traverse urban obstacles and reasons to want to.”

The multidisciplinary team’s design expresses this maxim by adding a wide and flexible array of new programming to the site, while still maintaining the iconic reign of Saarinen’s Arch next to the Mississippi River. It offers new ways to access well-known parts of the park, and sections across the river in Illinois that have yet to be explored, but is conscious about not trying to do too much.

“Right now, few would disagree that there’s not a lot going on at the archgrounds,” Van Valkenburgh says. “It’s a little underwhelming in terms of variety and range. The most important thing is that it has a broad range [of activities] as opposed to the specifics of what it is.”

Undoubtedly, the programming details and design will change. MVVA was announced as the competition winner on Sept. 21. In the months ahead, the National Park Service and city of St. Louis will work with the team to finalize the design and assemble a budget for the project, which must be completed by October of 2015—the 50th anniversary of the completion of the arch. Van Valkenburgh says he doesn’t yet know how much his design will cost to build, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch estimates the amount to be approximately $300 million. At this point, Van Valkenburgh calls his design a “concept plan” that can be expected to evolve substantially. “We’re in the infancy of this as a design project,” he says.

Connecting old and new for all

Above all else, New York-based MVVA’s plan strives to make the pastoral, memorial park landscape more active, urban, and integrated with the fabric of the city. As a landscape architect, it’s also no surprise that Van Valkenburgh’s plan reinvests in natural ecologies that have been pushed off the site by centuries of growth, development, and decline. On the Missouri side of the approximately 250-acre site, mostly on the extreme north and south edges of the archgrounds, there are beer gardens, ice skating rinks, event pavilions, and terraced amphitheaters dug into the earth. All of these amenities are meant to attract a diverse array of visitors: the millions of out-of-town tourists that visit the arch every year, city-dwelling residents from the nearly loft district taking an evening jog, and vendors attracted by the crowds to sell produce at a farmers market or crafts at festivals.

These visitors will make their way through the site via a new network of bike and pedestrian trails that will connect to the two bridges that span the river in a 3.4-mile loop. “[It’s] about programmatic diversity and imagining outdoor space that has the capacity to support and sustain a broad range of interests,” Van Valkenburgh says.

Perhaps the most important way MVVA’s plan creates a more urban experience is the way it connects to the city to the west. Like the other shortlisted proposals, Van Valkenburgh’s design calls for a green-scaped lid that will cover Interstate 70, which runs north and south along the park’s western edge. This will create a better pedestrian connection between the archgrounds and the adjacent Old Courthouse, designed by Harry Singleton in the mid-19th century.

Furthermore, it will encourage the refreshingly intense juxtaposition of this Beaux-Arts local landmark and Eero Saarinen’s ambitiously Modernist arch. This connection is reinforced by the new design of the underground Museum of Westward Expansion at the base of the arch. With the new plan, visitors exiting the museum will rise out of the earth to views of the historic courthouse where Dred Scott was first put on trial in 1847, with Saarinen’s curved bow of steel just over their shoulder. “We were really focused on the beautiful paradox of the historical courtyard and the Modernist quality of the arch,” Van Valkenburgh says.

In the current museum, visitors drive to the site and park in a garage, which leads them to the museum. The new plan (designed by MVVA team architects James Carpenter Design Associates in New York—Steven Holl Architects also worked on MVVA’s proposal) is “a very different type of urban experience that puts visitors in the fabric of the city,” Van Valkenburgh says. “The act of coming and going is a kind of virtual connection between old and new.”

By restoring the gradually sloping cobblestone levees bordering the river, the MVVA plan extends this urban activity till it meets the water. While the river is low, this feature creates public space ideal for farmers markets and craft vendor stalls. Reclaiming the riverbank from automobile traffic also reminds visitors of St. Louis’ storied maritime commerce history. The sheer scale of the cobblestone riverbanks and imposing river wall further west, Van Valkenburgh says, can serve to remind patrons of the outsized scale and proportion of industries gone by. Just beyond the shore, monolithic, sculptural, clothes pin-shaped river gauges will give visitors an instinctive, physical experience of the ebb and flow of water levels.

Studying “natural” landscapes

MVVA’s plan is at its most transformative on the Illinois side of the river. For East St. Louis, Van Valkenburgh plans to rehabilitate the industry-scarred landscape by installing a network of wetland marshes and elevated pedestrian bird watching trails, as well as research institutions to study these ecologies. (Back across the river in Missouri, the archgrounds will feature restored meadows and shrub woodlands). This will include an avian research center and a wetland hydrology research center. These parts of the MVVA plan are in the loose conceptual stages, says Van Valkenburgh, but he does see a potential model for the wetlands research facility in Crissy Field in San Francisco, a nature and education center sited on a former military base. At the very least, Van Valkenbrugh’s research facilities will fulfill a uniquely regenerative role: studying the ecosystems that emerge in artificially reconstructed “natural” landscapes. They should also work against the stigma East St. Louis has gathered in its ongoing industrial nadir, offering the people of St. Louis a reason to visit their eastern sister city.

Cities across the nation (and the world) are reassessing their scarred urban frontiers and thinking critically about what good they can be used for. Perhaps uniquely in St. Louis will these lessons come to be recorded and analyzed by such transformative interventions themselves.


The Missouri side of the archgrounds will feature restored meadows and shrub woodland landscaping.
All images courtesy of the MVVA team.

MVVA’s design offers beer gardens, ice skating rinks, event pavilions, and terraced amphitheaters dug into the earth.

The winning design strives to offer programming and activities that is attractive to a wide range of people.

Across the Mississippi River in Illinois, there will be a network of wetland marshes and elevated pedestrian bird watching trails.


Recent Related:

St. Louis Arch Competition Weaves Together a City, a River, and its History and Culture

Six Teams Compete to Write a New Chapter of African-American History and the Final Chapter of the National Mall

Knitting the City Back Together from Grey and Brown with Green

In a Knotted Tangle of Freeways and Rail Lines, KAI’s Gateway Transportation Center Ties Together Rail and Bus Transit in St. Louis

St. Louis’ Historic Lemp Brewery Converts to Upscale, Mixed-Use Development

St. Louis Residential Tower Design Unveiled


Visit the Competition’s Web site: The City + The Arch + The River

See what the Committee on Design Knowledge Community is up to, and visit them on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to the article “Saarinen’s Bell Labs Waits to be Unshackled,” by Michael Calafati, AIA.

See what else the Architects Knowledge Resource has to offer for your practice.


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