In my view, the key to the unqualified success of the competition is the creation of bold, world-class improvements to the Memorial that realize the competition’s primary goal—the reconnection of the City to the Arch and the River—to the greatest extent possible. Here, I propose a plan that I believe would achieve that level of success: the construction of two distinctive, yet complementary, buildings on the Memorial grounds, exceptionally suited to the Memorial and appropriately deferential of the Arch. Although these ideas are offered outside the context of the design competition, my hope is that they are compelling enough to have some positive impact, however small, on those directly involved in the urban revival of downtown generally, if not the redesign of the Memorial in particular.
A Quick Bit of Background: A Call for Change
The Gateway Arch is an iconic national memorial site beloved by St. Louisans and others from around the world, attracting millions of visitors per year. Many, however, have long lamented the separation of downtown St. Louis from the Memorial and the Mississippi River, resulting from the razing of forty square blocks of urban buildings to create the Memorial, and the completion of Interstate 70 to the west of the Memorial in 1964. Added to this feeling of isolation is a sense that there is little to keep visitors at the Memorial for extended periods of time, or to cause St. Louisans to enjoy the Memorial on any sort of recurring basis.
|New Mississippi River Bridge Project|
(Credit: Missouri Department of Transportation)
Management Plan (link)
|Framing a Modern Masterpiece |
Competition Manual (link)
As of the date of this post, the design competition has entered its third and final stage, with five teams invited to participate in the “Design Concept Competition.” The preferred design is to be selected in late September 2010, with the winning team earning the right to negotiate a design contract with the NPS. The Memorial renovations are to be completed by the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Arch, on October 28, 2015.
A Vision for Transformative Change
I don’t know specific details of the Memorial improvements desired by Senator Danforth beyond what has been publicly reported, as discussed above. Generally, though, I share his view that anything less than the development of a new, world-class destination at the Memorial will be a hugely missed opportunity. To fully realize the goal of reconnecting the City to the Arch and the River, I believe that significant above-ground improvements should be constructed in a manner that boldly reflects the urban nature of the Memorial site and changes the fundamental relationship of local residents with the Memorial and the riverfront.
My vision is for the creation of two world-class, architecturally significant destinations, designed and positioned to engage the Memorial grounds in new ways, and to evoke and complement the Arch while deferring to it as the undisputed centerpiece of the Memorial. The first, called the “Gateway Arcade,” would be a grand restaurant/retail hall showcasing St. Louis's artisan and/or independently-owned culinary community. The second, known as the “Gateway History and Cultural Center,” would explore a blend of national and local themes befitting a national site located in an urban setting, as well as provide sweeping views of the City, the River, and the Arch and Memorial grounds.
Imagine strolling down Washington Avenue on a sunny spring day, crossing the new, pedestrian-friendly Memorial Drive, and arriving at the far northwest corner of the Memorial grounds. A landscaped plaza extends southeastwardly toward a beautiful brick building, constructed in the Victorian or Antebellum architectural style dominant on the site prior to construction of the Memorial. The building begins across the sidewalk near the western end of the existing parking garage, then curves gracefully toward Memorial Drive and continues southward. As the building extends along Memorial Drive, it subtly—from up-close, almost imperceptibly—decreases in height. At approximately Locust Street, the structure begins to curve inward toward the Arch, but instead of continuing into the interior Memorial grounds, it disappears into the hillside across from the Mansion House apartments at Locust Street. This is the façade of the Gateway Arcade.
|Great Nave Marketplace,|
San Francisco Ferry Building
Back at the northern end of the Arcade, where the initial curve of the building creates a pleasant outdoor space called the “Gateway Plaza,” at least one exceptional (yet casual) locally-owned restaurant would offer indoor and outdoor dining (e.g., Soulard’s Franco; Lafayette Square’s Eleven Eleven Mississippi). The remainder of the Arcade interior would include a diverse tenant mix reflecting the local food scene and diverse ethnic flavors of St. Louis’s great neighborhoods (e.g., Soulard and The Hill), featuring smaller eateries, dessert shops, and coffee shops (e.g., Kaldi’s Coffee, Baily’s Chocolate Bar, Ted Drewes); vendors of specialty foods for off-premises consumption (e.g., Di Gregorio’s Market, Global Foods Market, a mini-Straubs); adult beverage purchasing and tasting rooms (e.g., 33 Wine Shop and Tasting Bar, The Wine Merchant, Schlafly); and purveyors of cutlery, cooking tools, ingredients and other food-related wares (e.g., Kitchen Conservatory, Winslow’s). In addition, the marketplace would offer meats, cheeses, and other fresh products from regional farmers such as Baetje Farms and Hinkebein HillsFarm, but would not focus on the sale of fresh produce in order to minimize direct competition with the Soulard Farmers’ Market and other local farmers’ markets.
The design of the Arcade (defined in architecture as a covered and arched passageway, often with shops on one or both sides) would be equal in importance to its content and functionality. As the Arcade continues along Memorial Drive, several understated entrances provide access to the interior, opening directly into the Arcade hall as opposed to individual shop areas. Patio and sidewalk areas are filled with Memorial visitors, but the frontage is devoid of signage or other features that might spoil the beauty of the architectural elements or impart a commercial “feel” to the Memorial. The backside of the Arcade (facing the Arch) is even more muted, with only an exit or two leading to paved paths into the Memorial.
|Block Arcade, Melbourne, Australia|
As the Arcade progresses to the south, the building gradually narrows. Combined with the slowly decreasing height, the Arcade has become a more intimate space. Eventually, the commercial aspects of the Arcade fade away, as the now less imposing hall begins its eastward turn toward the interior of the Memorial. At this point, the Arcade exterior has ended at the hill, but the interior in fact continues for several hundred feet. The fact that visitors are now below grade is disguised by the natural light that continues to enter the hall from above. As the end of the Arcade approaches, the hall has become more akin to a large greenhouse, with luscious plants and flowers anticipating visitors’ exit onto the Memorial grounds.
At its smallest (but still comfortably spacious) point, the Arcade arrives at its exterior doors. Visitors exiting the Arcade find themselves on a curved path, approximately fifty feet from the Memorials’ northern pond, leading toward the main center walkway to the Arch. Looking back, visitors see only the very end of the Arcade emerging from the hillside, and realize that their passage through the latter portion of the hall involved a subtle descent to the lower Memorial grounds. The rear of the above-ground portion of the Arcade is viewed a considerable distance from the visitors’ current location, and does not infringe upon the serenity of the Memorial. Satiated and a little more knowledgeable about the St. Louis community, visitors continue on to the day’s main event, as those returning from the Arch head back into the Arcade and onward to the City.
Gateway History and Cultural Center
Now imagine approaching the far southwest corner of the Memorial from Spruce Street, perhaps having just enjoyed a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium two blocks away. A paved, tree-lined path leads you from the boundary of the Memorial to a curved building of steel and glass. A narrow end of the building rises from the southwest corner of the Memorial, turns into the Memorial grounds, and extends eastward toward the Mississippi. Upon entering, the building is revealed to be a brilliant museum—the Gateway History and Cultural Center.
The Center would both expand on and refine the ideas presented in the existing Museum of Westward Expansion. Themes of national migration would be explored in more detail, but so would regional ideas on the St. Louis area, the Mississippi River, and the Memorial itself. St. Louis would properly be presented not only as a gateway for westward migrants, but also as the final destination of immigrants who first formed the diverse neighborhoods that make the City great today. This blending of national, regional and local themes would be of significance to residents and non-local visitors alike, consistent with the character of the Memorial as both a national site and a critical element of its local urban surroundings.
As with the Arcade, visitors are aware of a change in the scale of the Center as they walk through it. In this case, however, the Center gets larger—both wider and taller—as visitors proceed from the western entrances toward the River. The modernist building facades, constructed primarily of glass with visible steel supports, provide visitors with unobstructed views of the Memorial grounds and portions of the surrounding City, particularly from the upper-level balcony areas extending along the perimeter of the Center.
|General Location of Gateway History and Cultural Center|
The expansive eastern end of the Center contains the bulk of the display areas, and also serves certain functional purposes. Here, for example, visitors can purchase tickets for a ferry ride across the River. After enjoying the Center’s exhibits and views, visitors descend from the Center to the southern outlook, continue down to the ferries docked on the River immediately below, and continue their Memorial experience with a trip over the Mighty Mississippi to the new Memorial grounds in Illinois.
Thematic and Design Elements
As readers may have guessed by now, the curved and tapering design of both the Arcade and the Center is based on—what else?—the Arch. More precisely, each building is constructed more or less along the same curve and on the same scale as one of the great Arch legs.
At first, the idea of modeling the buildings on the Arch may seem simplistic and/or gimmicky. Consider, however, the various thematic and design elements that I believe make the Memorial ideally suited to improvements of this nature. Those elements fall into three broad categories, corresponding to three primary design objectives: (1) to evoke the Arch through the curvilinear nature of the buildings, theme of two interdependent halves, and other “Arch-significant” features, while expressing deference to the Arch as the Memorial’s showpiece; (2) to engage the Memorial grounds in new ways, while minimizing impacts on the existing landscape; and (3) most critically, to frame the Memorial in a way that literally connects the Memorial, the City and the River, and reflects the site’s hybrid status as both a site of national importance and a critical component of a downtown urban neighborhood.
Evoking and Deferring to the Arch
As noted in the 1996 Cultural Landscape Report for the Memorial, the curvilinear nature of the Arch permeates throughout the Memorial. In Saarinen’s words, “[a]ll the lines of the site plan, including the paths and roads, and even the railroad tunnels, have been brought into the same family of curves to which the great arch itself belongs.” The graceful curves of the Arcade and the Center are an extension of this theme, intended to fit within “the same curved-form world” envisioned by Saarinen. Similarly, the buildings are consistent with Senator Danforth’s own vision for “architectural quality consistent with that of Saarinen’s magnificent Arch”—in a very literal sense.
|(Credit: National Park Service)|
The Center would go even farther than the Arcade in imitating the Arch, by using its equilateral-triangle shape such that the Center is a true replica of an Arch leg. Imagine an Arch leg laid on its side, and viewing it from across the Mississippi. At the southernmost end of the Memorial, one sees the vertical triangular face of the Center’s endpoint, extending over the existing south overlook. The Center continues westward toward downtown, and then curves south and “downward” such that the narrow end of the Center ends at a lower grade at the southwest corner of the Memorial. The Center as constructed in this style would be unique, geometric, simple and modern—just like the Arch.
This notion of “greater than the sum of its parts” is further exemplified by the contrasting themes and architectural styles of the two buildings. On the one hand, the Arcade pays tribute to the local flavor of the St. Louis region, both in content and in its design as a brick building in the traditional style of the pre-Memorial site. The Center’s structural-expressionist design, on the other hand, evokes the modernity of the Arch. Together, the Arcade and the Center are intended to symbolize the Memorial’s marriage of a 19th-century urban grid with a marvel of modern engineering. To borrow a phrase from Saarinen, it is this “close juxtaposition of old and new” that makes the St. Louis waterfront a place of extraordinary potential unlike any other.
In addition to adopting the brilliant simplicity of the Arch’s overall form, other meaningful design elements would be used throughout the Arcade and the Center to call to mind the Arch. These “Arch-significant” features could include, for example, the use of 71 windows, skylight sections or other building components along the length of one or both of the buildings, signifying the same number of sections used to create each Arch leg. Geometric shapes related to the Arch (e.g., catenary curves and equilateral triangles) also would be subtly incorporated into various structural or architectural aspects of the Arcade and the Center.
The theme of “deferring” to the Arch is primarily expressed through the Arcade. As opposed to the Center that grows in size as it extends eastward (thereby anticipating the mightiness of the Mississippi it overlooks), the below-grade tapering of the Arcade is intended to achieve a smooth, peaceful transition from the Arcade’s commercial aspects along Memorial Drive to its serene, garden-like elements as it extends into the Memorial grounds. As the Arcade leads visitors toward the path to the Arch, it is designed specifically to yield to the Arch.
The Center might be said to defer to the Arch in a different way. Again, the vertical face of the Center pointing out toward the River would be a large equilateral triangle, located approximately 1,500 feet to the south of the center of the Arch. One might think that would take away from the Arch when looking at the Memorial from the east, for example. Keep in mind, however, that the Arch would be many times taller than the Center—the latter would simply be dwarfed by the Arch just like all of its existing surroundings. In a sense, the relative shortness of the Center (which is actually a substantial building) when compared to the Arch would serve to highlight the magnificent scale of the Arch.
Engaging Memorial in New Ways, While Preserving Grounds
The Arcade and the Center as described above likely conjure the image of buildings that are inappropriately large for the Memorial grounds and spoil its tranquility. In fact, the buildings would be located and positioned in a way that preserves almost all of the Memorial grounds in their present form, while allowing visitors to engage the grounds in new and interesting ways.
|General Location of Gateway Arcade (above-ground portion)|
|(Credit: Kris Kumar)|
Most notably, the Center, with its sweeping northward views over the Memorial grounds from the indoor balcony areas, would permit visitors to connect with the Memorial in a completely new manner. It might seem unusual or unnecessary to design the Center to provide views over the Memorial and the River, given that there is an existing 630-foot structure that provides incredible lookouts over those very things. I think, however, that this is an important feature of the Center for two primary reasons.
The first is somewhat functional. Although millions of people visit the Memorial every year, the vast majority do not actually go up in the Arch for one reason or another, such as time constraints, inaccessibility, and personal phobias (fear of heights or claustrophobia). One purpose of the Center is to create new lookouts for the many visitors who don’t (or won’t) go up in the Arch—although, of course, the view would not be anywhere near as majestic as that provided by the Arch. The Center also provides an alternative to the existing outdoor overlooks, which appear to be largely unused and are not practical for much of the year due to the Midwest weather. (As a sidenote, this last point ties in with a key functional aspect of both the Center and the Arcade, which is that they are capable of being enjoyed by visitors year-round, as contrasted with multiple unconnected buildings or facilities erected along the perimeter of the Memorial.)
(Credit: Office of Dan Kiley)
Given this widespread lack of appreciation for Kiley’s masterwork, why not give the public a way to view the Memorial landscape while educating them as to its meaning and purpose? The Center would include a major exhibit within the balcony viewing area that would celebrate Kiley’s creation as a work of genius in its own right, thereby enhancing Kiley’s public profile and legacy. I understand that a key point behind the design of the grounds is to frame the Arch “while not calling attention to itself,” but I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving proper recognition to a critical, yet largely unrecognized, aspect of the Memorial’s design. Is there any reason that the grounds must remain an “invisible” aspect of the overall Memorial, as opposed to being honored and celebrated?
Framing the Memorial and Connecting the City, the Arch, and the River
A key goal of the design competition is to “weave [the Memorial] back into the fabric of the city and the region . . . rejuvenate connections . . . welcome and draw people for repeated visits . . . and re-energize the region for living, working and visiting.” The NPS’s express intent, then, is not only to refreshen the Memorial itself, but to transform its relationship with the City and the City’s residents. A bold goal indeed—and one that I believe will not fully be realized without the construction of major destination attractions that powerfully draw people from the City into the Memorial and to the River.
I believe that the Arcade and the Center achieve this very result. Creating two world-class destinations, markedly different in content and design yet complementary in purpose, would not only attract large numbers of new tourists, but would draw St. Louisans into the Memorial on a frequent and recurring basis, invigorating downtown from I-40 on the Memorial’s south to Washington Avenue and the Eads bridge on its north. The Center and the Arcade—with the latter having frontage directly on Memorial Drive—would pull residents, workers and visitors from the City directly into the Memorial grounds, and all the way to the River. Conversely, the buildings—particularly the Arcade—would lead Memorial visitors back to the City, enticing them to continue their exploration of the City’s offerings (e.g., Washington Avenue and future revitalized areas). In this way, the Arcade and the Center would strengthen the symbiotic relationship between the Memorial and its urban home, directly accomplishing the NPS' goal of reconnecting the City to the Arch and the River.
As far as “framing” the Memorial, the Arcade would extend the City directly to the Memorial boundary, with its graceful, curved design effecting a smoother transition than would linear buildings constructed along the Memorial’s perimeter. The design thus creates an appropriate balance between literally connecting the City to the Memorial, and keeping the more severe aspects of the urban grid at bay from the archgrounds. The Center frames the Memorial in an entirely different way, by just reaching to the edge of the City, extending the entire width of the Memorial, and ending with majestic views of the River. Together, I believe that the Arcade and the Center “provide appropriate transitions from the adjacent urban areas and the riverfronts to and from the Memorial,” consistent with the requirements for the Plans’ Streetscape/Riverscape zone.
On the excellent site The Urbanophile, urban analyst Aaron M. Renn envisions for the Memorial the creation of “something that simultaneously embodies the best of [three] approaches to make something totally new.” These three approaches are (1) starchitecture (i.e., a bold and unique design by a “star architect”); (2) emulation (i.e., the adoption of strategies from elsewhere to fit the local market); and (3) traditional (i.e., building in the historical local style). Renn suggests that such a combination would result in what he calls “world class local” or “world class St. Louis”—in other words, “[s]omething that aspires to reach the quality of the Arch, but in a way that is unmistakably of the local soil.”
It is certainly presumptuous to suggest so, but in my view, the Arcade and the Center—both in terms of their content and their general design in the image of the Arch—fit the definition of “world-class local” precisely. First, I view the buildings as starchitecture with a twist, in that they—the Center in particular—are based on an existing design of a world-famous architect. Using a variation of Saarinen’s own vision, as opposed to a wholly original design, is appropriate given the theme of deferring to the Arch, thus avoiding having the work of another “starchitect” detract from the Arch. Second, the Arcade emulates a concept successfully employed in San Francisco, and architecturally, both buildings emulate the Arch itself. Third, the Arcade exterior would be designed in the style of the pre-Memorial waterfront, thereby restoring the traditional urban grid to a small portion of the Memorial grounds. Together, might the Center and the Arcade rise to the level of “world class St. Louis”?
So, is revitalization of the Memorial on this scale achievable? Thankfully, the St. Louis community and local, state and federal public officials have recognized the need and opportunity for change, and are rising to the challenge. The NPS clearly agrees that there is room for significant adaptations to the Memorial—that it need not remain a snapshot frozen in time, forever unchanged from its original design. The question, in my mind, is simply whether the NPS and the winning design team will strike the right balance between revitalization and preservation, or will fall short of creating bold new improvements that truly reconnect the City to the River and the Arch.
I believe that this critical goal is best achieved through the construction of buildings that are so unique and first-class that they greatly enhance the overall Memorial experience, causing local residents to visit the Memorial and the River on a frequent, recurring basis. One easily envisions this with the Arcade and the Center, with non-local visits becoming a multi-day destination event. Less significant “tweaking around the edges” of the Memorial would fall short of achieving the competition’s primary goal, even if accompanied by the relocation or lidding of Interstate 70 and the development of a new Memorial Drive (a critically important step, but one that should be seen not as the end result but simply the first necessary precursor to re-joining the City with the Arch and the River).
|Support Your Park (link)|
An appropriate balance between revitalizing and preserving the Memorial must be struck. In striking that balance, however, the residents of St. Louis and visitors to the Arch from around the world should expect—and demand—nothing less than a magnificent result. To achieve such a result, I think the NPS needs to consider major improvements with more flexibility than the Plan seems to permit, and that there are ways to do so without betraying its duty to protect the overall integrity of the Memorial. In the end, my hope is that the NPS and the winning design competition team dare to dream big, and give St. Louis and the world a superlative result worthy of the Memorial. If we are going to embark on the massive undertaking of redesigning a national memorial site in our backyard, committing hundreds of millions of dollars to the outcome, why settle for anything less than a grand slam?
For any number of financial, legal and practical considerations, this vision may be an inappropriate realization of the competition’s goal—it’s just one idea, without the benefit of architectural, engineering, or urban planning expertise. I readily concede that it may be far removed from the appropriate fulcrum point on the balance between revitalizing the Memorial and preserving its historical character. It almost certainly has been nothing more than an exercise in thought, given the ongoing design competition and the NPS’s restrictions as imposed by the Plan. Perhaps—hopefully—whatever improvements do get built will fully realize the lofty goals set for the competitors. In any event, I hope these ideas at least serve to encourage and inspire St. Louisans to stay engaged in thinking about, and participating in, the ongoing revitalization of the Arch, the River, and the City we all love. Tweet