Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Framing a Modern Masterpiece: Meet the Design Teams

Meet the Design Teams Program
Earlier tonight, representatives from the five design teams remaining in the Memorial competition were introduced to the public at the Roberts Orpheum Theater.  At this stage, the teams are discussing only design philosophies and sample projects; actual design concepts will not be unveiled until August. 

Joe Buck hosted the event, mixing humor with obvious passion for St. Louis and the Arch (likening the contestants to "make-up artists for Cindy Crawford").  Buck's anecdotes about the Arch predated his own birth: in 1965, his late father Jack conducted an interview on a platform at the top of the Arch as the keystone piece was dropped in.

Making a strong case for St. Louis and its residents, Buck asked the contestants to "spend some time here and meet the people who make this city great."  Buck noted that the project not only represents the most meaningful renovations underaken in the Memorial's history, but is also one of the most intriguing urban projects in the pipeline in the United States. 

Don Stastny, the overall manager of the competition, followed Buck's introductory comments—and it is clear that St. Louis is lucky to have him at the helm of this critically important project.  Stastny, one of the top competition managers in the country and a recipient of the AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture in 2009, is obviously passionate about the Arch and understands its vital role in the urban landscape of downtown St. Louis.  Calling himself "deeply honored and proud" to be involved in the competition, Stastny referred to the Arch as a "tremendous symbol" of which all St. Louisans and Americans should be proud.

Stastny remarked on the numerous "moving parts" involved in the competition, both in terms of disciplines (architecture, urban design, engineering, landscaping, transportation) and natural and manmade features (highways, the river, the Arch, the Archgrounds, and the East Bank).  A key point of the competition, noted Stastny, is to weave the Memorial back into the urban fabric.  He made the interesting point that when you leave the Memorial, all signs lead you out of town, as opposed to into downtown—something he hopes the renovations will change.

Stastny gave a brief history of the design competition to date, before noting that the recently-begun third and final stage is "where the rubber hits the road."  As noted, the teams' design concepts will be unveiled in August at a public event, and will be displayed both at the Memorial and at various rotating spots throughout the city.  The final design will be selected in September, with the ribbon cutting scheduled for October 28, 2015—the 50th anniversary of the Arch.

The design teams were then each alloted fifteen minutes for a presentation by their representative(s) on the composition of their team, their general design philosophy, and a sampling of past projects.  At this stage, the teams are still speaking in relatively abstract (and similar) terms, but there are some noticeable differences in philosophical approaches:
  • The Behnisch Team focused on the "needs of people" (stating that a "good city is a city with a human dimension"), as well as the built environment by calling for the Memorial to become an "active catalyst for urban cohesion."
  • The approach of the MVVA Team seems primarily landscape-oriented, stressing that landscape (1) accommodates a humane scale, (2) provides continuity, and (3) is affordable.
  • The PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, Civitas team (whose representative personally knew both Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley) advocated "subtle and respectful" changes that, while transformative, are so natural that they're barely noticeable to the majority of the public.
  • The SOM, Hargreaves, BIG team stressed "making places for people" (places that are "alive" every day), as well as tying design ideas into a community's bold, long-range plans to "create economic vitality."  
  • The Weiss/Manfredi team referred to three primary design categories, titled "Icon and Setting," "Connections," and "Layering Programs."  The interesting facet of this team's approach was an affinity for embracing barriers (such as highways), by turning them into connections and "capturing their energy" without actually removing them.
To review each team's "Statement of Intent," click here.

In my opinion, the SOM, Hargreaves, BIG team was the most impressive, both from a presentation perspective and with respect to the team members' sample projects, which include Chicago's Millennium Park, San Francisco's Crissy Field (described by the team as "another beloved landscape within the shadow of its national landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge"), Houston's Discovery Green, Louisville's Waterfront Park, and London's Canary Wharf.  Apparently Joe Buck felt the same way, given that he jokingly declared the competition "over" after the team's presentation.  I would be interested to get reactions from other attendees.

I would have liked a little more specificity and a little less abstraction from the design teams, but in all, this was a really exciting event.  It's almost hard to believe that, in only five and a half years, the Memorial and the Missisippi riverfront will (hopefully) be significantly different than they are today.  I, for one, know exactly where I will be on October 28, 2015.  How often can you say that about a day that is 2,009 days away?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Revitalizing the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial: A Vision for Transformative Change

Of all the exciting projects contributing to the ongoing revitalization of downtown St. Louis, perhaps none has the potential to be as transformative as the National Park Service’s plan to renovate the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial—home of the Gateway Arch. The ongoing design competition provides an enormous opportunity to energize downtown, increase regional tourism, and change the fundamental nature of St. Louisans’ relationship to the Memorial and the riverfront.

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

For many people, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial means one thing—the Gateway Arch. The Memorial actually is much more than that, encompassing sixty-two acres of landscaped grounds surrounding Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece, plus adjacent areas such as the Old Courthouse. Dan Kiley designed the grounds—considered to be a masterpiece in their own right—to complement and evoke the Arch without drawing attention away from it. In the words of the National Park Service (“NPS”), “[t]he scale, impact, and design of the grounds constitute an essential mooring for the world-famous Arch and merge the Arch and its grounds, with one reflecting the other.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Welcome to St. Louis Energized!

I officially became a St. Louisan in April 2006—admittedly, with a fair degree of hesitation. Although we are Midwesterners, my wife and I had just spent the prior four years in San Francisco, where we were extremely happy living and working in the city. I had a fun (no, really!) job as a real estate attorney at a law firm in the Financial District, and we spent our free time exploring a vibrant new city and the spectacular natural beauty of Northern California. Needless to say, it was an incredible place to spend a small part of our lives, and it was very difficult to leave.

Ultimately, we decided (correctly) to return to the Midwest to raise our children closer to our families. There was a period of adjustment as with any move to a new city, but I soon grew very fond of our new home (we live in University City). Four years later, I consider myself to be a full-fledged St. Louisan, and could not imagine ever leaving.

In my opinion, St. Louis (and here, I am talking about both the City proper and the greater metropolitan area) is one of the great American cities. There are many things to love about this town—the neighborhoods, the urban parks, the food, the architecture, the sports, the culture, and mostly, the people. Although I have spent most of my adult life in Missouri, I also have lived in several states on both coasts, and in various urban and rural settings, and I am incredibly grateful that St. Louis is where I have ended up to put down long-term roots.

One thing that never ceases to surprise me, however, is the extent to which many of the region's residents seem to fail to appreciate—or even downright disparage—the City itself. Of course, the City of St. Louis, as with most urban cores, has many challenges that are very real and very serious. Problems relating to poverty, education, housing, transportation, crime, and homelessness cannot be ignored or discounted in analyzing the present or future state of our community.

At the same time, a lot of exciting things are happening in the City. There are clearly many passionate people working hard to revitalize the City, increase density, and tackle various socioeconomic issues that affect our City and its residents. Numerous positive developments have occurred in recent years, and on balance, I see a lot of reasons to be hopeful about the years ahead.

In Spring 2010, I decided to launch St. Louis Energized as a way to contribute to the positive side of the discussion on the rejuvenation of the City of St. Louis. The site will explore issues relating to the ongoing revitalization of the City (particularly downtown), both in terms of specific development efforts as well as general urban infill issues. In particular, I intend to discuss topics relating to historic preservation and related conservation issues, primarily from a market-based (rather than regulatory) perspective.

Although I am a real estate attorney, this site is really intended to be a layman's view of these issues. I am not an expert in urban planning, green construction, or architecture. I am not a life-long native of St. Louis, and do not pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of the complex issues facing the City—although I am doing my best to learn as much, and as quickly, as possible. My intent is simply to help communicate a positive vision for the future of the City in the upcoming decades, ultimately with the hope that it inspires at least a few people to get involved in making St. Louis an even more remarkable place than it already is.

I hope you enjoy the site!