Tuesday, December 15th, 2009
Fresh off its success with City Garden, St. Louis is holding an open design competition to re-design the grounds around the Arch, even extending to the Illinois side of the river. For full details you can check out the official project web site.
The competition is using a three stage gating system. This would seem to make it daunting for people without established big name reputations to win, but I’m sure they’ll get plenty of interest.
One of the items they care a lot about is the design philosophy of the team. In my view, this is indeed paramount. This project gives St. Louis the opportunity to really take urban design in the Midwest to a whole new level. If you look at most major civic design projects, especially in the Midwest, they tend to fall into three basic categories:
Starchitecture would be something like Milwaukee’s Calatrava expansion or Chicago’s Frank Gehry designed band shell. I’ve got my quibbles with starchitecture. The buildings tend to be more about the brand of the architect than the city they are located in. And their designs are too often self-indulgent. Having said that, many of them are gorgeous. And they serve an important civic function similar to that of Neoclassical in an earlier age. It creates a sacred space and also is a declaration of values and belonging. Once, cities turned to Neoclassical to anchor themselves in the 2,500 year tradition of the finest parts of Western Culture. Today, it is an expression of a desire to belong and be taken seriously among what is believed to be the finest of global values. That’s certainly a legitimate thing to want to do, so having some of these buildings isn’t a bad thing.
Emulation is adopting strategies from elsewhere to the local market. City after city has installed trails and bike lanes, for example. While locals dispute it, I believe City Garden is an adaptation of the Millennium Park concept. Again, nothing wrong with this. You certainly don’t want to adopt a “not invented here” approach. There is plenty of scope of adopting best practices from elsewhere, as long as you tailor them to the local context.
Traditional projects are basic infill type projects in the local vernacular. This is more or less the strategy Indianapolis has adopted for its major buildings. The effect is often “retro” and is done to good effect in such structures as Conseco Fieldhouse, arguably the best basketball arena in the country. These generally don’t win architectural plaudits or break much new ground, but they do have their place. You don’t want every significant building in town to look like it beamed in from somewhere else.
So while none of these are per se bad, I think there’s an opportunity out there for a city to distinguish itself by pursuing another genre entirely, something you might call “world class local”. That is, create something that simultaneously embodies the best of all these approaches to make something totally new.
While dreaming about building a house for myself in Fountain Square, Indianapolis, I started thinking about what my brief would be. I would want something really world class, something that would look at home in the pages of Dwell or Wallpaper, that would be seen as belonging in a world of starchitecture. Of course, I’d also want it to embody all the latest best practices of sustainability. But I’d also want it to look like it belonged, like a true vernacular piece of Midwest architecture, like something that was really a product of the native soil in a way that looked at home there, but would not elsewhere. Something that might, in fact, inspire a new vernacular, a new type of local home that would ultimately become as locally classic and fitting as the American Foursquare or Italianate. Something that would be simultaneously world class and Indianapolis.
I think there’s an opportunity for St. Louis to hold out for something very much like this. Now the project is a landscape, not a building (a greater – and thus perhaps more thrilling – challenge) and is also a special civic place, not an infill home. But the same principle applies.
I think about this site and St. Louis, a city I’ll admit to not knowing as well as I would like, and here is what I see. You’ve got the Arch, which is already an iconic piece of architecture and in effect fills the starchitecture slot here nicely. So what do you surround it with? I’d suggest something authentically “world class St. Louis” – not “world class in St Louis”, an important distinction. Something that aspires to reach the quality of the Arch, but in a way that is unmistakably of the local soil. The Arch is what modern architecture had to say to St. Louis. This project can be what St. Louis has to say back. It can be a uniquely St. Louis perspective and contribution to contemporary landscape architecture. It can anchor the Arch in St. Louis. Respect the Arch? Yes. Worship before it? No.
The location along the Mississippi River offers an opportunity to again redefine what it means for a city to engage with a truly major river, one prone to significant periodic flooding. And, the Illinois side of the river is included as well, giving a great opportunity to both highlight the individuality of Missouri and Illinois, but also to create a symbol of a regional unity that is clearly needed to compete and succeed in the modern world.
Simultaneously satisfying all of these criteria in a landscape architecture project would be a big challenge – but meeting big challenges is what the best design is all about. The risk in my view is that a traditional “big rep” designer will simply create another international-class design or make only facile allusions to St. Louis. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens. With City Garden and now this, perhaps St. Louis can look at landscape architecture as one area it will use as a differentiator. The Millennium Mall and waterfront offer plenty of additional opportunities.
Read another take on this from St. Louis Urban Workshop.
And here are some great thoughts and proposals from another local blogger.
On a related note, Metropolis magazine had a nice piece on the effect of the City Garden park: The Spirit of St. Louis. Check it out.