Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

St. Louis: Gateway Arch Grounds Design Competition

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:

  1. Starchitecture
  2. Emulation
  3. Traditional

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.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding
Cities: St. Louis

16 Responses to “St. Louis: Gateway Arch Grounds Design Competition”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    How would you categorize buildings designed based on the traditional style of another area? The best-known example of this is Western Chinatowns with pagodas, but there are other, less kitschy instances. I’ve seen a few buildings in Manhattan that don’t have the traditional exposed brick or brutalist exterior, but a smooth one in a uniform light color, as is common in Southern Europe. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it’s definitely not local tradition. There are also buildings in Tel Aviv that avoid the local tradition of mid-rise white buildings with the first floor set back, and are designed in line with modernist US condos.

  2. Hmm. Is this prominent in recent civic structures? From what I’ve seen, most what you are describing is purely private structures, and it’s generally just a pastiche.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    In New York, it’s private apartment buildings – not even the prestigious ones.

    In Tel Aviv, it’s more widespread, including shopping centers, and expensive condos whose residents include former Prime Ministers.

  4. I know in China they have replicated all these ethnic villages and such. I find it odd. Unless you are designing a structure that is specifically supposed to be ethnic – say a local Japanese cultural center – I’m not sure I get the point. Call it “importation” I guess.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    I’ve only been to Shanghai and Jiaxing, but the buildings I saw there weren’t really imported. The ones built in the Victorian era look Victorian, and the more modern ones are brutalist or glass-covered, but I haven’t seen any attempt to imitate a foreign style.

    On the other hand, in Singapore, in the middle of the CBD, an upscale hotel and mall has a pagoda on top, for no apparent reason other than to remind Western tourists that they’re in Asia.

  6. David Larsen says:

    I’m glad to see my hometown getting some decent coverage here, don’t see it too often on the urbanophile, but you’re covering all the midwest and we usually don’t have things this big to report on. I competely agree with most of what you stated above and feel I may know a bit more about the ‘lou to help guide the process. St. Louis owes everything it has to the River, and what the Mississippi provided the city was connectivity to the rest of the continent. The area became a hub for westward expansion as well as river trade before the railroads migrated that hub to Chicago. Today, St. Louis is a fragmented metro. The divides such as city/county, north/south city, MO/IL are what are hold back the region and keep it from realizing what a truly great city it is. Thus, I hope the entries focus on reconnecting the archgrounds and riverfront with the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods more than anything else. While this is not necessarily flashy and jaw-dropping it will actually serve the city as well as the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the archground eash year. You are completely right about expressing the river, I hope it can take some ideas from other riverfront parks (allegheny, louisville) to express fluctuations in the water level. Most importantly, as you said it needs to reflect St. louis; and by that I mean not try to act like Chicago and act like the small city it is and should be.

  7. I don’t quite see what the implication is with “the small city it is and should be,” We’re a medium sized city with a bit too much Chicago envy, but we are twice the size of Louisville or Memphis.

    I’ll quote a local blogger (http://exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com/),
    “St. Louis is both North and South, epitomizes the libertarianism of the Frontier Thesis with the dependance of a rust-belt city, remains illogically smug while nursing an incredible inferiority complex, celebrates parochiality while striving for Chicago’s urban might, mourns its extinct industrial heritage while actively suppressing that which is left, and fears change while being ignorant to its past potential. All told these unnerving dichotomies have resulted in confusion, weak leadership, and the wanton disregard and destruction of a city immensely more valuable than we appreciate.”

    To put the arch competition is the proper context though, the park its in is essentially a rectangle cut off from the rest of the city.
    To the south is a massive highway interchange where three highways converge on a single bridge.
    To the west is I-70, which will soon be rerouted across the river by a bridge many blocks north.
    To the north there is a massive parking garage.
    To the east, there’s the river but just the river. Its like the steps go down to cobble stones and then the water. There’s nothing to really do there. … well a few riverboats linger about. There’s been talk of filling up barges with dirt and having connectable floating park spaces out there in the water. Very interesting.

    On the other side of the river is East St. Louis: the Windsor of our Detroit. They have the best view of us, and from the arch, they’re what we are forced to look at.
    They’ve got a giant parking lot and industrial site, which the competition isn’t going to touch. :o( There’s also a large haphazardly planned park that has been donated to the park service. most powerful fountain in the world, and ugliest observation platform (brand new!). Full map of the planned site here,

    The local favorite is to remove the section of I-70 and build an at-grade boulevard, simple and easy. Alternately there’s the possibility of a lid over the depressed section of the highway, that has been called for for a very long time. Or we may divert a road, but the most important thing is for the arch to connect to downtown. Currently the arch grounds is an island.

    CityGarden, is very much a part of this competition. It’s on the gateway mall, which leads to Kiener Plaza and the old courthouse, which are part of the competition.

  8. Thanks for the comments and insights. Great quote from that other blog, Daron.

  9. Jeff says:

    I wonder what you think about the feasibility of using monolithic domes in cities? They seem to be pretty permanent, energy efficient, and weather-resistant, but all the pictures I’ve seen are squat, which seems like a problem for density.

  10. David Larsen says:

    Daron, you are very correct. Saw that on Dotage; post and comment sum up St. Louis pretty well and should send a wake up call to those who don’t realize they are destroying our city. I did not mean small city in a bad way at all, I actually see it as a strength, but I want st. louis to finally cover the basics and work on the small stuff before we try to put the cherry on top. The archgrounds are the perfect example of the divide that highway expansion and urban renewal has left us with to repair. A lid over I-70 would definitely improve connections with the mall and downtown, but the removal of the interstate (from the poplar street to the new MR Bridge including reworking the interchanges ) and introduction of an at-grade boulevard would be a great way to could allow for actual redevelopment and possibly new development along the W, N, and S of the park. What I really want out of this project is the removal of barriers so new and improved connections can be made with the park to stengthen the core of the city.

    This shouldn’t just be for the MO side; I would like to see major improvements and new connections on the east side as well. When the eads bridge touches down in East STL, it should be reworked (maybe along the metrolink line) to better turn into Collinsville Ave. Just an idea, but maybe small things like this, although they wouldn’t be the cover story in LA magazine or anything, are more likely to spark subtle subconscious shifts in the way we experience our cities. I love seeing the grain elevator and wish the casino wasn’t there (I hate seeing old aerials of even just 20 years ago and seeing how much its footprint has exploded recently). Lastly maybe they could have a trail that circles all of the expanded grounds (both sides of the river) running through the current arch grounds, on the eads bridge, along the riverfront,rail line or 64 on the IL side, and then back over on the Mac Arthur bridge. Just about 5 miles or so with some amazing views.

    I could go on, the competition is a great opportunity for the region and I hope the final design helps residents of the area as much as it does visitors.

  11. The following comment was submitted by email from Michael Allen:

    Aaron Renn,

    I read your post on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition, and have many thoughts that follow. One that perhaps is not on the design competition radar screen just yet is that the competition affords St. Louis the chance to deal with the depressed and elevated section of I-70 that severs the Arch grounds from downtown. A new river bridge carrying I-70 opens in 2016, and the depressed and elevated lanes will be downgraded to “470” or somesuch through-way connector designation. Cross-country traffic won’t need the lanes. Locals never really did.

    The timing of the competition hinges on completion of major improvements by the 50th anniversary of the Arch date. That hopefully would not forestall an idea that could be as radical as removal of what will become, just a year after the anniversary, redundant infrastructure. We in St. Louis’ urbanist community certainly hope that more than one entry in the competition either removes the highway section or reconciles it with the urban fabric. As it stands, it’s the worst design problem facing the Arch grounds. I like to say that the Arch grounds is one of the nation’s most cohesive urban landscapes surounded by some of the nation’s worst highway infrastructure.

  12. Daron says:

    David, we are on the same page. Getting the northside trail down to Jefferson Barracks–through the memorial–is one of my fondest wished. Mirroring it on the other side naturally is just as nice. Its in the long range plan. The River Ring trail network is supposed to do it… eventually.

    I agree with Michael as well. This competition is 95% about a highway in local hearts and minds.

  13. Carl says:

    I agree that replacing the I-70 trench with a boulevard would be ideal. However, if that doesn’t happen right away for whatever reason, then treat the trench as a river and make the bridges a major downtown focal point. Redesigned as \can’t miss\ art installations, they could become destinations unto themselves and help pull visitors towards the Arch and river. The incorporation of sculptural lighting would make them especially appealing during the 6-month Midwestern Dark Season.

    Rather than bare bones, functional structures, the Arch bridges could become THE postcard image of the re-energized downtown waterfront district initiative and a fine complement to the amazing Arch and redesigned grounds.

  14. cdc guy says:

    In the interest of regional cooperation, there are some images of Columbus, Indiana’s bridges that might stimulate folks to do what Carl suggests above. See


    and scroll down to “Front Door Bridge” and “Second Street Bridge”. Postcard images.

  15. Daron says:

    I’m inclined to agree with you guys. I don’t think a lid is necessarily the answer, more usable overpasses would be fine for the basic connection problem.

    There are many cheaper solutions that can be considered to better connect the gateway mall to the gateway arch. If you look at the design areas in detail, scroll down here,

    You’ll see that the main design area were’re talking about is confined to the highway border along the arch grounds.

    Up there at the northern corner though there’s a real problem. The road elevates east to go across the eads bridge and elevates north to form a raised highway that creates an pretty long and unworkable barrier through the northern half of the city. We concerned citizens, think that should go too, though it is’t in the cards for the competition.
    You can see an image of it on wikipedia here,
    There’s a great unused dead space under the road. If we keep the highway for several more decades, then we’ll have to do something with that space. The roof is there, I think we could build some walls and put a street scape on either side, but then again… that takes rezoning, initative, and money. We only have so much political capital, removal is our goal.

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