The Gateway Arch in St. Louis opened 50 years ago as the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, designed by Eero Saarinen in 1947 for the west bank of the Mississippi River. It is the tallest memorial in the United States and, reportedly, the tallest stainless steel monument in the world. Below the ground plane, the arch’s legs drill down 40 feet before going another 20 feet directly into bedrock. In the first 300 feet above ground, concrete fills the cavity between the carbon steel plates on the inside of the arch’s legs and the stainless steel plates on the exterior. Topping off at 630 feet, and offering visitors a 30-mile vista on clear days, the final steel-plate segment was placed on Oct. 28, 1965—four years after the architect’s death from a brain tumor.
The arch competition drew 172 entries, including one from Saarinen’s father, Eliel, that called for dance halls, restaurants, bridges, and murals that keyed into words like “recreation,” “adventure,” and “enduring prophecy” (the last of which is a play on the Manifest Destiny doctrine behind westward expansion). In 1948, the jury selected the younger Saarinen’s entry (number 144) for its simplicity and symbolism, which almost got him into legal hot water. As the University of Kentucky historian Tracy Campbell points out in The Gateway Arch: A Biography (Yale University Press, 2013), the Italian architect Adalberto Libera threatened to sue Saarinen because his St. Louis solution looked suspiciously like a Fascist arch that Libera had designed for the 1942 Esposizione Universale in Rome (canceled due to the war). The suit was never filed. It seems strange, though, that Saarinen could be accused of copying a catenary arch—a form born out of physics as much as it was born out of the architect’s hand, on par with a square or a circle.
But symbols are fungible. The Etruscan fasces, a bundle of rods (sometimes with an axe), was a symbol of strength and unity in the Roman Republic, carried before magistrates to announce their rank. By adding a laurel wreath to the symbol, the Romans connoted victory. It’s no surprise that fasces were borrowed by Nazi Germany and Fascist (ahem) Italy as iconographic elements in sculpture, buildings, illustrations, and regalia. It should also be no surprise that the fasces appear in other places—take a look at the U.S. Senate’s seal some time, or almost any Neoclassical public building from the 1920s or 1930s in any American city, or the occasional headstone or burial plaque.
Above on this page, Chicago illustrator Lauren Nassef reinterprets everyday objects that have become symbolic and, rendered as speculative buildings, could be iconic. Please don’t sue her.