I love St. Louis the way some people love New York. Though I left my hometown after high school, I still follow revitalization efforts in the city with a proprietary eye. There have been hits and misses over the years, but I have high hopes for the current competition to redesign the Gateway Arch grounds, a 90-acre National Park formally known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
The competition organizers solicited proposals from five all-star teams: Behnisch Architekten; Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA); Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architecture (PWP), Foster + Partners, and Civitas; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Hargreaves Associates, and Bjarke Ingels Group; and Weiss/Manfredi.
Even if I weren’t a native, I’d be excited by the talent under consideration and by the massive and visionary scope of the competition. The brief encompasses not only the park, but also the neglected riverfront, an addition to the underground museum at the base of the Arch, improved connections to the surrounding city, another huge park in East St. Louis, Ill., facing the Arch across the Mississippi River, and pedestrian-friendly links between the two.
At this point, the teams have submitted their proposals and made their presentations to the competition jury, which will announce a winner on Sept. 24. It’s a tough call. I spent the better part of a weekend reading the teams’ 100-plus-page narratives, trying to play armchair juror, and it was hard to guess who might win. The design teams have brought a lot of good ideas to the table, and I found myself wanting to cut and paste the best strategies from each scheme into a kind of happy Frankenstein superplan.
The competition organizers promise a completion date of 2015, which is ambitious. Eero Saarinen’s design for the Arch was selected in 1947, and the structure didn’t open to the public until 1967. Such massive undertakings are often evolutionary. The competition-winning proposal is a compelling first draft, subject to alteration. Bearing that in mind, rather than pick and praise a potential winner, I’m highlighting compelling ideas from each proposal, ideas that deserve consideration regardless of who gets the job.
1. Honor Thy Father, Then Defy Him
It’s easy to forget that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is not only the work of Saarinen, but also of a second midcentury master, landscape architect Dan Kiley, who designed the grounds. Several competition proposals would restore one of Kiley’s core design strategies: curved allées of slender tulip poplars framing views of the Arch. And some, such as PWP’s, use the restored allées as a framework in which to add contemporary landscape and architecture. I think that Kiley would approve. When working in a landmark context, built or grown, the vision of the past must be reconciled with the needs and ideals of the present day.
2. Tear Down This Wall
All five teams propose decking over part of a sunken highway that separates the Arch grounds from the rest of the city. Good. But there’s another barrier between the park and downtown: two midcentury megaprojects that encompass multiple city blocks. Only Behnisch does the politically challenging but urbanistically right thing, cutting up these behemoth buildings to restore the street grid and improve access to the park.
3. Get Into the River
The riverfront levee is a historic but featureless strip of granite cobblestones. The typical recommendation for it is too tentative: namely, docking activity barges along the levee. Weiss/Manfredi, by contrast, would completely reshape the water’s edge: North and south of the Arch, two terraced “urban bluffs” extend into the Mississippi like earthen piers, allowing spectacular views back to the monument and an intimate engagement with the river.
4. Eat, Pray, Love
When the City of St. Louis cleared the memorial site (from 1939–1942), the only building left standing was the 1834 Old Cathedral, the oldest church in the city. It sits alone and awkward at the edge of the park. None of the teams really remedied the problem, except MVVA, which smartly proposes constructing a fine restaurant and banquet hall across a new plaza from the church’s portico. The addition restores dignity and context to the Old Cathedral and would make a great venue for wedding receptions.
5. Look Aside, Look Ahead
East St. Louis makes downtown Detroit look like paradise. SOM smartly exceeds the brief here, proposing not just a riverfront park with an outdoor arena, but an urban development strategy for the surrounding area, which is basically a wasteland. The firm also offers planning strategies for the warehouse districts immediately north and south of the Arch grounds—all parts of a plan for growth beyond the 2015 completion date.
It’s a good thing St. Louis is looking to its future. The further ahead, the better.
Because there’s nothing worse than reading about a design you can’t see, visit the competition website, cityarchrivercompetition.org.