© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: 'Meet the designers' presentation conjured up dazzling visions of Arch's future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - A couple of factors boded ill for the "Meet the Design Teams" gathering downtown Wednesday night.

First of all, although the Roberts Orpheum Theatre on North Ninth Street downtown stands firm as a grand old architecturally meritorious theater with a rich and varied history, it's not recognized as a presentation place for serious discussions of urban design.

Second, the host of the show was this young fellow Joe Buck, the famous sports announcer. Although Buck's a terrific guy with a keen sense of humor and an indisputable presence, he is not the person you'd expect to find introducing internationally recognized urban designers and architects to a rather focused group of 800 individuals keenly, avidly interested in what is going to happen around the region's most famous monument, the Gateway Arch.

Guess what? Venerable theater and fast-talking celebrity conspired to produce a fascinating evening, one described by more than one person on the sidewalk after the show as inspiring.

Building and emcee were more than accommodating. The presentations were illuminating. The show finished five minutes ahead of schedule, and defections were few. As the evening went on, an observer had the sense that St. Louisans were watching something thrilling unfold -- a desire by an international cast of characters to come here and to work with us to make an undesirable situation not only better but extraordinary.

Putting this competition together was no easy task. Going ahead, obstacles will undoubtedly loom on the landscape. But on Wednesday evening, the evidence suggested that this audacious renaissance of a troubled city's heart will be accomplished, that we indeed have a shot at doing something important for St. Louis and doing it very well.

When the competition was announced last year, 49 teams from the United States and seven foreign countries entered in the hope of getting the job of designing improvements to the Arch grounds and establishing smooth connections to downtown, to the river, to the East Side and to the neighborhoods north and south of the memorial grounds.

In February, the field of 49 competitors was winnowed to nine teams; earlier this month five teams were named as finalists by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, the sponsoring organization of the competition.

Wednesday evening, ideas flowed and eddied like the strong currents of the Mississippi. These ideas responded to 10 goals:

  • to create an iconic place;
  • to be a catalyst for reinvigoration;
  • to honor the character of place;
  • to weave urban connections;
  • to embrace the east and west banks of the river;
  • to reinvigorate the mission of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to tell the story of westward expansion;
  • to create attractions that will bring more visitors to the Arch and environs;
  • to resolve the difficult issues of access;
  • to develop a sustainable future;
  • to enhance visitor experience -- the better to entice visitors to remain here for a longer time that what's required to visit the Arch.

That is, of course, a tall order, so the representatives of the five teams had to talk fast to demonstrate why their approaches might be most worthy.
Christoph Jantzen, representing the Behnisch Team (Behnisch Arkitecten, Stuttgart, Germany), spoke of the need to create a design to integrate the Arch grounds and the disparate surroundings into a single destination. "This is a unique task," he said, and to accomplish it required the skills of men and women working in various disciplines and a complex layering of firms. He said the goal of the design is far more than landscaping and materials. "Surroundings influence the quality of lives," he said, and his hope is to create, with his colleagues, surroundings that achieve that purpose.

MVVA (Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, New York) was represented by Gullivar Shepard, who is an alumnus of the College of Architecture of Washington University. He posed the question: Why should we invest in St. Louis? His answer: "We assume cities are important, that's why." He called the barriers to the Arch attacks on the senses and spoke of the need for creating continuity of spaces -- a condition so desperately lacking now.

PWP Landscape Architecture (Berkeley, Calif.), working with Foster + Partners and Civitas, was represented by Peter Walker. Walker associated himself with the history of the Arch: He once worked with Saarinen, and he once drove Dan Kiley -- the landscape architect of the Arch grounds -- from Chicago to Columbus, Ind. Those associations aside, he showed the work his firm has done for such high-profile commissions as the World Trade Center Memorial in New York and the connecting of the National Gallery in London to Trafalgar Square, British landmarks formerly across the street from each other and isolated from each other.

Phil Enquist of SOM, Chicago, and Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves Associates, San Francisco, characterized themselves as city designers and city builders. Their team will seek to use the Arch -- "this treasure," Enquist called it -- as a catalyst for economic vitality. Jones stressed the importance of regional history, especially as it applied to Native American populations long gone from here. She spoke of a project of hers called Discovery Green in Houston in a formerly desolate part of the city as now being "unleashed happiness." The suggestion was, This Can Happen Here, Too.

Last up: Weiss/Manfredi, whose ideas were presented by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. They spoke of the need to advance the work started by Kiley decades ago, and the importance of connections between such regional crown jewels as the Eads Bridge and the Arch. Unlike MVVA, Weiss and Manfredi are "crazy about barriers, and, for example, at No. 1 Police Plaza in New York, the firm used barriers as ways to make connections with the surroundings. Rather than fear transportation systems and highways, Weiss said scary stuff in cities should be celebrated and employed in designing, rather than rejected.

Each of the five teams will receive $100,000, part of a nearly $2 million purse raised privately by the foundation. The not-for-profit foundation includes Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and other community leaders and national park supporters.

Within the five teams, a number of individuals and firms in St. Louis have been tapped to participate in the process.

Among them are: Arcturis; Cohen Hilberry and Mackey Mitchell architectural firms; SWT Design; Randy Burkett Lighting Design; Kiku Obata & Co.; Kwame Building Group; Focus St. Louis; Eric Mumford and Peter MacKeith, both members of the faculty in the College of Architecture at Washington University; and preservation expert and historian Michael R. Allen.

The five teams are to produce their final designs by mid-August and their submissions will be shown publicly. The jury is to select a winner in September. If all goes according to plan, the finished product, the joining of Arch and the lands and waters around it, the winning design will have been built and ready by Oct. 28, 2015. That is the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Gateway Arch.

"We're lucky," Joe Buck said in sending the audience home. One has the feeling he's called it right.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.