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The uncommon Commons: A soul in the center of the Cortex district

The utilitarian raingardens capture stormwater run-off, removing silt and pollutants. The shade structure adds elegance.
Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
The utilitarian raingardens capture stormwater run-off, removing silt and pollutants. The shade structure adds elegance.

Anyone who’s a frequent driver, cyclist or pedestrian along Forest Park Avenue has an idea what the research and development phenomenon called Cortex looks like – at least an imposing architectural chunk of it.

As Cortex president and CEO Dennis Lower notes, there’s much, much more than the average passerby might imagine in the district, more than what’s presented by the modern building at 4320 Forest Park Ave. with the tilted glass façade and, across Boyle from it, the skeleton of a new building rising on the corner.

Cortex, the acronym for Center of Research, Technology and Entrepreneurial Expertise, sprawls over 200 acres of urban real estate in the west end of St. Louis, and is bookended by the venerable Washington University School of Medicine and related institutions on the west and IKEA on the east. Of those 200 acres, 60 percent is yet to be built upon. Cortex – now officially called the Cortex Innovation Community – has 205 companies operating in its environs, providing 3,600 jobs to date.

The Cortex idea, Lower said, was conceived in 2000; the actual formation of it was in 2002. Its first major groundbreaking was in 2004, and other such groundbreakings followed in 2006, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

If one were to employ references to the human body to describe the composition of Cortex, you’d say it has a developing and growing skeleton, vital organs in place, elastic skin and an amazing and versatile brain. Recently it has come to own something resembling an emergent soul.

Cortex is built on particular St. Louis strengths, the life sciences and information technology. Together this dyad forms a definition of an important aspect of 21st century dynamism.

As you turn off Forest Park Avenue and head south on Boyle,  the realization of potential, imagination, the blending of old and new - all this opens before you. And just east of the Boyle Avenue asphalt, the serene soul in the midst of a busy place comes gently into view.

Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. -- Andre Gide

In its decade-plus of life, Cortex has acquired status as a center of vitality, and now in its center, recently completed, exists this soul, which can be called an agora or a forum or a plaza. Officially it is called the Commons. Whatever it’s called, Lower’s intention is it will serve as an inviting, walkable environment for those who work in the district as well as those who visit, an inviting open space friendly to pedestrians and bicycle riders, dog walkers and joggers.

The Cortex commons is a gathering place for people who work and live in the area.
Credit Provided by Cortex
The Cortex commons is a gathering place for people who work and live in the area.

Already the new Commons has become a gathering place for the constituents of Cortex and for the general public. This version of open space – contrasted to a park, or a mall or an amphitheater -- exalts the void rather than the imposition of material construction. Since ancient times, it has been a marketplace for vigorous exchanges of ideas and occasionally for revolutions as well as for clothing, groceries, etc. Civic celebrations occur in spaces such as this, as does civic grieving. Spaces such as this provide solitude.

The hope and the expectation is that the men and women who work in Cortex buildings, as well as neighbors who might be attracted to it, will come there for not only for rejuvenation and solitude but for discussions and debates about their work and about public affairs.

That’s a tall order, but this evolving and striking place, between Duncan and Clayton avenues just east of Boyle (interrupted by the MetroLink and other railroad tracks), seems conducive to such enrichment.

Bright red-orange chairs and black-top tables accommodate the lunch bunches who’ve brown-paper bagged it or who’ve patronized the food trucks who pull up on the edge of this plaza.

The Sagan quote is captured in site. Visit and find Jemison's and others represented in this article.
Credit Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
The Sagan quote is captured in site. Visit and find Jemison's and others represented in this article.

Walkways meander through this agora, and seven of the bold-face aphorisms that appear from time to time in this article are etched in metal strips, placed between the paving stones in paths leading to and from the central open plaza: Inspiration from the ground up. By commissioning an architectural complex designed not only for lunch and coffee breaks but also for breaking ideational ground, the Commons – if it is to be more than a playground – is challenged  to tilt the scales of gravitas as well as to offer visual attractiveness.

Any serious planner would gag on the idea of deciding to have a public open space – an agora -- and then throw plants and furniture at it with no hope or expectation of its providing anything other than a good time.

Similarly, welcoming benches and grown-up play structures in the Commons and lines that form at the windows of food trucks encourage banter – and the spontaneous and informal proposal of potentially interesting and formally significant ideas.

Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere. - Albert Einstein

There are pedagogical encouragements to thinking beyond work in offices and labs and about the state of the world and its environmental health, Indeed, nowadays, out of both necessity and good will, investments in sustainable planning have become obligatory elements of any self-respecting development.

At Cortex, plantings are not just pretty but have the work of sustainability to do. Here is the explanation given in a sign in the Commons telling how plantings work in raingardens:

"Raingardens capture stormwater run-off, removing silt and pollutants, while allowing stormwater to soak into the ground. Raingardens are designed as vegetated soil filters, with special soil mixes, native and adapted plants, and sophisticated underdrain and overflow systems to regulate the flow of water through and into the subsoils below."’

The shade structure goes beyond function and provides a signature look for the Commons.
Credit Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
The shade structure goes beyond function and provides a signature look for the Commons.

At the center of all this swoops up a bold tension structure, or shade structure, as Lower calls it. This handsome, minimalist and efficient edifice provides shelter all year round for those who come to this genuinely uncommon place called the Commons. It brings a bold upsweep to the agora and speaks architecturally and metaphorically of freedom and flight as well as of the utilitarian need for shelter. So expressive it is, this bold and communicative shape could easily could become an auxiliary logo for the district.

SWT Design of St. Louis created the plan for this new urban asset. The Cortex Commons, with its commitment to sustainability and its offerings of shelter and relaxation, reveals itself in a dignified procession, portraying  a fresh and quiet beauty, and a magnetism I found irresistible.

In the space of a just over a decade, Cortex visibly has transformed the area bounded by Newstead and Vandeventer, Forest Park Avenue and Highway I-64. Unlike many just-off-of-the-beaten-paths, mixed-use neighborhoods, the greater part of this geography never went dystopic, although, you never know: Had it not been for a multiplicity of resources, advantages and investments, public and private, and proximity to healthy, reborn and reviving institutions and residential neighborhoods, it certainly might have stumbled into desuetude.

Lower said that the institutional prime movers for Cortex included Washington University; Saint Louis University; BJC Healthcare; the University of Missouri-St. Louis; and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Individual leading lights, Lower said, included such civic leaders as Dr. William H. Danforth, chancellor emeritus of Washington University and founding chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; John F. McDonnell, a businessman, philanthropist and former chairman of the McDonnell Douglas Corp.; John P. Dubinsky, a financial consultant, philanthropist and president and CEO of Cortex; Lewis A. Levey, chairman of Enhanced Value Strategies Inc., which provides real estate consulting and advisory services; and Mark S. Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University and a chemist.

Tomorrow lurks in us to be all that was not achieved before. -- Loren Eiseley