by Michael R. Allen
For the past tow years, the citizen group City to River has pushed for removal of I-70 through downtown St. Louis in order to better improve the connections between the city’s core and the riverfront around the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. City to River’s practical and relatively affordable proposal is replacement of I-70 with an at-grade boulevard after the new Mississippi River Bridge opens in 2014. Then, I-70 will be carried away from the unsightly depressed and elevated lanes, which will get an inferior designation.
The boulevard plan won traction when the National Park Service’s General Management Plan for the Memorial included a very favorable mention of the boulevard idea. Then during the Framing a Modern Masterpiece competition, all five finalists ended up endorsing the proposal, with several explicitly drawing their own phased boulevard plans in their final competition proposals. Then the momentum came to a halt when the winner, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, got to work on creating a workable design. When that plan was unveiled on January 26 this year, the boulevard was nowhere to be found. City to River took a conciliatory tone, suggesting consensus that the boulevard was no longer a short-term goal for anyone.
Amid the reality that this city will be saddled with the ungainly mess of interstate that mars many a sight line downtown, yesterday City to River tweeted an idea that could make life with the highway a little less depressing.
Here’s the short story from Dezeen: A group in London called Assemle has built a cinema underneath a wharfside elevated highway (called a “flyover” in England). The project is called “Folly For Flyover” and lasts six weeks. The cinema’s entrance is made of reclaimed local brick supported by scaffolding in the shape of a historic row house. According to Dezeen: “Folly for a Flyover was assembled by a team of volunteers over the course of a month, using reclaimed and donated materials.”
The architectural pun is clear and lovely: elevated highway construction took down many a historic building in previous decades, and demolition continues today (hence the available brick). Activating the otherwise-bleak space under the highway offers both a way to mitigate its dehumanizing form and the occasion to do a little teaching about the scale of materials and the impact of highways on cities.
Can St. Louis try something similar? At present, even the three-block highway lid — which does nothing to offset the tragic landscape of the elevated lanes — included in Van Valkenburgh’s final plan will take years to build. Some temporary programming in our cavernous under-highway spaces downtown would make what could be a long wait for any changes to I-70 easier to bear.
The elevated structure itself is not the worst architecture in St. Louis, either. It is a utilitarian work of steel and concrete — there’s untapped visual potential that we should harness as long as it stands.