by Michael R. Allen
This is the ninth and final part of a series on the evolution of the Gateway Mall, that ribbon of park space that runs between Market and Chestnut streets and from the Jefferson National Expansion memorial westward to Twenty-Second Street downtown. This article began its life as a lecture that I delivered to the Friends of Tower Grove Park on February 3, 2008, and was published in its entirety in the NewsLetter of the Society of Architectural Historians, Missouri Valley chapter in Spring 2011.
The 2007 Gateway Mall master plan provided impetus to the development of the two blocks of the mall between Eighth and Tenth streets as the successful Citygarden. Designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz architects and completed in 2009, Citygarden is an interactive sculpture garden that has garnered favorable criticism from the New York Times. Citygarden’s two blocks share the “hallway,” a wide formal tree-lined sidewalk along Market Street recommended by the new Gateway Mall Master Plan. However, the blocks eschew further strict formalism. Linear paths follow the somewhat irregular lines of long-abandoned alleys, while a gentle arc runs through both blocks. The north sides are raised up, with the eastern block containing a waterfall and minimalist cafe building on its high side and the western block rising up to a whimsical forested hill atop which is placed a sculpture. There is a plaza on the western block alive with fountain jets adjacent to a grid of large metal pedals upon one which one can jump to trigger bells at different tones. All of the sculptures can be touched. Citygarden has been so successful that the section of 10th Street between the two blocks remains closed to shield the heavy pedestrian traffic.
Citygarden’s design discarded rationalist notions of open space and view in favor of a contemporary landscape design theories of the need for activation, asymmetry, whimsy and native plantings. The small size of the intervention — two blocks — creates clear boundaries and edges of Citygarden that drive pedestrians into its space. The success of Citygarden in part comes from employing long-standing observations about the utility of basic urban design features that encourage circulation and building density.
In his 1938 volume The Art of Building Cities, Camillo Sitte discusses the great public spaces of historic European cities. According to Sitte, the plan of a successful urban park must be irregular and enclosed with the size no larger than 465 ft by 190 ft. The park width should be equal to the height of the principal adjacent building, while the length should be no more than twice this dimension. Statues or monuments should be located on the periphery to maximize circulation of people within the park. Sitte stated that the park need not have plants or lawns. Unsurprising, Sitte’s ideas of sensitive central city park space germinated slowly in the United States.
In her classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs compared four public parks within a roughly equal distance of Philadelphia City Hall in the center city. Jacobs found high usage at only one of the four parks, Rittenhouse Square. The reason for its success, according to Jacobs, lay in its surroundings. Rittenhouse Square is surrounded by mixed uses that generate constant foot traffic. The square is a crossing amid a dense urban environment, and proximate to ground-floor activity in surrounding buildings. In short, Rittenhouse Square has the clear and purposeful boundaries and the surrounding human density to be simultaneously well-defined and well-used. Again, Tom Turner summarizes the situation well with the statement: “Success depends on the exact character of the bounding membrane [of a park].”
After conducting a study of public spaces in New York City in 1980, critic William H. Whyte concluded that “what attracts people most … is other people.” We can construct dazzling follies and plant beautiful gardens on the Mall, but without circulation it will never amount to a decent public space. And it will not generate circulation if its surroundings remain hostile to pedestrian life. Indeed, people do seek other people — at restaurants, at gallery openings, at night clubs and in residential and office buildings. These things are in short supply on Market and Chestnut streets, beyond the few retail spaces north of Kiener Plaza. Citygarden is such a singular park space that it drives its own demand for use, which in turn has boosted pedestrian traffic around it. A converse positive relationship between park and activity of Citygarden also can be seen in a smaller, earlier downtown park.
Strangely, a downtown park that enjoys much casual use throughout warmer months is one facing the mall on Market Street in front of one of the office buildings built in the 1980s. The plaza in front of 1010 Market Street, at the southeast corner of Market and 11th streets, was designed by architect Edward Larrabee Barnes as part of the building design. The building itself, with its white grid around window ribbons, is a post-modern reincarnation of International Style minimalism. The plaza uses well-defined design elements: a grid of pathways with trees planted in the squares created by the paths. There are a few benches, a lot of shade and defining enclosure provided by building walls. The glass wall exposes a lobby and restaurant space to this plaza, employing visual continuity between interior and exterior common to Modernist-inspired work. This little park is simple, well-designed, comfortable and placed adjacent to traffic-generating use.
The qualities that make Barnes’ park space functional eluded many of his contemporaries, but they are apparent in the popular Citygarden. Over one hundred years since publication of A City Plan for St. Louis, the Gateway Mall reflects a tortuous implementation and constant boundary changes. However, the quality of design found in Citygarden shows that the flaws of the ideas applied to the mall in the past are not permanent impediments. The Gateway Mall will continue to change as the current Master Plan is implemented, and will lose much of its monumental formalism. Within the next decades, the Gateway Mall will become the embodiment of early 21st century park planning principles. Today’s architects and planners follow many others’ foot steps in trying to envision the string of city blocks between Chestnut and Market as useful, important urban park space. While contemporary park planning embraces many of the theories that criticized previous ideas from the City Beautiful movement, its practitioners are laboring under contemporary economic and ideological circumstances. In some ways, the Gateway Mall is still being shaped according to current landscape design trends rather than as part of a broader planning strategy for downtown. Whether the mall itself gains an identity in the next decade depends on the quality and scope of interventions to come.
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