by Michael R. Allen
On Wednesday, Landmarks Association of St. Louis presented a version of its What Are Buildings Made Of? (WABMO) program to 25 students of Ranken Technical College.
After an introduction from co-worker Susan Tschetter, I gave a 20-minute slideshow talk with short histories of common local historic and modern building materials as well as some discussion of how the use of each material influenced and enabled different common building forms. Landmarks staffer Doug Johnson followed with a presentation of actual building materials, and finally we screened the ever-relevant …It’s Just One Building to make its subtle and effective case for sound preservation planning.
The highlight of any WABMO program is the walking tour, and despite windy weather the tours went well. Richard Mueller, Karen Halla, Susan and I served as guides for one-hour walking tours of the eastern section of downtown. The Ranken students were lively, engaging and attentive — an ideal group. I knew I was in for a good time when one of them pointed at the Arch and shouted “Look, there’s Union Station” but then proceeded to listen attentively to my explanation of the role of the Old Courthouse and the long-gone Merchant’s Exchange in pulling commercial St. Louis westward.
My tour’s stops ranged from the Adam’s Mark Hotel (the epitome of bad 1980’s architecture and an example of a terrible re-cladding of an older building) to the Old Post Office, and included spirited conversation. When I offered the students the chance of leaving the tour at the designated end time or continuing to see a few more things, they all stayed on the tour.
The challenge with architectural education again seems not to be finding a convincing message and compelling information but rather getting the message to the public. Our city’s great architecture is an “easy sell” in many ways. People can’t help but notice the wonders of the built environment here, even if they have not yet encountered encouragement and explanation. The more we provide that encouragement and explanation, the stronger our cultural appreciation for architecture will become.