by Michael R. Allen
The New Year will bring to St. Louis an international architectural competition centered on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The only other such competition to take place in St. Louis also concerned the Memorial; in 1948, a competition selected for the Memorial the designed landscape of architect Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley. That selection gave a declining American river city a triumphant architectural boost and a place in postwar architectural history. The Gateway Arch designed by Saarinen became the internationally-recognized symbol of the city.
Will the new design competition lead to the implementation of a design as boldly modern as the Arch? Probably not. After all, the program for the competition is realization of the National Park Service’s new General Management Plan (GMP) for the Memorial. That plan’s preferred alternative is not a blueprint for radical upheaval of a significant landscape but a corrective program for finding remedies to that landscape’s flaws. The new CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, spearheaded by attorney Walter Metcalfe, Mayor Francis Slay, Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley and national parks advocate Lynn McClure, is sponsoring the competition and raising money for implementation of the winning entry.
The competition thus wisely avoids a fruitless effort to construct a parallel icon near the Arch. The architectural genius of the Gateway Arch is elegant and unparalleled. Few contemporary architects — or even starchitects with their tedious “signature” touches — could match Saarinen’s vision. Likewise, the Kiley landscape is a masterpiece. To attempt to add to the Memorial design through iconic design is folly. John Danforth’s museum proposal was fueled by the incorrect assumption that any large new building on the Memorial grounds could be anything other than pretty clutter.
Still, the design competition is a clarion call for vision of a different kind. The GMP acknowledges the spatial obstacles to pedestrian access to the Memorial. In the GMP, there is discussion about the terrible infrastructure on the west and south sides of the Memorial that make pedestrian access difficult. The GMP discusses the moribund riverfront, the dormant east riverfront and other things that make the Memorial grounds a very divine landscape surrounded by an ugly cityscape and divided from urban vitality.
The design competition responds to the GMP by calling for radical reconceptualizing of the cityscape on both sides of the river that frame the Arch grounds. The subtitle of the competition is “Framing a Modern Masterpiece,” indicating the challenge ahead: visionary urban place-making around a magnificent landscape that cuts across the boundaries of many government entities.
This competition thus is as much about politics as design. Mayor Francis Slay and Senator Claire McCaskill are deeply involved in the process. There is little doubt that the competition’s fast track — completion of improvements is slated for 2015 — is driven by political concern rather than interest in truly transformative planning. In an interview, I asked competition manager Don Stastny of Stastny Brun if he had ever been involved in any design competition that had a time line of less than six years between the start of the competition and the projected completion of the design. He said that he had not, save a State Department competition for the destroyed Nairobi embassy.
There is a strong tension between the frank analysis offered by the National Park Service in the GMP and the “get it done” attitude of elected officials. Perhaps that tension is productive in a city that lacks any effective planning ordinance or agency. The National Park Service is playing the catalytic role that a city planning agency should already have done. On the other hand, without the competition’s ambitious pace, good ideas might get lost or watered down through slow implementation. The competition process cuts through parochial politics by forcing St. Louis, East St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois to work together and implement solutions that are not neatly confined to parochial politics of appropriations.
Still, there is no need to have everything done by 2015. I like that early date as a spur to slow-moving local governments. However, I am afraid that date could preclude consideration of larger projects needed for connectivity. The competition cannot produce anything as great as the Memorial, but it need not be reigned in by a fixed, arbitrary timeline. After all, Kiley and Saarinen’s plan was selected in 1948 but not fully completed until 1982.
- The east riverfront, a topic neglected in much of the recent debate on the Arch grounds, is included. In fact, a large part of Malcolm Martin Park is included. Unfortunately, the boundary excludes the Casino Queen site and the MetroLink station. The pedestrian path from Malcolm Martin Park to MetroLink should be included, since the walk currently takes place on an unkempt street without sidewalks.
- The boundary seems to purposely place both the Eads and Poplar Street bridges inside. The Poplar Street Bridge is aging and due for major overhaul. The competition could create a vision for what a new Poplar Street Bridge would look like. Bike and pedestrian lanes are a must.
- Kiener Plaza is included in the boundary. While the Old Courthouse is part of the Memorial and needs a more graceful frame than the current state of Kiener Plaza, does the plaza really need to be part of this process?
- All of the Memorial grounds are included, which is fine, but preservation of the landscape is essential. However, jurors in the competition — and leaders of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation — need to be ready to consider proposals that would reloctae or alter the north parking garage (operated by Metro) and the south maintenance facility.
- I-70 directly west of the Memorial is included, but the boundary does not extend north to capture all of the elevated section. The GMP states that the National Park Service “strongly supports” removal of the highway, but thinks it unfeasible at this time. Why?
If there has ever been the right time to consider removal of the depressed and elevated lanes, it is now. There is a great converegence between the design competition — where thinking big is encouraged, and reweaving urban fabric is the foundation for the program — and the 2016 opening of the new Mississippi River Bridge that will carry I-70 out of downtown forever. While the end dates of these projects don’t align perfectly, they are too close to leave unexamined. Highway removal need not be underway in 2015 for the ribbon-cutting; if the competition jury endorses any plan for highway removal, the region will have made major progress.
Obviously, the impact of the new bridge on traffic would need to be studied before removal could be planned. The replacement of I-70 should not be set in stone, since a wide boulevard could be as pedestrian-unfriendly as the current I-70/Memorial Drive configuration. Those two considerations are perfect fodder for a team of design professionals to engage. While we have the world’s best architects working on solutions for the Memorial’s connection to the rest of the city, we would be foolish to not encourage them to study one of downtown’s biggest problems.
We have great leadership in the Memorial’s Superintendent Bradley. Tom Bradley has been a patient, thoughtful and progressive player who has managed to channel converging political forces into a positive direction. Bradley weathered the Danforth museum idea, which did nothing to address the real planning issues of the Memorial, and forced normally complacent local leaders into action that has the potential to truly transform downtown. Stastny likewise should be a great manager, since his philosophy is that his clients must determine the choice to have a competition on their own. He’s not a salesman, but an astute facilitator.
A successful competition will consider every entry on its merits, and its jurors will have the courage to endorse the best plan no matter what its political implications may be. We may never again see another international design competition in St. Louis. We must be as wise as our ancestors — nay, wiser.