by Michael R. Allen
Last week, the St. Louis Preservation Board unanimously granted preliminary approval to the Gateway Foundation’s plan to convert two blocks of the Gateway Mall into a sculpture garden. These are the two very formal blocks between Eighth and Tenth streets that were completed in 1993. The garden, which would include landscaping coordinated by the Missouri Botanical Gardens, is actually a good plan in itself. In fact, there is a level of thoughtfulness to the plan that I confess comes as surprise to me. The principal architects, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, looked outside of the mall for inspiration.
The architects cast aside the impossible dreams of formal symmetry, civic grandiosity and identity-making that have plagued the mall’s cast of prior architects. Rather than waste half of each block on passive lawn space, as the current design for those blocks does, the architects instead realize the number of intricate details that a city park can have. There are rows of trees along Market Street (for some reason widely viewed as a grand formal drive), and paved “plaza” areas. There is a fountain. But there also are limestone walls (faced in actual limestone on the plans the Board approved), flower beds, smaller lawns and a cafe building at the corner of Chestnut and 8th. Most important to the design are contrasting axes. A central linear axis on the western block abruptly bends on the eastern block, defying the forced sight lines of the mall. A wide arc forms an axis that spans both blocks on the northern side. A meandering curve runs across the southern end of both blocks, suggesting the lines used to demarcate creeks and rivers on state maps.
In fact, the whole concoction has pronounced map-like influences. While the translation of the logical god’s-eye view to actual pedestrian experience may muddle the intent, at least the plans celebrate the often conflicting lines that compose our physical and political geography. One of the architects told the Preservation Board that the linear axis follows the footprint of the actual alley that once existed on the blocks, joined with perpendicular lines drawn from old lot lines. This architect actually stated that his inspiration was an old Sanborn fire insurance map of the blocks.
The parks design succeeds inasmuch as it does not attempt to impose a particular experience on an urban space, but rather presents possibilities for user-directed action. However, there are drawbacks. On the plan, Ninth Street looks too narrow to accommodate its current four lanes. Likewise, Market Street appears to lose its northern lane. These losses eliminate metered parking — a necessity for a healthy downtown block.
The largest problem is not the fault of the designers but of our continued political cowardice: the city won’t will itself to erase the Gateway Mall idea from its mind. We are committing political will and civic endowment to major changes for these two blocks, but once completed they sit amid one of the most unintelligible urban landscapes in the nation. These blocks can counteract all of the problems of the mall, but without visual reinforcement their statement will be lost. They will be surrounded by the mediocrity of anti-urban 1980s buildings, which draw their users inside and away from even the best parks. The blocks will still be segments of a string of parks that are mostly useless and unattractive. With so much open space and inhospitable built surroundings, the sculpture garden will still function more as a self-contained destination than a component of a healthy downtown.
Instead of next turning to renovation plans for the rest of the Gateway Mall, city leaders should work to enclose the sculpture garden with good design. The Gateway Foundation is doing a huge service to the city by financing the construction and upkeep. That service should be matched with a program to enhance the context: renovate the block containing “Twain” (or even move “Twain” and build on that block); build on the block of Market between Ninth and Tenth where the second IBM Plaza tower was intended; rework the base of the first IBM Plaza tower; build a new building or even just shops on Chestnut south of the original Southwestern Bell building; redesign the base of the hideous Data Building. In short, we need to fulfill the premise that $20 million invested in the Gateway Mall will make a functional difference for this part of downtown.