A Letter from St. Louis

St. Louis

8 February 2019

On any given day in late summer this year, visitors to the park beneath Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, arriving from the west – emerging from the city’s still largely intact orthogonal grid of downtown streets – would have met with children splashing in a fountain and pool surrounded by the striking, curving glazed walls of an underground museum. This play space is likely to have been teeming with tourists entering the museum, passers-by of no special affinity, and even people just standing or sitting in repose. Through the glass walls, the same situation: a throng inside of the museum’s spacious entrance. Turning around, back across a new park connection concealing an interstate highway, and there would have been more of the same. People.

Ten years ago, this scene would have unfolded differently. At that time, the entrance to the museum was buried at the legs of Saarinen’s Arch; the highway was a wide-open cut, flanked by two outer roads that served as traffic funnels, and very few people would have been in sight. Most people, in fact, would have been arriving in a car and heading to an on-site garage, traipsing hurriedly through the park, and down into the depths to catch the elevator to the top of the Arch. Somehow, this overall experience was supposed to connote a multitude of disparate ideas: an understanding of the nation’s western expansion, the grandeur of modernist visual culture and the significance of the old city of St. Louis.

Most views of St. Louis begin with the Gateway Arch, which sits at the city’s edge of the Mississippi River. The city’s downtown lies directly west of the Arch park, and the red brick neighbourhoods span out radially from the Arch site. The Arch is the keystone to the image of the city, and the park stands between much of the centre and the riverfront. While the riverfront historically was a working waterfront where the city’s warehouses and factories were located, today it is a major destination for tourists, cyclists and weekenders. The Arch park is the result of a quest that began in the 1930s to create a national monument to the expansion of the US across the mighty Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean shore. In the 1960s, that dream led to parklands designed by the landscape architect Dan Kiley, with Eero Saarinen’s Arch at its centre. The duo imagined the Arch as a mythic sculpture rising from a site whose trees and topography could conjure the expanse of wilderness that the US had to conquer to expand its settled territory. Rather than bind the riverfront to the city, however, the Arch park and the interstate to the west made for a gauntlet. The confusing gap between the park and the city has drawn assiduous local critique from day one, and drew the local American Institute of Architects chapter to sponsor a charrette for improving the connections across the interstate as early as 1982.

In recent years, however, a group of civic leaders wrestled the Arch’s owner, the National Park Service (NPS), into a public-private partnership that sponsored a major landscape architectural design competition and raised nearly $380m to fund the winning design. The process, led by what was initially called CityArchRiver and is now called the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, managed to inscribe a major revision to one of the nation’s few urban riverfront parks that belong to the federal government. The winning team, headed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), proposed turning a hallowed design by Saarinen and Kiley into a palimpsest in which the modernist designer was attenuated through a careful programme that connected the park back to the city’s downtown; overcame accessibility issues; reworked the park’s main museum; and finally banished cars altogether. The result has neither suffocated Saarinen’s earlier vision, nor sheepishly held it in sacrosanct reverence. Instead, MVVA took aim at the contextual and experiential deficiencies of the site without trying to rebrand or otherwise mark the land. Most of the changes are peripheral – small modifications that are conscious of the urban context and which attempt to integrate the park site and the larger downtown into a single living landscape.

MVVA inherited a parametric nesting doll: the landscape surrounding the Arch responded to a tightly defined 1947 design competition; the park was governed not only as a national monument, but also as a landscape designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest preservation protection in the US; the site had been isolated by the construction of the I-70 interstate highway at its west and an interstate bridge at its east (along with a spaghetti junction where these two meet). Saarinen and Kiley’s plans are nominally sacrosanct under federal historic preservation protection, but had been implemented by NPS administrators in small, steady measures commensurate with congressional appropriations, with the landscape construction not completed until the late 1970s after Saarinen’s death and without Kiley’s oversight.

Fundamentally, MVVA had to unpack the earliest framing of the Arch park as a distinct monumental landscape. The incipient idea of the memorial resisted integration into a downtown that city leaders in the mid-20th century had wanted to demolish rather than revive. Part of the framing of the memorial in the 1930s was that it would create payouts to investors for their depreciated (and architecturally significant) riverfront warehouses, and then in turn raise values in the downtown core, such that new office blocks might rise and pull the area out of the Great Depression. On top of that, the city’s long-time planner Harland Bartholomew greeted urban renewal projects as opportunities to revamp the city for automobile circulation. Although the final competition brief in 1947 included both the city’s 19th-century landmark Old Courthouse and the 40-block riverfront site that would become the Arch park, its original framer – the attorney and political bigwig Luther Ely Smith – never envisioned reasons to create pedestrian connections or strategies to activate the surrounding streets. In subsequent years, the city would blight the blocks just west of the Arch site, redeveloping them with a superblock and several office and hotel towers – none of which had a single storefront facing the Gateway Arch.

IMAGE Matthew O'Shea

Saarinen and Kiley therefore faced the demands of the NPS – which included the mandate for a museum of western expansion – as well as the faith of the competition sponsors that the singular form of the Arch would be enough to draw anyone into the allées and groves of the Arch grounds. The design was, however, stymied by being forced to retain the elevated railroad line that ran along the riverfront, forcing the Arch up to the top of a berm. If the western highway closed downtown off from the Arch, the berm meant that the 40ft drop to the river became a manicured precipice, and the grade as a result went up and then down. By the time the Arch was completed in 1965, no-one could see the river from the Old Courthouse or anywhere at street level in downtown St. Louis.

The Gateway Arch is a monument set into a garden, with a clear perimeter around the site. Landscape architecture’s broadest premise, that it unifies object form and land form, remained for many years a hermetic reality at the Arch: the Arch and its park were unified, but the Arch and the centre of the city stood in visual antagonism. From within the site, one could cherish the acumen of Kiley, who drew out the visual symphony in which Saarinen’s Arch becomes an extended movement. From outside, the park seemed like an intentionally disconnected sculpture, with its landscape limited to its own plantings and entourage. Yet the Arch itself connected to the viewshed of almost every point within a 10-mile radius.

This paradox of the Arch site required a tactical remaking of the edges of the park landscape, which MVVA approached with clear purpose, although with a more radical path abridged by imposed bureaucratic and political limits. Gullivar Shepard, MVVA’s project designer, says the team learned early on that to please the myriad government agencies at all levels, “things have to conform”. According to Shepard, CityArchRiver bound the firm and its team to include in its final plan only those things achievable by 28 October 2015 – the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Arch. This short timeframe, starting in 2010, inexorably stretched by nearly three years as a result of funding issues and other delays.

The signature element of the new project is a reworked version of Luther Ely Smith Square, a small park in front of the Old Courthouse that now serves as a biomorphic head with splayed nerve endings leading to Kiley’s broad paths. The park has been extended across the depressed interstate and packed between tall concrete walls that shelter the park experience from the reality of its tumultuous edge. The new design means that visitors need only cross one street to enter the park, instead of the previous three. Strikingly, the axial symmetry of Kiley’s design has been extended through the new entrance park, with the centre of the new Museum of Westward Expansion meeting that of the Old Courthouse. MVVA avoided clever tricks in the design, honouring Kiley’s formalism.

The Museum of Westward Expansion entrance might have been a discordant or needlessly showy element within the project, given that it disrupted Kiley’s idea of concealing the museum in favour of a seamless topside landscape. However, while the museum’s entrance previously gave off the appearance of descending into a basement, its new architects at Cooper Robertson, led by Scott Newman, adopted a different strategy. “The museum now allows a visitor to not feel that they are underground,” says Newman, who created a slope into a glass-walled, warm, urbane entrance that is gently modern, while still reverent to context. As mentioned at the outset, the museum interjects a new kind of public space into a city that has not seen a major park space created since the Arch park itself. No St. Louisan could have predicted that a real agora could transpire on the Arch grounds, but now it exists, within glancing distance of downtown’s streets.

Almost as emphatically as the reworked entrance, MVVA successfully pushed to remove the parking garage at the north end of the site. In a downtown that already has 43,000 off-street parking spaces, circulation around the site could be extended such that visitors would be able to start anywhere along the park perimeter and wander in. This gesture not only opened space for a new set of paths – including a parabolic overhead ramp negotiating a steep grade change – but also accomplished a behavioural modification with long-term positive benefits to downtown. People now have to start outside of the park to experience it.

IMAGE Matthew O'Shea

The team decided to complete Kiley’s original idea of having the park meet the historic Eads Bridge – the steel bridge completed in 1874 that inspired Louis Sullivan to successfully attempt a vertical “skyscraper” version, the 1891 Wainwright Building, also in St. Louis – at its north, and elected to remove most of Washington Avenue, which stood there previously. Perhaps this extension will enliven the fragment of the city’s riverfront warehouse district to the north, although this district – named Laclede’s Landing after city founder Pierre Laclède Liguest – is now itself isolated from downtown by the elevated section of freeway. The city did not follow up the removal of Washington Avenue with any new pedestrian or automotive paths.

On the riverfront, there is a new trail that extends into another riverfront trail that tracks along scrapyards, a soap factory and an Underground Railroad site. The slope of the Arch park here has been replanted in native plantings to conceal the inset accessibility ramps – MVVA has balanced the standards of landscape preservation with the need to add ramps and a few other grade changes such that all people can access the site. In the past, accessibility had been a major problem. Other deft work comes through what Shepard terms “smaller assignments within a whole that tell stories”. Saarinen’s preferred complex lampposts are now in place for the first time on the main allées, replacing the generic, new formalist globe lamps that the NPS had previously installed. There are new plantings – not just the 900 London plane trees replacing fragile Rosehill ash trees along the allées, but also pawpaw trees selected as a result of what the famous 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found on the bank of the Mississippi at St. Louis. MVVA continued to balance the primary monocultural allées with diverse plantings across the rest of the site, a balance that Kiley sought for its productive tension between evocation of both the modern and the natural – the echo of the site’s own development across time.

MVVA’s clearest achievement has been definitive improvements to the perimeter of the park, where it meets the city’s streets and people. Shepard says that the main objective was to make the first 100ft on each side enticing enough that people would be drawn in. This revision recalls the teachings of landscape architect Garrett Eckbo, who advocated for landscape architecture to integrate built and land forms, and to define a site through its relational values. “The site only exists in its visual and spatial relation to people, through the introduction of the building which establishes a permanent relation between people and site. The building and the site are in fact one and the same in use,” wrote Eckbo in his 1950 text Landscape for Living. MVVA pushed the Gateway Arch park across the highway and into downtown, and extended it into the Laclede’s Landing area. Although these gestures are not complete solutions to accumulated spatial barriers, they do counterbalance the accumulation of isolating infrastructures surrounding the park site.

Reflecting on the Arch, the architectural historian Hélène Lipstadt wrote in her 2004 essay ‘Co-Making the Modern Monument: The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial competition and Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch’ that “[i]conic status is only achieved through co-making”. That co-making has never, however, been constituted as a single era or even a single set of designers. Saarinen died before the Arch rose, and Kiley was rarely consulted by the NPS in the final years of implementing the landscape. MVVA’s fulfilment of the recent design competition acknowledges the site’s complex production: it is not a perfectly realised object or even landscape form, and part of its struggle has been the inability to determine where its actual site lies. MVVA has embraced a larger conception that encompasses the links from the park over the highway, trail and north edge. In time, however, it could generate a larger geography in which the park provides a space for recreation for the growing number of St. Louis’s downtown residents.

The most inexorable aspect of the Arch project remains the endurance of the interstate chasm, however. Although the designers were initially charged to complete the work by the Arch’s 50th anniversary, the extended timeline took place at a pace that would have allowed even the most snail-like agencies to make key decisions. The choice to not remove the depressed and elevated interstate remains cryptic and tragic. Today, entering the park has become nurturing, deliberate and humane, but the space nonetheless exposes a visitor to the unanswered civic question of the interstate highway. Along the entire western edge, the now-underutilised canyon and ramp still beckon for better consideration than they received during the renewal of the Arch site.

During the development of the General Management Plan, even the oft-decried NPS displayed wilder dreams of connectivity than St. Louis’s civic heavy-hitters. That plan, laden with technocratic detail, includes a preferred alternative in which Interstate 70 would have been removed completely between the bridge south of the Arch and the bridge to the north – the section of St. Louis’s useless freeway that continues to serve as an extended middle finger and which is a constant reminder of the city’s dependence on the automobile. Each design team in the competition listed highway removal as the best option, although generally only after lobbying from an advocacy coalition led by architects, developers, activists and others, which calls itself City to River.

City to River presented clear plans for deleting the freeway and inserting an urban boulevard at grade in its place. The coalition’s dormant website remains online today, entombing a prescient call to not only yank the highway, but to create new sites for buildings facing the Arch. St. Louis’s civic leaders recoiled from this crystal ball, but recent building permits urging high-rise construction in the downtown area suggest that the market would have been capable of absorbing new buildings sites.

City to River pressed against civic heavyweight players Jack Danforth, a former senator and attorney, and Walter Metcalfe, Danforth’s partner at the Bryan Cave law firm, who led the early moves toward the design competition. Danforth and Metcalfe framed the competition specifically in relation to the Arch site, and were impatient with those attempting to add on what might become expensive wish-list ideas. Visions of open-streets and downtown freeway removal were most viable as aspirations of urban design among the local avant-garde, while the establishment was – and still largely remains – a class that sees the downtown as a hub for car culture: a place that only makes sense with big roads, exit ramps and ample parking. They do not generally admire the walkable global cities whose approach St. Louis has eschewed for most of the last 70 years.

City to River was necessarily brash in its approach, and found its message resonated with the design teams and in the press. Mayor Francis Slay also seemed to endorse the group’s plan in a tweet posted on 30 September 2011: “Yes. @CityToRiver is a good idea. The Arch work will get done sooner.” But to the funders and government agencies behind the project, the vision was a wild beast that did not fit formulaic expectations or the deadened image of downtown as a co-dependent parking basin for white-collar motorists. City to River had plenty of work to do in transcending the impasse with these power players, and, like many activist fronts, it faltered. To the politicians, the group never represented a voter bloc to fear. To the agencies, it represented a rogue call for actions that would have unforeseeable consequences and whose management fell outside of any existing part of local, state or federal government. And to the donors and business elite, the group became a heretical mass, urging a future that they could not envision themselves. Yet to the millennials of the city, City to River seemed to comprehend the challenge of enlivening the city’s downtown streets. City to River, however, faltered after its chairperson Alex Ihnen decided to leak on his news site the announcement of MVVA’s victory in the design competition ahead of the official announcement. CityArchRiver rightly took offence, and the highway removal idea lost political traction.

IMAGE Matthew O'Shea

Today, the approach to the site beneath the elevated freeway at Washington Avenue stands as the mnemonic cue that more was – and remains – possible for reconnecting the entire park edge to downtown. Waterfront freeway removal has previously reversed similar urban “breaks” in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, while other removals have eliminated the citadel-like barriers to central Milwaukee and Montreal. Buffalo is now exploring removing its notorious Scajaquada Corridor, which bisects a Frederick Law Olmsted park, and Oakland continues serious discussion around the removal of Interstate 980. Furthermore, Dallas has shown how a city can go over a freeway in a colossal manner with the Office of James Burnett-designed Klyde Warren Park.

St. Louis has accomplished a one-block park very gracefully, but has left it surrounded by the sounds, smells and sights of an inchoate motorway. The blank backsides of big buildings still face out, with no reason to open to the Arch with shops, restaurants or invitational features. As this desolate edge remains, St. Louis shows a conservatism in urban design that even the CityArchRiver competition could not budge. With the additional three years of work after the scheduled completion of Arch park work, the excuses of local political leaders seem fearful rather than pragmatic.

At the completion of the renewal of the Arch site, a sharp reminder of its culturally contested meanings was revealed. On 3 July 2018, a group of 18 government officials and foundation executives cut the ribbon beneath the apex of the catenary curve. All were white. Within hours, local black political leaders began the viral hashtag campaign #ArchSoWhite, pointing out the discrepancy between the assembled dignitaries and the population make-up of St. Louis city, which is only 44 per cent white. Two days later, an alternative ribbon cutting placed leaders of colour – black, Mexican-American, Asian-American and others – front and centre. Mayor Lyda Krewson, who is white and the city’s first female mayor, attended both ribbon cuttings. With the Old Courthouse the site of slave auctions as well as the early 19th-century trials of Dred and Harriet Scott – slaves freed by a deceased master, but still claimed as property by the master’s family, which would foment the Civil War – the early tone-deaf ribbon cutting seemed particularly ill-conceived.

Landscape architecture is a public cultural performance, with a wide audience holding a difference of opinions, and the Arch grounds have always performed an ambiguous and seemingly exclusive set of values. The site is officially dedicated to the enterprise of the westward expansion of the US and the ideal of “manifest destiny” – in base terms, a glorified settler colonialism with genocidal implications for indigenous populations. The evictions that were needed to clear the riverfront for the site displaced black residents, white labourers and many of the city’s artists and writers who had flocked to the warehouses. During construction, white construction companies and unions excluded black workers. In 1964, during construction, activists Percy Green and Richard Daly bravely occupied a platform on the side of one of the Arch legs for four hours in protest of racist hiring practices.

IMAGE Matthew O'Shea

Opening at the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the Museum of Westward Expansion curated both the national and site narratives with close cropping of dissent and problematic encounter. The bookshop refused to sell narratives that criticised the clearance, and the exhibits presented settlement of the Louisiana Purchase and the larger west as a fulfilment of nationhood, downplaying the existing nations that were destroyed in the process. Today, the revamped museum explicates more complex stories, with indigenous histories on display alongside mockups of old riverfront buildings lost to the Arch construction. Still, whose culture the Arch performs can be unclear.

A “new” Arch remains shy about presenting the site as a space of encounter, although its manufactured topography shelters layers of settlement reaching back before European arrival. Those deepest layers were underfoot when Pierre Laclède Liguest arrived at St. Louis, and began trading with the native Osage, Iowa, Otoe and Missouria tribes. Although the French pursued reciprocal economic relations, they also were agents of smallpox, influenza and other illnesses that decimated the indigenous populations. Later, under the flag of the US government post-1804, the settlers who staked farther western and northern reaches on the new national territory relied on more overt and deliberate violence to hew the land.

While the Arch is more candid now, its interpretation should envision a better symbolic relation to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, built by the Mississippian civilisation just across the river. The Arch tells the story of national violence, but Cahokia – a city that was larger than London was in the year 1200 – showcases indigenous political and economic power. The two sites together evoke a historic imagination of the long past of encounters and the longer work ahead of a shared North America: a sharing that will manifest in many future ribbon cuttings, design competitions and official museum narratives to come.

IMAGE Matthew O'Shea

Writing in his essay ‘Designing Indian Country’, the landscape architect Rod Barnett positioned the Arch site as one in which nothing is truly postcolonial, as the native and nation-state forces are not truly binary. The negotiation of spaces, identities and political power continues in the US. The Arch transposes its intended meanings in the opening of its site – as it reaches into the city it also dissolves the bounds of its mandate to tell a heroic nationalist tale. The challenge for the stewards of the Arch remains openness to expressing the site not as a completed place with limited meanings, but as a space of unending historic encounter between indigenous and European, white and black, civic elite and everyday people. These encounters do not diminish the achievements in urban design that have accumulated since Saarinen and Kiley won the 1947 competition.

Perhaps the Arch could become a marker of unending negotiation of settlement, ecologies and cultural visibility. When black political leaders created their own ribbon cutting, the Arch instantly became a token of manifest political power. If the NPS cannot overtly open the narratives beyond the new museum programmes, the ways in which the people of St. Louis and beyond occupy or extend the site will open its new meanings up to scrutiny. This is a site of encounter – not marking the past, chronicled or buried, but engendering emergent and unrealised potential. Saarinen’s abstracted triumphal arch remains at degree zero, seemingly always open to cultural meanings beyond its closely inscribed original intent. Welcome to a new Gateway Arch, no longer a didactic symbol detached from its own city. Welcome also to a new telling of what the US’s own histories of settlement, urbanism and power represent, and how they may bend next.