If all goes according to plan, the fabled Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the year 2015 in a new setting including an ice rink.
The National Park Service and the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, a bi-state public-private partnership, held a contest -- “The City and the Arch and the River 2015 International Design Competition” -- for the refurbishment commission. They asked five finalists to extend the benign influence of the arch into shattered city neighborhoods and across the river.
The winner, announced last week, was Michael Van Valkenburgh, leading an impressive team of architects, engineers and consultants.
I recently walked around the Gateway Arch and looked at the Van Valkenburgh plans. I made my way toward the center of the arch, clambering over a hump of grass, to find a broad flat lawn spreading out below me and the arch’s haunches framing the swirling expanse of the Mississippi. A dogged rumble came from tugboats shoving barges upriver.
Designed by Eero Saarinen, the 630-foot-high stainless- steel arch stands in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a landscape-design masterpiece by Dan Kiley. The park itself sits amid the spaghetti of freeways. The Mississippi River laps at a drag strip posing as a city street.
Saarinen and Kiley created a stirring image of the river’s majesty and the immensity and industry of American aspiration.
Regrettably, the blueprint by Van Valkenburgh, a New York City landscape architect, would ruin the effect. The plans call for inserting a glassy, grand entrance to the Museum of Westward Expansion, a structure the size of a football field that sits below the arch.
The new entrance turns the arch, river and grounds into a backdrop. It’s one reason I wished the jury had selected the superior approach of teams led by Stuttgart, Germany, architect Stefan Behnisch or the New York duo of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.
Both teams opened the museum to the arch and river. The Behnisch team proposed a river-crossing gondola offering a knockout view of city, river and arch. Weiss/Manfredi drew a dramatically undulating landscape for East St. Louis that would be a visitor must-see.
Think of Van Valkenburgh as an urban surgeon wielding skating rinks and playgrounds. His team plans to operate on the barrier where two freeways intersect at the southern edge of the arch grounds. He would slip fingers of greenery amid the concrete columns, dotted with the skating rink that becomes a beer garden in the summer, a farmer’s market, bike trails, art installations and food vendors.
Van Valkenburgh hopes that closer park and neighborhood links will kindle renewal of the dignified but semi-abandoned warehouses in an ostensibly gentrifying area known as Choteau’s Landing.
The team deploys similar tactics on the north side of the arch grounds, in this case linking the arch to Laclede’s Landing. This is a warehouse and entertainment district brutalized by parking lots and two misbegotten gambling casinos, one shuttered. The tools: sensuous paths slithering around playgrounds, a river-view amphitheater, and an ecology center.
The Illinois side of the Mississippi is a much larger mess, with high levees, and more roads and rails barricading the riverside. A pitiful geyser surrounded by chain-link fencing spurts occasionally.
Beyond, East St. Louis has for decades receded into weed- filled blocks crossed by ghost streets.
The Van Valkenburgh team turns a ratty forest into a nature park with treetop walkways that take gorgeous advantage of the best views of the arch. Still, I wish they hadn’t ignored the sad fountain.
Can skating and eco-education hope to reverse the effects of long-term economic forces and decades of wrong-headed urban renewal?
I say yes, with caveats. Punching through the physical barriers around the arch could assemble a waterfront with enough cultural critical mass to spur investment and invite the four million annual visitors to linger.
But the ear-splitting rails and roads and the enormous scale of urban decay won’t succumb to Van Valkenburgh’s modest but too tentative, prettifying approach. He must learn from his competitors and be as bold as Saarinen and Kiley were.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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