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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Archgrounds Design Competition: Its Participants and Their Design Philosophies

St. Louis Energized has a nice write-up on last night's "Meet the Designers" session for the City Arch River 2015 competition, which was held at the Roberts Orpheum Theater downtown.

The author summarized the five teams still vying in the competition along with their design philosophies, presented in brief, 15-minute presentations in which no questions were allowed from the audience.

    • The Behnisch Team focused on the "needs of people" (stating that a "good city is a city with a human dimension"), as well as the built environment by calling for the Memorial to become an "active catalyst for urban cohesion." 

    • The approach of the MVVA Team seems primarily landscape-oriented, stressing that landscape (1) accommodates a humane scale, (2) provides continuity, and (3) is affordable.

    • The PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, Civitas team (whose representative personally knew both Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley) advocated "subtle and respectful" changes that, while transformative, are so natural that they're barely noticeable to the majority of the public.

    • The SOM, Hargreaves, BIG team stressed "making places for people" (places that are "alive" every day), as well as tying design ideas into a community's bold, long-range plans to "create economic vitality."

    • The Weiss/Manfredi team referred to three primary design categories, titled "Icon and Setting," "Connections," and "Layering Programs." The interesting facet of this team's approach was an affinity for embracing barriers (such as highways), by turning them into connections and "capturing their energy" without actually removing them.

Reading Live Tweets from the event, as well as the above summary in addition to others, I must say I am a bit worried that the most obvious problem of the Archgrounds may not receive its due attention and the needed ultimate solution. Interstate 70 from the Poplar Street Bridge all the way to the New Mississippi River Bridge is the obvious problem. Wholesale removal is the needed ultimate solution. I-70 will be re-routed upon completion of the new bridge anyhow, and connecting the Arch to neighborhoods should take this very symbolic and helpful step. An open doorway with a removed I-70 will literally allow surrounding neighborhoods a brand new view of, and connection to, the Arch. I fully endorse this concept and support City to River's effort to make this solution part of any proposal to redevelop the Archgrounds.

It's important here to note the ramifications of the removal of I-70. Does a removed I-70 promise instant development along the old interstate right-of-way? Of course not. The land where the highway once sat, upon removal, might sit as a landscape boulevard with few buildings of note for quite some years. Almost certainly, the entire 1.4 mile stretch of the new Memorial Drive that would take the place of the old I-70 will not be filled with urban-formatted buildings by the time the design competition's winning proposal is completed in 2015. This sounds very pessimistic, right? It seems to defeat the purpose of undertaking something so exciting and momentous as giving a stretch of road back to the city and its people rather than to speeding vehicles. After all, if the "new" Memorial Drive is in fact just a landscaped but largely lifeless boulevard in 2015, City to River will have failed and all skeptics of the City to River concept will have been vindicated, right?

Wrong (at least in my opinion!). An empty, but pedestrian-oriented, Memorial Drive will create an opportunity that does not presently exist--development could then locate on the periphery of the Archgrounds and create a "spine" of activity linking neighborhoods to the north (Carr Square, Columbus Square, Neighborhood Gardens, the Bottle District, Laclede's Landing, the Near North Riverfront, etc.) to their downtown. The present mess made by I-70 as it slices through a once functional grid is reason enough to abandon this alignment. Pedestrians and vehicles alike could safely maneuver a reconstructed street whereas I-70 today merely creates confusion and barriers.

As far as the new Memorial Drive proposed by City to River, and the possibility that it might not attract builders to populate the newly developable parcels, I point you here:

The year is 1951 and these jets are flying just northeast of today's site of the Gateway Arch, which was completed in 1965. It was in 1947 that Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch concept won the international design competition. In anticipation of the competition, most of the dozens of square blocks containing an antebellum manufacturing district were cleared in the early 1940s. So, if all building were gone from the site by 1942, and the site was a surface parking lot, as seen above, by 1951, then for at least 14 years the site of the memorial was not truly public. Considering that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial didn't even officially open to the public until 1967, we see here that the same competition that netted the ingenious Arch design caused a 40-block swath of the city to go out of commission for over a decade. (I don't count parking lots, even publicly owned and maintained ones, as public places). If this is true, then we should allow for the same grace period for a new Memorial Drive in anticipation of its own greatness. That doesn't mean we as a city shouldn't aggressively market this newly available land or that the design competition won't cause an increase in demand for these blocks. It's just a plea for skeptics to realize that sometimes, as the old moniker goes, great things come to those who wait. The old I-70 alignment's erasure will have been more than justified if, in ten or twenty years, a new Memorial Drive is beginning to kick and thrive.

Now back to the buzz over the five teams. Not having seen the actual presentation, it's difficult to pass any substantive judgment on their concepts. As written up by St. Louis Energized, I despise the idea of Weiss/Manfredi. St. Louisans have had to limbo around barriers long enough! There are no LCD screens; no garish light displays; no amount of lush greenery or ivy screens; there is no sculpture large enough; no pedestrian bridge crazy enough; no public-space-beneath-the-interstate-avant-gardeism impressive enough; no single or multiple solutions to screening and/or incorporating deadening infrastructure into the redesign. While this is surely an interesting proposal from a conceptual standpoint, the design will be inhumane, no matter how flashy it is, if it values "concepts" over people and access. So I am turned off by this description of their philosophy entirely.

I am surprised at the suggestion of the PWP, et al. crew to make changes that are "barely noticeable" to the public. We must keep in mind that the Archgrounds are quite large and that, preserving the landscape largely as is requires that activation efforts on all edges of the Memorial be stepped up considerably. People need to be able to appreciate the passive landscaping of the Archgrounds, or otherwise the respect for its presence in this competition is somewhat ill-founded.

Many of the teams correctly identified that the Arch redevelopment, ultimately, should cater to people. This is a great though often overlooked observation--especially as traffic engineers crunch numbers and determine that the needs of cars somehow take precedence over the needs of people in what should rightfully be the region's greatest civic and public space.

I would not mind a design proposal that dedicated most of its time to addressing issues presented by having an interstate as a neighbor. Remove I-70 (do not tunnel it and merely hide the problem for just four blocks). Incorporate retail or tourist-supporting services within the arches of the Eads Bridge piers. Redesign parking for the site so that the northern edge of the Memorial visually and physically connects with Laclede's Landing and points north. Landscape the riverfront itself--certainly it is one the nation's most barren urban riverfronts today. Have water taxis or some sort of pedestrian bridge to connect to East St. Louis; see to it that the East St. Louis Riverfront indeed becomes home to the world's largest architecture museum, as proposed and sought by the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation. Enhance pedestrian connections to Chouteau's Landing; allocate some funding to the Chouteau Lake and Greenway to jumpstart that project. And so on and so forth. All of these interventions would make the Arch more of a "place" situated in a context--and little would have to be altered within the existing landscape other than its worst features currently, the parking garage and floodwalls.

Despite my earlier comments, I am absolutely thrilled by the excitement over this competition. Its outcome and winning proposal could truly lift the spirits of our city and give us all a place we're proud of. The Arch, downtown, the Mississippi River, and the city deserve it!


Ben @ St. Louis Energized said...

Matt: Great article, and thanks very much for the mention. I feel like I should clarify one thing. I'm not sure that my reference to "barely noticeable" is entirely fair to the PWP team. Peter Walker's point was that he prefers "subtle and respectful" change, with a result that is so natural that you almost couldn't imagine the project being any other way. He was discussing renovations to Trafalgar Square when he made this point, and in a sense the improvements were "barely noticeable" (my words, not his) to people who were not overly familiar with the site already. I didn't take it that he was advocating only minor changes to the Memorial overall. I hope that clears up any confusion as I don't want to mischaracterize any of the teams' statements or intentions.

Rick Bonasch said...

Matt -

Good post, but I would offer one comment in reply. I've never heard anyone raise a concern about a timeline for buildout of new buildings along a boulevard. Indeed, that would be an organic, market driven effort. It might take 30 years.

If there was a new boulevard, hopefully owners of existing buildings (hotels fronting the boulevard for example) and areas cut off from development now (Riverside, north riverfront area), would see the fastest changes.

Building new infill on Laclede's Landing, getting the Bottle District going and other whole new initiatives would take more lead time.

The question is, does a boulevard stimulate that sort of investment? Does another option do it just as well?

The teams are calling the Arch transformation a catalyst to aid downtown revitalization. It will be interesting to see how their designs achieve that result.

Chris said...

I'm not overly excited about the statements by the five teams. They seems like typical modern day architect BS, made to sound "intellectual" to impress and intimidate the lay person. I want a real design, not Ayn Rand stylings of the "architect as hero."

Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. said...

Nice article. Is it wrong that I have this terrible sense of foreboding about the eventual winning concept? It seems either a focus on artistic design or the urge for these groups to 'make their mark' could overshadow the functionality and the ultimate goal (City to Arch to River) of this competition.

I'm so disappointed I missed the discussion. It sounds like a lot of ideas were bandied about, even if the official proposals are still under wraps.

If you don't mind, Matt, I'd also like to introduce my blog here, Yet Another St. Louis Blog ( Right now I'm tackling the issue with the riverfront itself and how to better connect it and build it from the north edge to the south.

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