Framing a Modern Masterpiece

Like many St. Louisans, I have been dreaming revisions to the St. Louis Riverfront downtown, since viewing the five finalist design proposals revealed on Tuesday morning beneath the Gateway Arch. All are beautifully rendered and well thought out, with individual elements that have great appeal. And in a perfect world, the best elements of all five could be incorporated into one final version. Yet from an artistic point of view there are reasons why this would not be ideal; the most important being that the winner would suffer the fragmentation of its organic whole – that its vision would be reduced to – a version. And because I respect the complexity and creativity incorporated into each and every one of these proposed designs, I would not want to see that happen.

The proposal of Behnisch Architekten of Los Angeles and Stuttgart, “Rivercircle”, takes my breath away! It’s daring and imaginative, with a universal appeal that complements Eero Saarinen’s original design and thrusts St. Louis into the future, marking it as a center not only of the nation, but the the world. I have only two problems with it. There is nothing characteristically St. Louis about it. It could be anywhere. Both the unique personality of St. Louis and its critical role in U.S. history could be endangered of sublimation to a great! – but generic riverscape. And by its architects’ own admission, “Rivercircle” would not meet the National Park Services’ designated completion date of October 2015, when the Gateway Arch will turn 50. But the concept of gondolas floating above the Mississippi at St. Louis is stellar!

“Full Circle” submitted by Weiss/Manfredi of New York offers proposals for pedestrian walkways along the Eads and Poplar Street Bridges which could be marvelous if realized, lovely in their symmetry. Certainly James Eads intended from the outset that his bridge would allow for pedestrian travel and wonderful views of St. Louis from the river. However, having crossed the Poplar Street Bridge often, in the midst of high speed traffic, I find the possibility of a pedestrian/wheelchair accessible/bicycle pathway on it – harrowing. But a view of the Mississippi River through a glass wall embedded in the Arch staircase would be stunning – and a skating rink with glass canopy atop the present north parking garage – terrific!

I’m opposed to one design team’s proposal for a public swimming pool/barge on the Downtown Riverfront. The Mississippi River at St. Louis is too important to be transformed into primarily – either a play space for all ages – and/or nature preserve. St. Louis began with the river, the river sustains us and it should never be trivialized. The Port of St. Louis is one of the nation’s largest and most important inland river ports. There are  too many reasons to list why the river downtown is neither desirable or safe to swim, and placing a swimming barge in it would be tempting fate.

The overall design that I find the most visionary and symbolic is PWP’s Proposal. Like Behnisch’s design, it consists of dramatic, sweeping architectural lines that seem not only to complement but to complete Saarinen’s vision, but it is particular to St. Louis with its plans for a Prairie Forest and Frontier Village on the Missouri side of the Mississippi and a 65′ earthen mound with look-out celebrating the Mississippians on the Illinois side, and water taxis connecting and making easily accessible, the east and west riverbanks. Hopefully this frontier village would be French/Creole in character and much the same as Lewis and Clark found it when they arrived in 1804; a place as important to the Mississippi River Valley as Jamestown was to the Atlantic seaboard. The design team of PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, Civitas of Berkeley, CA stated that they were aiming for a design that respected the original vision of Eero Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley, and in my personal opinion they’ve succeeded. Their landscaping proposal that reaches westward from the Mississippi to Citygarden, emphasizes and delineates the Gateway Mall and lends to it a grace and beauty which has heretofore been lacking. And it would provide for a lot more, needed shade in the wilting heat of  summer.

I can’t wait to read the comments of other St. Louisans! I hope the competition’s distinguished jury has to sort through thousands of them. What a tremendous initiative, “Framing a Modern Masterpiece”, has been thus far on the part of the National Park Service.


About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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