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Arch Rivals Vie to Remake St. Louis Icon
Five visions unveiled in competition to reinvigorate famed Saarinen site
The Behnisch proposal calls for a ring of new buildings, including museums and a performance venue, encircling the arch.
Courtesy Behnisch Architekten

Few structures are as synonymous with their locations as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Arch in St. Louis. Designed by Eero Saarinen with a landscape by Dan Kiley and completed in 1965, the Arch is central to the identity of St. Louis. And yet while the glinting form still draws a million tourists each year, the structure adds little vitality to the city’s downtown.

Five teams, including leading architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering firms from across the United States and Europe, have been working on ambitious plans to re-envision the memorial and grounds as a dynamic urban park, revitalizing both its relationship to the city as well as its cultural, environmental, and educational roles as a national park. The results were unveiled today by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, which sponsored the competition.

Weiss/Manfredi Are creating a grand new park in East St. Louis with swooping bridges providing views across the river. glazed canopies and a pedestrianized bridge recall the arch to the south.
Courtesy Weiss/Manfredi

The Arch grounds are currently isolated on three sides and bounded on the other by the Mississippi River. To the north, the site is delimited by the Eads Bridge and parking structures; to the west, by Memorial Drive and I-70, severing the connection to the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Mall, which includes the newly renovated and highly popular CityGarden; and to the south by the MacArthur Bridge and its approaches. The best place to view the Arch is in neighboring East St. Louis, Illinois, but that waterfront is currently underdeveloped.

The five multi-disciplinary teams grappling with this complex site are led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Weiss/Manfredi, SOM Chicago with Hargreaves Associates and BIG, Behnisch Architekten, and PWP Landscape Architects with Foster + Partners and Civitas. The teams were selected from a roster of nine contenders announced in February.

The PWP team seeks to restore and extend Saarinen and Kiley's vision down to the river.
Courtesy PWP

The Behnisch-led proposal calls for a series of new structures that would create a ring around the Arch, including a large music venue to the north and a recreational center to the south. Like all the proposals, it also calls for bridging I-70 to the Old Courthouse, creating an axis from the Gateway Mall through the Arch. Perhaps most provocatively, the plan also calls for a sky gondola that would transport riders from one side of the river to the other.

The team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh would create a one-block deck over I-70 and eliminate a garage to the north, creating greater connectivity to the city. A parking garage, with a rooftop beer garden and ice rink, would be built to the south. The most dramatic changes would come to the East St. Louis side, where a new wetland park, using recirculated stormwater, would be built, including an elevated treetop path, offering views back to the Arch as well as into the new wetland park. The park would also accommodate flooding from the Mississippi.

Van Valkenburgh's East St. Louis park has extensive wetlands with recycled stormwater. The team also seeks stronger connections to the north on the St. Louis side.
Courtesy MVVA

The PWP/Foster/Civitas proposal is most reverential regarding the intentions of the Saarinen/Kiley plan, the building and unbuilt portions of the 1947 scheme. It is also the most fine-grained in its approach to the surrounding blocks, with extensive attention paid to improving pedestrian conditions at intersections and narrowing surrounding streets and adding allées of street trees. The proposal would also remove an earth mound to create a clear sightline from the Old Courthouse to the Arch. A large viewing mound would be built on the East St. Louis side.

SOM/Hargreaves/BIG turned their Interstate cap into a sculptural element called the “Magic Carpet,” with curved concrete wings that extend up from the sides to create enclosed spaces for exhibitions or ticketing that flank the path toward the Arch. Two buildings-as-landscapes would be constructed at the north and south ends, both with curving and sloping accessible planted roofs. One would house bike rentals and exhibition space, while the other would house education facilities. The east side of the river is conceived as more for locals, with a large canopied performance venue, a wetland garden, and a large commissioned sculpture by Jaume Plensa.

SOM/Hargreaves/BIG bookend the site with a pair of buildings-as-landscape. They also seek to activate the waterfront with more uses.
Courtesy SOM/HarGreaves/BIG

The Weiss/Manfredi–led team’s proposal calls for narrowing Eads Bridge to make room for bike and pedestrian lanes, and would renovate the parking garage at the north end of the site to make it more active at street level and accessible to pedestrians. The bridge overpasses to the south would cover skate and mini-golf parks and a bike rental facility. New “bluffs” for boating would be built on the St. Louis side, which, during flooding, would become islands, accessible by raised paths. On the East St. Louis side, a channel would be carved through the land in a dramatic asymmetrical plan, allowing kayaking and other recreational activities, as well as absorbing floodwaters.

St. Louis has struggled with depopulation in recent decades, but organizers and stakeholders, including the National Park Service, and the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis, are hoping that this national park can better serve a national, international, and local audience, and contribute to the economic vitality of an American metropolitan region that is fighting to reverse its decline. “What will come out of this competition is a new definition of what an urban national park can be,” said Donald Stastny, the competition manager. Funding, design implementation, and management will likely be handled through a new public authority.

The proposals are currently on view under the Arch and will be displayed in nine locations around the city, as well as at the competition website. The winning team will be announced on September 25. Organizers hope construction will be complete by October 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the day the keystone section of the Arch was secured in place.

Alan G. Brake