In St. Louis, A Green Oasis for Saarinen’s Gateway Arch

October 26, 2010

By John Gallagher

Glasgow School of Art
Image courtesy MVVA

A team led by MVVA won the competition to design the grounds surrounding Gateway Arch. Click on the slide show button below to see schemes by all five finalists.


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In the 1960s, when the Eero Saarinen-designed Gateway Arch in St. Louis was built, the work created an American icon as recognizable as the Statue of Liberty. But plans never materialized to develop the surrounding grounds into a fully accessible public site, leaving the Arch isolated on its urban island, cut off by a tangle of expressways, bridges, and parking.

To correct that, federal, state, and local officials launched a design competition in December 2009 to redo the grounds. Some 49 teams were winnowed to five, and in late September, the competition organizers announced that jurors had chosen a team led by New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to perform the work.

Over the ensuing 90 days, the multi-part MVVA team, which includes 15 firms in all, including Steven Holl Architects and Greenberg Consultants, will work with the City of St. Louis and the National Park Service to refine the plans, create a construction budget, and map out a strategy toward a completion date of 2015. The team is expected to present a more advanced version of its scheme at the end of this year or in January.

Among much else, the MVVA proposal will create park-like greenways over and under the expressway separating the Arch grounds from downtown St. Louis. An existing parking garage to the north will be replaced with smaller parking scattered within a five-minute walk. The grounds sloping to the Mississippi will be redone as a cobblestone beach to create a more accessible gathering spot for visitors. And elevated walkways will be built in an avian sanctuary across the river, in Illinois, as part of an extensive park there.

Given the size of the site flanking both sides of the Mississippi, some 250 acres including roughly 91 acres of national park land, the winning design presents a complex array of information that team leader Michael Van Valkenburgh admitted cannot be grasped in a quick glance. “Our scheme is incredibly worked out technically,” he said in an interview. “We kind of killed ourselves on this thing.”

Donald Stastny, FAIA, the manager of the competition, suggested one reason that the MVVA team won was that its entry was the most landscape-focused of the final five offerings. (The other teams were headed by Behnisch Architekten; PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners, and Civitas; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Hargreaves Associates, and Bjarke Ingels Group; and Weiss/Manfredi, Architecture/Site Design/Urbanism. ) Some of the other team entries would have introduced more buildings into a site that already contained what Van Valkenburgh called a “perfect piece of architecture”—the Arch itself.

Van Valkenburgh says viewers at first glance may mistake the winning entry as too minimalist. “If they’re not used to thinking of landscape as being the source of dramatic change, they think this is sort of modest,” he says. “I think the robust way we use landscape is more powerful than people realize.”

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