Back to the Future: Realizing a Vision

Faculty, students and alumni build on Eero Saarinen’s idea of a unified waterfront — one where the Gateway Arch joins with the rest of the city, the river and surrounding areas.

The goal of the international design competition, “Framing a Modern Masterpiece: The City + The Arch + The River,” is to reconnect the Arch grounds, downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi Riverfront by 2015 — 50 years after construction of the Arch was completed. (© iStockphoto)

From its inception, it was architect Eero Saarinen’s intent that the iconic Gateway Arch be integrated into the St. Louis landscape. He partnered with noted landscape architect Dan Kiley to win the 1947–48 nationwide design competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial’s monument and grounds. Their plan included a sculpture garden, tea garden, amphitheater, two museums, shops, restaurants — and even a reconstructed French colonial village.

Saarinen and Kiley modified these plans over the next 15 years as America entered the Korean War; federal funds remained unavailable for the project and accommodations — often brilliantly disguising utilitarian features — were made for railroad tunnels, parking and other needs. The envisioned amenities fell away, rendering the Arch grounds a beautiful parkland aloof from urban life.

Construction on the Arch was completed in October 1965. The following decades saw both the final landscape installation at the memorial and the intrusion of an interstate that separated the Arch grounds from the historic Old Courthouse. The courthouse was originally part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial site but now became isolated from the park.

Renewing the vision

Registration began in December 2009 for a new international design competition to re-imagine the Arch’s role in the St. Louis landscape. The goal of “Framing a Modern Masterpiece: The City + The Arch + The River” is to reconnect the Arch grounds, downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi Riverfront by 2015 — 50 years after construction of the Arch was completed — and, in the process, to reinvigorate the city.

“‘Framing a Modern Masterpiece’ follows on the original competition in contributing to the vibrancy of the city of St. Louis and East St. Louis,” says Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture, the E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration, and a member of the competition governance group established by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation. “The project will better connect the Arch grounds and the park to the city, to the river and to East St. Louis, which the original competition illustrated. We’re finally going to realize that part of the vision.”

Deep university involvement

For the competition’s first stage, 49 submissions came from teams representing eight countries. Nine teams then proceeded to the interview stage, and five of them became finalists.

Seven faculty members from the College of Architecture and the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design at the university’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts were among the finalists. Dorothée Imbert, director of the school’s new Master of Landscape Architecture Program and professor of architecture, was a member of the team led by Peter Walker and Partners. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team included Gina Hilberry, adjunct lecturer in architecture. And the Behnisch Architekten team included five Washington University faculty: Christof Jantzen, I-CARES Professor of Practice; John Hoal, chair of the Urban Design Program and associate professor of architecture; Derek Hoeferlin, senior lecturer in architecture; Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School and associate professor of architecture; and Eric Mumford, PhD, professor of architecture.

The winning team, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) of New York, was led by alumnus Gullivar Shepard, AB ’93, and included installation artist Ann Hamilton. Hamilton served during fall 2010 as the inaugural Arthur L. and Sheila Prensky Visiting Artist in the Sam Fox School.

In addition, Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences, was a member of the eight-person jury that selected the final design.

The competition was important on several levels, says Early, who is also professor of English, of African and African-American studies, and of American culture studies, as well as director of the Center for the Humanities, all in Arts & Sciences.

“First, it brought together a lot of stakeholders who normally are difficult to get in the same room, let alone on the same page. That is a civic achievement of some worth,” Early says. “Second, the Arch is the most important icon in the area, and any project that is meant to improve the space around it is vitally important. Third, I think any project that goes toward strengthening downtown St. Louis economically and culturally is important, particularly if it can somehow bring both sides of the river together in some civic cooperation that is mutually beneficial.”

Many faculty, students and staff contributed to the competition. Alumnus Gullivar Shepard (above), AB ’93, is leading the multidisciplinary winning team, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) of New York. (Joe Angeles)

Educational opportunities

As a side benefit, the competition inspired numerous educational opportunities. It also followed on the heels of a timely symposium and exhibition, at the Sam Fox School.

“Every two years, the school sponsors the Steedman International Design Competition for architects who are no more than eight years out of school. And this year we focused the Steedman on the Arch grounds,” Lindsey says. “The work that was done by those young architects from all over the world was made available to the competition’s design teams. We were very proud of that.”

Pre-dating the competition by a few years, the school hosted a charrette that brought 50 students and faculty from six universities to work on the Arch grounds problem. The charrette was led by Patty Heyda, assistant professor of architecture, and Fred Powers, AIA, principal-in-charge, Powers Bowersox Associates. Heyda presented a paper, “The St. Louis Arch Charrette,” during the school’s symposium On the Riverfront: St. Louis and the Gateway Arch, in early 2009. The symposium was co-curated by MacKeith, Mumford and Don Koster, visiting assistant professor of architecture. Participants in the symposium included architect Robert Burley, who led the Arch design team for Eero Saarinen and Associates, and Saarinen’s daughter, landscape architect Susan Saarinen. The symposium had been held in conjunction with the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum’s hosting of the international exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, which also ran in early 2009.

Near the competition’s completion, the school took 150 graduate architecture students on a field trip to view the five finalists’ presentations at the convention center. A traveling exhibition of the designs was also displayed in Givens Hall in mid-September 2010.

The new landscape architecture program will benefit, as well, Lindsey says, because “Michael Van Valkenburgh has graciously agreed to come and lecture and connect with the students during his trips back and forth between Brooklyn and St. Louis as the project goes forward. And Gullivar Shepard has agreed to do the same!”

The Van Valkenburgh plan

“The heart of the Van Valkenburgh winning proposal,” Lindsey says, “is an extremely accomplished design for the restoration of the park ecology, in addition to the new elements that have been proposed. It is a very careful plan about what’s really needed to allow the original vision of Kiley and Saarinen to go forward, and I think the jury felt a strong confidence that it was achievable within the time frame.”

MVVA is a landscape architecture firm experienced with large, collaborative urban projects. The Allegheny Riverfront Park project in Pittsburgh, for example, demonstrates the firm’s ability to integrate the river’s ecology into a design plan.

Shepard, senior associate of MVVA and the project manager/lead designer for the project, says the goal was to develop a landscape-based approach to stitching together the many impressive elements already on the site, rather than try to create yet another large design marker.

“That approach has been tried before in St. Louis, with disappointing results,” he says. “Our proposal is more philosophical, taking the Arch, the old cathedral, the Old Courthouse, the stairs, the levee, the river, the East St. Louis geyser and giving them a coherence.”

“That approach has been tried before in St. Louis, with disappointing results,” he says. “Our proposal is more philosophical, taking the Arch, the old cathedral, the Old Courthouse, the stairs, the levee, the river, the East St. Louis geyser and giving them a coherence. Although these elements are relatively close together, right now there’s no powerful experience binding them together.”

The MVVA design will improve the river’s accessibility, expand the Museum of Westward Expansion to include more sunlight, add remote Arch ticket outlets and increase amenities in the park, such as playgrounds. The design also proposes creating park access across the depressed section of the highway and distributing parking around the park’s edges, in order to expand the degree to which the site is integrated with the city.

“When we look at these edges we have to think about how to build bridges for people,” Shepard says.

The first type of bridge is experiential. After going through the noisome experience of arriving and parking, current visitors to the Arch grounds enter an almost dreamlike landscape that is disconnected from the rest of the city.

“Second, a physical bridge literally needs to be made because you cannot get from point A to B without walking a quarter-mile,” Shepard says. “Then, there’s this idea of an activity bridge — it’s important when you’re looking toward a place to see that something’s happening there and that it’s welcoming you.”

This underscores the need for activity areas around the edges of the Arch grounds.

“Currently, there are no places to sit, no places to eat, no places for kids,” he says. “If you can tune some of those needs at the edge, a great activity bridge can be built between the urban pieces and the park.”

Shepard’s time at Washington University gives him a better understanding of the culture and needs of St. Louis. He is excited about trends he is observing downtown.

“Everyone talks about Citygarden and the urban-format grocery store that’s recently been built downtown. Those are all great signs,” he says. “I think the timing of this competition is perfect. I think we can take advantage of some momentum.”

The next step, currently going on, is a 90-day period of connecting with constituents, evaluating and refining various aspects of the proposal.

“A lot of discussions are taking place now about costs. And to me it’s important not only to keep in mind the project’s costs, but the value it adds,” Lindsey says. “Imagine the cost of the Arch back in 1963; I think we can all agree that the value made the cost worthwhile. We must, therefore, consider the value of this project over the next 50+ years of the city’s life. It will be money well spent.”

For more information, visit

Terri McClain is a freelance writer based in St. Charles, Mo.

Leave a Comment

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.