Does It Take Great Places to Produce Great Architecture?

This question comes back to me every time a project is proposed in St. Louis and the inevitable chorus of “boos” rains down from urbanist and architect alike. I’m reminded of it when I visit Boston and see the few gems mixed in with a whole lot of schlock. I think it takes a developer, a great site and a great place to produce great architecture.

What might this mean for St. Louis? Well, I don’t flinch when I see a plan for a new office tower or hotel in Clayton. Glass cube? Of course. Brick panels? No surprise there. Of course some features can be demanded by local review boards or by ordinance, but it’s difficult to dictate good architecture.

The silver lining here is that St. Louis is getting better and the vitality of several neighborhoods is creating more and more demand. There’s an awareness that important development sites such as the parking lots on Kingshighway at Lindell Avenue cannot be filled with below-average architecture. Making that happen may be another story as even the most in-demand sites in St. Louis do not command a high enough price to justify something extraordinary. And of course, very bad architecture continues to be approved throughout the city.

So when and where might we see something better? The Robert’s Tower may be one example where the developer wanted a signature building, the site is demanding of something interesting and the final building appears to be beyond what one might expect for St. Louis. Several lots on Washington Avenue may see interesting projects as well. Where else? Unfortunately, I think “great” architecture may not be in our near future.