Full Review: MVVA Team Arch Grounds Competition Design

This is the second of five full reviews of the Framing a Modern Masterpiece: City + Arch + River design competition submissions. Each review focuses specifically at treatment of Kiener Plaza, the Old Courthouse, I-70/Memorial Drive, the Museum of Westward Expansion, the Old Cathedral, the Arch grounds north and south ends, the riverfront, cross-river connections and the east side as well as overall feasibility and overall excitement. Each of the five final design full narratives can be viewed on nextSTL here.

Michael VanValkenburgh and Associates (MVVA)

Kiener Plaza
This may be my least favorite redesign of Kiener Plaza. Essentially, it is a large flat plaza. I’ll give kudos for explicitly including “views open onto the Wainright Building,” but other than that, the design seems to best approximate a random western block of the Gateway Mall. The current plaza, though weathered, is more inviting, more welcoming.

Proposed as the “natural starting point for a visit,” there’s physically nothing in the Plaza to attract and keep people. It’s a flat expanse that will be passed through as quickly as possible. There’s something to be said for creating flexible space and this has been done, but it’s also shapeless in a city that suffers from dozens of bland, shapeless city blocks.

Old Courthouse
Other than circling the Old Courthouse and applying the label “1. Exhibit”, MVVA does not offer a development plan.

I-70/Memorial Drive
I am a big fan of the simple approach explored by MVVA to address I-70 and Memorial Drive. It’s not what they’ve proposed, but what they haven’t that’s exciting. Memorial Drive stays as it is. A single block lid covers I-70 and “noise mitigation hoods” extend another 50 feet or so north and south so as not to have the crosswalks bordered by a sunken Interstate. Luther Ely Smith Square is flat and generally lacking shade. It’s destined to be largely abandoned, passed through as quickly as possible.

The proposal doesn’t create a seamless deck between Luther Ely Smith Square and the Arch grounds. But this is purposeful. The design narrative states, “We have proposed a one-block overpass, rather than an at-grade boulevard, because it is less expensive, easier to achieve by 2015, and would require fewer jurisdictional and regulatory negotiations. But the benefits of removing the highway altogether are clear, and we have purposely created a proposal that is compatible with either solution.” For this reason alone, I would love to see MVVA win the design competition.

It’s fortunate that MVVA appears to be positioning itself to support I-70 removal because the proposal speaks directly to “the first 100 feet.” According to the team, that’s the area that defines how a park is seen from the city and whether or not someone is pulled into the space. That makes a lot of sense. However, the first 100 feet of a visitor’s experience will continue to be an Interstate highway for at least a few more years. “The first 100 feet” concept would work brilliantly with a new boulevard in place.

Museum of Western Expansion
The museum expansion proposed is the most underwhelming of the five. I like the new entrance a lot. The glass wall emerging from underground and facing the Old Courthouse (similar to that of other team’s designs) would provide a welcoming west entrance and a great view to the west. However, without skylights or other natural light sources, the interior will remain rather dark. The added exhibit space appears rather staid as well, more similar to the small divided spaces of a century-old museum than the soaring open offerings from other teams. The flow of the space seems constrained and upon entering a visitor meets a wall separating “special program” space. A visitor must immediately descend further underground to enter the museum.

The unique aspect of the MVVA design is the two above-ground additions “with minimal structural continuity among them. … Instead of creating a singular new architectural presence, or even a series of structures that distract from the centrality of the landscape, our strategy of letting the Memorial’s architecture be unimposingly disembodied lets the landscape itself be the connective force that makes several disparate architectural moments into a whole.” This is a well thought out and argued proposition. I’m sold on the concept, even if I’d rather ultimately see a dozen dramatic skylights pierce the Arch grounds.

Old Cathedral
Whichever team wins the competition, we should all hope they include MVVA’s plan for “Cathedral Square.” While other teams ignore the historic and spiritual importance of the Old Cathedral, MVVA invites people to the Cathedral’s front door, creating a small (17K sq. ft.) hard space focused solely on the Cathedral. Why other teams chose not to highlight the presence of this building I don’t know. Luckily, this plan would easily fit with any of the proposals.

Activating the space is a two-story building separating parking from the square. The team proposes a first-floor restaurant and second-floor event space. It’s simple, effective and nearly perfect. It’s an intimate moment at the edge of a great expanse of green. The square would provide the most human-scale entrance to the Arch grounds. At the terminus of Walnut Street, this would be the most likely path for visitors also visiting Busch Stadium (unless of course we can reconnect Clark and Poplar by removing I-70).

North end
Washington Avenue is eliminated and underground parking is accessed via a single location 1/2 block east of 1st Street, leaving the largest Eads Bridge pass-throughs for pedestrian activity. This makes more sense to me than having the loop access proposed by PWP. The space seems a little over planned, more like the sculpted paths of the St. Louis Zoo than the edge of a National Park, or historic urban district. The Playscape with water features and playground is a welcome active addition and the open spaces would be flexible.

The unique among design entries and very cool addition to the grounds north end is an Urban Ecology Center. A small gallery area and classroom space smartly moves activity away from the central museum, which no matter what is built will remain some distance from parking, and to the easily accessible periphery. The added gimmick, which I happen to love, is a “viewing room that opens onto the rail tunnel under the Memorial.” Think hippopotamus or polar bear tank viewing with a wall of glass revealing what happens below, but with a train. It’s likely as close as most of us would ever get to a moving freight train. It’s straight out of Weiss-Manfredi’s “highways and trains are kind of wonderful, they add energy!” statement from the Meet the Teams event in April. In this case I think it works.

South end
It’s counterintuitive, but I like the “underpass park” lying beneath nine lanes of Interstate and ramp traffic. I find this a welcoming place in an odd way. I want to go and sit there, look up at the concrete crap above me and wonder what we have wrought. I keep coming back to Weiss-Manfredi’s embrace of infrastructure from the Meet the Teams event. At some point, if you can’t move it perhaps you celebrate it. I think I-70 can be moved, clearly the PSB cannot. Looking up (or down) at a single strip of Instate isn’t exciting, but being surrounded by infrastructure can be.

The seasonal beer garden (an idea with a very rich history in St. Louis) and ice rink are great ideas and the path network appears much less sculpted and obtrusive than the north end plan. Again, the oval underpass park does its best to connect Chouteau’s Landing with the Arch grounds and the MVVA Team did the extra detail work and proposed solutions to softening and lighting this area. What basically is a traffic circle keeps traffic from coming to a dead decision point and instead sweeps around, presenting the driver with time and information needed to choose a route. The addition of underground parking here is great, as is the overall plan to present more, but smaller parking options. A small structure with bike rental and gallery space is included as well.

Lenor K. Sullivan Drive is closed in this proposal, on balance an idea I do not like, but MVVA does something very cool, they bring the cobblestone levee all the way to the flood wall and Arch steps. This is an effective nod to the working days of the St. Louis central riverfront.

MVVA does something else very interesting here as well. Six sixty-foot tall pre-cast concrete “River Gauges” help define the river’s edge. It’s a subtle, unique and very effective way to focus visitor’s attention on the river’s edge, its movement and changing depth. The gauges give an outer boundary to the river’s edge and place something in the water to invite a closer look. Otherwise, the flat, somewhat indeterminate expanse of the river is uninviting. The gauges do something else interesting, integrated lighting powered by photovoltaic cells on top of the gauge increase in intensity as the water level rises.

This type of active structure, most often achieved by lighting is a rather simple way to bring a vibrant component to an otherwise flat experience. It would be great to see similar lighting on bridges and potentially other structures. It’s not an original idea, but having LEDs follow MetroLink across the Eads, or a freight train across the MacArthur would be great as well.

Cross-river connections
This is very likely MVVA’s weakest design point (though we haven’t considered the East side yet). It’s inexcusable to propose an “extended curb” on the Eads Bridge. This means that sidewalks on either side would be 8ft. wide instead of 5ft. This may in fact be one of the most disappointing offerings in the entire competition. It just fails miserably at offering a reason to explore the Eads or utilize it as a multi-modal connection to the East side.

The only thing more incredible is that there are no other east-west connections offered. No gondolas, no pedestrian bridges. A very unrefined “bike loop connector” is proposed to be attached to the PSB, but only after 2015. It’s as if MVVA saw no reason (and they provide no reason) to go to the East side.

East side
If you’re a close observer, you may have noticed that the east side of the river isn’t vacant. There’s the Gateway Geyser, the larger cousin to the odd circular fountain found within the 21st Street interchange off I-64 (and probably about as enticing to visit). There is also the new overlook platform at Malcolm Martin W Memorial Park – an AmShack version of a real solution. For some reason MVVA leaves both intact.

What is offered is a series of elevated “canopy trails” above a restored wetlands. This low-impact proposal is admirable enough in its own right, but I believe it strikes out on the competition objectives (and any aspirations not covered by the competition).

There exist exceptional wetland preserves very near to St. Louis in Illinois. The plan proposes an “avian research center,” a use unlikely to draw casual tourists despite the relatively large number of birding hobbyists. A “wetland hydrology research center” would likewise not be a draw. The small restored wetlands would not create a unique birding opportunity for serious birders and the research center would be better placed on nearby Horseshoe Lake or in proximity to the Chain-O-Rocks Bridge, a regionally famous spot for observing Bald Eagles. The plan also emphasizes the natural wetlands landscape on the Arch grounds, making the east side preserve even less of a draw.

Another miss is the possible introduction of floating pavilions after 2015. Anything on the river has a good chance of being closed due to flooding. A visitor shouldn’t have to check the flood stage report of the Mississippi in order to know which attractions may be open. It’s as bad as a restaurant having constantly changing hours – people would simply stop going.

The MVVA plan is extremely feasible, but does it do anything to excite visitors? The innovative treatment of the Cathedral is easy to accomplish, the I-70/Memorial Drive proposal is straightforward and even the new west entrance for the underground museum seems basic compared to other team designs. Getting those extra three feet of sidewalk on the Eads should be doable by October 2015…

I’m falling asleep and it’s not (only) because it’s 1:00 a.m. and I’m looking at “JNEM East Wetland Preserve: Technical Notes” for the fourth time. Did I mention I liked the Cathedral Square? The river gauges are unique, but maybe not exciting. What’s left? The relatively easy inclusion of the City to River boulevard and an underpass park. Clearly MVVA has banked their competition chances on “feasible”.