Reassessing PWP-Foster+Partners-Civitas Arch Competition Design as a New Paradigm and Personal Homage to Dan Kiley

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{Saarinen, left and Kiley, right as depicted in a mural at the Arch grounds}

My assumption looking at the high-powered design teams vying to introduce the next century to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was that each of the five finalists had followed the same formula, successfully recruiting the necessary components, accumulating the required artistry and expertise to make the final cut. There are historians-cultural and built, landscape architects, freshwater hydrologists, engineers-transportation and civil, and more.

Glancing at the previous projects of each reveals the shear capability of the remaining teams: Chrissy Field, Millennium Park, Ground Zero Memorial, Olympic Park and many other challenging and amazing projects. All in their own style, each team is something of a dream team looking to forever join their name with Saarinen and Kiley. However, one team, and one person specifically, is on a mission unlike the others.

Peter Walker leads the Peter Walker and Partners-Foster+Partners-Civitas team and articulates a unique vision for the future Arch grounds. To him, the design competition is personal. A friend of Dan Kiley's, Walker is passionate about the opportunity to see Kiley's original intent realized. A member of the jury asked Walker how he could know what Kiley's intentions were and the answer was that Peter knew him personally and understood what he was trying to create.

"We're interested in the history and the aesthetics of this area," Walker said at the recent presentation to the competition jury. "One of my particular reasons for being interested in this is that institutional memory does not last forever. This may be the last time we can take a look at what was intended and what was accomplished and have a chance to bring that up to the level the designers originally intended."

In short, the power of the Arch grounds, the potential of the setting as designed was never realized and taking the monument in a different direction, offering amenities in an attempt to draw a new crowd is the long way to get to a more powerful experience. If we could just see the grounds as they were intended to be, we would achieve success. If this were to be the path chosen by the competition jury, it's difficult to imagine anyone more qualified to enact it than Peter Walker.

The presentation format was the perfect setting for Walker to advocate his personal investment in the competition, a passion that does not present itself easily on design boards or in the team's narrative. When asked by a juror how the PWP design submission would catalyze development and encourage people to explore downtown, Walker basically asserted that the power of the design along with increased NPS programming would be enough.

Perhaps PWP simply needed a catchy title for their submission, maybe "Completing the Circle", or "Back to the Arch's Future". With me and others, the PWP design boards and narrative fell flat. It is because of the lack of flashy new education centers and pedestrian connections that the PWP proposal doesn't woo admirers who dream of a different future. Many assume that the current generation will stamp its own vision on the grounds.

Looking at the five finalist's designs, the PWP effort stands alone, offering an altogether different paradigm. The true sentimentality of the PWP team's effort and that of Peter Walker himself, is deserving of a second look. The option to not reinvent the Arch grounds, but to complete what the original designers envisioned has merit and should be taken seriously.

In one sense, the PWP design doesn't offer as many new attractions and amenities. The taken-for-granted modern attractors of basketball courts and skate parks are gone. The north and south ends simply show "Future Cultural Facility". Walker explained that some local cultural institution may want to set up there, or a new museum may be proposed by the community and that PWP was not going to dictate what that would be.

On the other hand, a juror recognized that the PWP approach is very radical and can be seen as the opposite of NPS management practices and American-style historic preservation as a whole, which he characterized as, "Protect what's there, not an interpretation of what might have been there."

Walker's response further shed light on the PWP premise. "I think what Dan was trying and what Saarinen was trying was wonderful, and no one's ever seen it. I'm convinced that this will be a remarkable place. … If this opportunity goes by, I don't think we'll be meeting here again in 50 years, or if we are, we'll be meeting with a completely different background of knowledge than we have right at this moment." This is the last opportunity to consider what was intended for this site and the moment precedent will be set for whether the Arch grounds are to be reinvented every 50 years to meet new expectations, or preserved as it was intended to be built.

PWP presentation boards, full narrative and review

{PWP full 90-minute jury presentation video – via stltoday.com}

 

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