Arch Design Jury Avoided Choosing Anything that “Maybe Wouldn’t Work”

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The St. Louis Beacon has an interesting story up about the jury’s selection process in the recently concluded Arch grounds design competition. A few quotes from jurors stand out to me. They may be right, they may be wrong, and there are many valid reasons that the competition was directed as it was, but it’s becoming clear that the constraints of that process, and not the possibilities, ruled the day.

I’m only pulling a few quotes to highlight the point, but you can read the entire Beacon story here. The jury report, full review and a look at what’s next and more can be found on the nextSTL Arch design competition page. Jurors believed that the “sensible” design was the “best fit” for St. Louis. The jury had to respect the 2015 deadline and at least consider how much a design would cost. Given all the constraints, arriving at Michael Van Valkenburg Associates as the winning team is difficult to criticize. As has been noted here before, and as the jury recognized, MVVA is an incredible firm and their team members on this design competition bring a lot of power to the table.

It’s still difficult to not feel a little disappointed reading remarks from the jury members. “Each of the other plans had a question mark somewhere — an idea that maybe wouldn’t work.” said Carol Ross Barney, a principal at Ross Barney Architects in Chicago. As was satirized on this site, what if the 1948 competition passed on Saarinen’s Arch because it “maybe wouldn’t work”? She went on to say, “The feeling we got from people who live in St. Louis,” she said, “is that they didn’t want another plan that didn’t get done.” It’s an obvious statement, but apparently a sentiment that weighed heavily against more aspirational change.

Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American Studies as Washington University was the jury member with most significant local ties. He noted that MVVA appeared to work best with the constraints imposed by myriad of stakeholders, from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service. He stated, “Several other plans had advocates (on the jury), but we felt this one had the good elements, a good team, people had confidence the plan could be done and that St. Louisians would feel good about the plan.”

The jury had a difficult job. Yet, as we are beginning to see, very significant design aspects of the MVVA winning submission may be changed, including the possible closing of Memorial Drive. If such significant change can be effected, surely the Behnisch offering could have been considered sans gondolas (a feature that appears to have counted against them).

The MVVA plan will bring needed and significant change to the Arch grounds. The complexity involved in this change can barely be exaggerated and thus the completion of the competition itself is an accomplishment to be applauded. What rubs many the wrong way is the apparent disconnect between the hopes and aspirations of many St. Louisians, bolstered by the billing of the competition as the singular opportunity to transform the underachieving Arch grounds, to see an inspiring vision for our city’s future. This is not what the competition was meant to provide.

St. Louis in 2050 will be defined by its residents by resurrected neighborhoods, cultural attractions and likely even the National League Central standings more than the Arch grounds, but we will also likely have to wait until then to have another symbolic opportunity of this significance to redefine St. Louis to those who only know us by our iconic Arch.

Perhaps there’s symmetry in the Saarinen design being the most aspirational of its time and the current design being possibly the least. Maybe there’s a larger social commentary one can make here. Maybe we’ve learned something and wish not to wait more than 30 years, as the original Arch grounds waited, to see improvements.

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” The quote has been attributed to Daniel Burnham, the American landscape architect. In this case, a little more magic and a little less practically may have stirred more blood.

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