Will the St. Louis Community Buy Conceptual Architecture?

Night Rendering
{note: All images are copyrighted by SPACE Architecture and Design.}

Background to provide context for the question raised above, and to describe the images shown here:

A few months ago, we were approached by a client who had seen and experienced some of our work, and liked the thoughts behind our designs. We were asked to put together a design team, and in the matter of only a few weeks, designed and priced the largest project that has come through our office. Our design solution, only partially presented here, aimed to create a work of Modern Architecture that would immediately become recognizable to the region. The bold colors, simple forms, and articulated circulation path would play off the sloping, highly visible site, serving to create a landmark in a suburban location usually devoid of originality or meaning.

ball-mazeConceptual muse for the building’s design (right): A dynamic path that aims to make the experience of traversing the building more special, memorable, and meaningful than the typical experience in a building of its type.

The building’s design concept became a balancing act between treading lightly on the partially natural site and reconciling the complex circulation systems necessary for the project. Our solution involved preserving the existing view of the hillside from the highway, while creating new viewing opportunities from inside the building.

The building’s relationship with the hillside is best exemplified as one drives by the site on the highway. The building first appears from behind a row of trees. As the volumes unfold, The Path emerges, morphing and disappearing at various stopping points along the way. Sometimes it dives deep within the volumes of the form, and sometimes occupies a condition where the line between the building’s interior and exterior blurs. A webbing of interior-exterior spaces connected physically, visually, and conceptually.

Day Rendering


This highway view of the building would be the most common experience of the building’s Path concept. But the full breadth of the meaning imbedded into the design would become apparent only when it became time to experience this Path up close, with loved ones. The significance of the Path is revealed through one’s unique experience of it. This may seem like an abstract concept to guide a building’s design (especially without critical info about the building’s use), but suffice it to say that the Path concept’s paramount purpose is to help to make the experiences in the building an adventure for all involved.


(This portion of the Path consists of various walkways and nodes along a single atrium. Stopping points, gathering places, and dynamic artwork occupy thin vertical slivers of space, providing a spatial experience unique to this building type.)

The design concept is a product of both the site and the building’s program, and most importantly the particular reactions between the two. Further explanation and appreciation of the design concept requires additional information about the project, including diagrams and other drawings that are too sensitive to release at this time.

Ultimately, we did not win the project. We were given numerous reasons as to why, but one of the most intriguing was that, to paraphrase: “our design was too difficult to sell to the community.” This statement is the catalyst for this post, which is not intended to vent about not winning, or trying to convince anyone that we should have. We have not seen the other proposals, and therefore do not know how our design compares in terms of cost, aesthetics, or concept.

Rather, this post serves partially as a brief introduction to our idea, but more importantly to raise the question of whether St. Louis is ready for high concept design, for Conceptual Architecture.

If our design was not selected on these grounds, how many other conceptual projects in St. Louis have died on the drawing boards because somebody felt that the design was too difficult to sell to the community? How often have architects immediately watered down their designs as a result of this fear? Or worse, watered down their thinking? How many talented creative professionals have left St. Louis as a result of this cultural conservatism? Or never considered coming here in the first place?

These are not trivial questions. The implications of what is culturally acceptable to include in our built environment matters greatly to the future quality of our city, and the subsequent quality of lives its citizens will lead. These decisions play into who our region attracts, and who it will retain. Great cities aren’t accidental. They are the product of our collective preferences and subsequent decisons, built up and played out over time.

St. Louis once built great Architecture. Our amazing brick streets are punctuated by mid-century modern classics. The numbers of both slowly decrease and once gone they’ll never come back. Yet how many meaningful buildings have been built in St. Louis lately? A deserved and worthwhile focus on preservation and adaptive reuse surely plays a part in these small numbers, but what else?

Acceptance Spectrum

How would you classify the prevailing attitude in St. Louis towards Conceptual Architecture? Is the placement that you gave St. Louis on the spectrum good for the region long-term? What would the city look like in 100 years if it kept on that tragectory?

Clearly, many buildings of all uses and sizes get built in St. Louis everyday, and many are designed by architects. Yet very, very few of these buildings have something meaningful to say about their era, their neighborhood, or even how they’re used; they are just buildings. Herein lies the critical distinction between building and Architecture. Building occurs when something is constructed, while Architecture occurs when the design concept is embedded with a certain meaning or purpose. Great cities need a vibrant combination of both.

Even though buildings are still built in St. Louis, we need more Architecture.

Obviously, high-design, Conceptual Architecture is common and expected in our country’s coastal cultural hubs. But, it has also become increasingly common in cities like Kansas City, Louisville, and Denver. Yet this type of thoughtful, progressive design remains elusive (mostly non-existent) in present-day St. Louis. Why?

We raise many questions, because we are curious with your answers. Is St. Louis ready for Conceptual Architecture?

  • I always wonder why inspiration is rarely drawn from architectural projects of the past. It seems most architects are constantly trying to break from the past, making their designs more and more simple. There are only a couple modern projects that utilize the wealth of historic design principles; the Federal Court Building downtown is one of them. It’s a great structure, beautiful. I also admire the painted facade of the hotel across from Civic Center Station.

    I don’t think the building in the article is all that great. It’s rather bland, with many blank walls offset by kooky color schemes only slightly. It also wastes a lot of space trying to look “cool”.

    • your bud

      It’s easy to criticize other people. I certainly hope you don’t do that to other people because what is your life really worth if that is the case. What if we were to criticize your little city cartoons. Question, listen, engage, understand. I’m afraid the city you want is the same city you actually don’t want.

  • kuan

    Although the goal of this article may not have been to complain about the company’s failure to secure the design contract, it does spur from that experience. What I wonder is how often this actually occurs (that a supposed “high design” project loses out to one of “lesser” merits). Was this concern a product of this one event or is their data, not anecdotal, that supports these concerns? I am by no means accusing the author(s) of arbitrating their experience to a regional “crisis;” rather, I posit that the question should be posed differently.

    Suburban architecture is notoriously mundane. It doesn’t matter what city you are in. For example, I currently am living in Boston, MA and there are two tech/bio hot spots in the region. One, just north of my university is Kendall Square – a new “urban” tech hub that is a real estate gold mine where high rises are popping up left and right. There, high end architecture is profuse, with the latest in materials and facade design on proud display. Here, as well, Cambridge’s strict urban design guidelines have created successful pedestrian environment, pushing the high volume of pedestrian traffic from Central Square and MIT north into this region (with a fair amount of design criticism, no doubt).

    But out west, along the outer suburban beltway, is an enormous employment strip of bio/tech firms from previous decades, when suburban lifestyles were more in vogue than today. Here, the structural typology is no better or worse than one might find in the suburbs of St. Louis. The Alberici building off 170, in fact, might stand tall against some comparable structures in the Boston suburbs.

    The point of all this is that St. Louis is a primarily suburban city. While there is a small movement towards the city center, suburban typology and lifestyle is still dominant. Consequently, capital, investment, and value all is derived from this. From a real estate perspective, and particularly in the suburban context, square foot value for land product is determinant purely on usable space and the value of such usable space in relation to traditional building form. Aspects such as cladding, design, and experience do not increase the value of a structure. Fo reference, see a number of reports produced by Prof. Albert Saiz during his tenure at the Wharton Business school – particularly work with Prudential real estate wing, which confirmed such findings a few decades ago.

    Thus, in an environment where ease of access and travel flexibility is paramount and manifest in private auto culture (the suburbs), destination experience at a physical level falls low on the totem of values. Conversely, more urban environments demand greater experiential quality during destination of trip due to frequency and relativity of destination, flow between destination travel variation, and increased capacity for consumption capture. A good example of this, again in Boston, is the Prudential Center. Originally designed for the automobile, significant architectural investments have been made to improve the structure (architecturally – though I know it’s sort of bland, as well as relatively – in its context within the greater and growing urban core).

    St. Louis is not this. Rather, it is a city of destination. Like the car culture of the west, end structures are simply houses for consumable goods, regardless of context. It is this lifestyle function that creates the quality of environment most exaggerated in urban or suburban areas like Las Vegas. So, to ask if St. Louis is ready for Conceptual Architecture is sort of moot. It isn’t designed and does not have the capacity or it. Rather, if you consider the totality of the region, such investment truly is not reasonable or appropriate for the environment. In such an environment, if one were to “design good conceptual architecture,” it should in fact respond to the region, not on an aesthetic level alone – but a total one. That means, it needs to make sense from an investment and function level – the proforma. If it succeeds here then it is architecture truly responding to the environment. Ultimately, most architecture in the suburbs has in fact done this – hence the scale and mundane quality of them as such.

    The true question or criticism would be to ask if St. Louis is ready for a lifestyle change that is requisite in cultivating the environment – both social and economic – necessary to create the buildings SPACE would like to create.

    • kuan

      I should note that every time I say St. Louis in the above, I mean not just the city, but the region/county as a whole.

    • Tom Niemeier – SPACE

      It should be noted that while the majority of suburban “architecture” is mundane, institutional buildings such as this are generally held to a higher standard. Quality of materials and design integrity for these structures must last longer, despite not being located in or near the City urban core.

      • kuan

        This is so in the case of buildings owned by the companies themselves, more often, rather than buildings leased. That said, what necessarily are the goals of a suburban building, from the standpoint of a company commissioning one for themselves? Again, primary goals in these contexts are mobile integration with existing autocentric infrastructure. While the experience of arriving at the building is a noble endeavor in designing a successful urban building, I feel that bearing down on conservative precedents is just too easy and with “safe” results. As a structure that sits along a freeway, it’s main goal from that vantage point might ultimately be to remain unoffensive; to work within a landscape and maintain the continuity of pleasantness, level of service, and convenience that such environments are designed for.

        Looping back into the prompt question, I would respond that it isn’t that the area is not ready (double negative, sorry) for this type of architecture, it’s more so that the environment and systems are less designed to support it than a more “interactive” case, such as first ring suburbs and urban cores. Thus, without the need, no “demand” is cultivated. And then, without the demand, no supply – no matter how great the quality – might be consumed.

        • Jeremy Clagett

          It’s critical to point out that conceptual architecture can and does exist in urban, suburban, and rural situations. It can also exist in the middle of a barren desert devoid of all context, or on a sheet of white paper. Doesn’t matter.

          Concepts simply create a system to organize the pieces and elements within a project. They give that organization purpose and meaning beyond the simple programmatic requirements that all buildings have. How a design reacts to its context plays a significant role in determining whether that concept is good or bad and whether it is appropriate or not for a given site and use. (Max B is right: ‘good’ is what matters, not just the fact that a concept exists. That being said, good design is FAR, FAR more likely if the designer has a good concept that guides decisions. Especially for highly complex projects.)

          The site plan/floor plans for this particular project, which we can’t show at this point, would show a building integrated into its suburban infrastructure. For many sites, it’s simply impossible and counterproductive to fight it, and we certainly didn’t. In fact, the vehicular traffic became a critical part of the Path concept.

          This is a suburban building, on a suburban site, with suburban site circulation, designed to be viewed from suburban roads. The suburban vehicular circulation becomes integrated into the Path concept as a critical design element. People’s experience of the building is paramount, and the manner in which the building integrates itself with the surrounding roads defines both the beginning and ending points of the Path. Furthermore, the orientation of the building is a function of how these volumes are viewed from various roads, none of which are urban in nature. This same Path concept would play out in a very differently in an urban situation, if is was even the appropriate concept for the project and site.

          Thanks to all for your very thoughtful comments thus far. Keep them coming!

  • This is a great piece on not only the advocacy for Conceptual Architecture but also for the City of St. Louis. I previously worked for an international planning and landscape architecture firm where this idea was a given – not a “new” concept and it worked, particularly in urban design. I’m thrilled with the progression of STL and we need this to keep up the momentum. I think Space should talk louder…keep communicating…promote this concept! STL will be ready when they understand how it benefits all of us.

  • Andy

    I don’t understand why to be a great city; St. Louis has to replicate the high concept architecture of what we perceive as progressive cities. I think St. Louis needs to embrace its own style. I’m not originally from St. Louis and the thing I appreciate most about the city is the old classic architecture it has to offer. It has a very quaint, almost old world feel to it. From The Central West End, the Grove, the Hill, Lafayette Square, Soulard, and the rehabbed Couples Buildings near the stadium, there is nothing remotely resembling that architecture elsewhere in the Midwest. In that respect St. Louis is way ahead of cities like Kansas City, Louisville, Denver and even Chicago. It seems we are on this grand search to define ourselves architecturally when we are already unique in the region. In my opinion this conceptual architecture will result in many of the teardowns in 20-30 years similarly to the numerous eye-sores built in the 60s-70s.

    • Andy

      Here’s a prime example of what tendy “modern” arhitecture looks like after 30 years…

    • Alex Ihnen

      Doesn’t every era of architecture result in teardowns and eyesores? The point, I think (I’m not an architect), is that good architecture is good architecture (like it? feel free to use that). It’s not as if whatever design was chosen over this will have the same presence, but simply a different design. While the vernacular residential brick defines St. Louis, much of what we love about the city is notable architecture – St. Louis was once more adventurous and progressive. One only needs to look at the recent appreciation of MCM to see that we once led more than we do now. And I really liked Eliot Hall at WU (and Mudd too). To often today we demo whatever happens to be out of fashion. It was done with Italiante rowhouses, Victorian mansions, etc. Every style has been deemed “obsolete” at some point.

      • kuan

        I think Eliot Hall was a pretty severe disaster and reasonable that WUSTL had to knock it down. I don’t know if you had an office there ever but, as a student who had more than a few classes in that building, it was clear that what it attempted to achieve architecturally and how it ultimately functioned were very disparate – not to mention the severe structural failings exhibited throughout the building that were consequence of structural inadequacies inherent in the design.

    • Jeremy Clagett

      Historic St. Louis buildings are certainly unique and make St. Louis standout from the crowd, no question. That’s why preservation and adaptive reuse are so critical to our future. But for new construction, it just doesn’t make sense to mimic these old buildings, due to changes in construction methods and the cost of building them the right way. Creating watered down versions just makes the truly great buildings less special. Cities should strive for authenticity – that’s partly what separates them from the suburbs (the epitome in fake).

      Let’s save every historic building that we realistically can, and building elements from those that we can’t. A the same time, and with the same intensity, let’s fill in the gaps with an architecture that speaks to it own time. One that has its own ideas about the world, the 21st century and the issues we are currently dealing with as a society. St. Louis is rapidly changing and heading in a positive direction for the first time in a while. Shouldn’t our new buildings reflect this?

      As the alternative, what does creating poor quality replicas say about how we view our city? Tricky question, but to me, it certainly doesn’t demonstrate a sense of optimism about our future.

  • Max B.

    I think this is a worthy question to ask and I’m glad this post is getting some good initial feedback, but this needs to take place more often and on a larger stage. I agree with the author that other Midwest cities are catching up with the coasts (and ultimately the world) while St. Louis is stuck in the past. In a lot of ways this is a huge problem and ultimately I agree that a more CRITICAL DIALOGUE (not conceptual or modern) needs to occur. However, our reluctance to keep up with the contemporary world of design allows for a more open frontier for opportunity in a city like St. Louis. Just look at Omaha, Fayetteville and Milwaukee. These are cities (much like the other cities mentioned by the author) that are showing good signs of great design, but there are people in those towns taking risks and engaging with local politicians and citizens in the process.

    St. Louis is begging for good design, but the key here is that it has to be GOOD. It doesn’t matter if it has a quirky concept or NO “concept” at all, what is important is that people are AWARE of the built environment that they are building around them and that a DIALOGUE is fostered between the communities of designers, architects, contractors and the public (across ALL demographics).

  • jimb

    StL “community” is underestimated – people are ready for this. They want it and appreciate it. It’s the building community that is too blame. Developers, architects, contractors etc lack courage. It’s changing…slowly, but it is getting better and architects can help – Space, UIC, Durham, Axi:ome, Cannon and others are leading.

    • john w.

      These architects can use the blog “What Should Be” as a forum for their ideas, as long as the ideas are of critical quality and not just ego display. The blog tries to focus on sites or general problems that have visible need of address by design or other intervention, and will post mostly hypothetical projects. Actual projects, however, are also welcome subjects and are encouraged.

  • john w.

    STL seems to be somewhere between “Discourage” and “Accept” on the attitude continuum. Cultural conservatism, as apart from sociopolitical conservatism, will see political liberals finding difficulty with the unfamiliar often as much as political conservatives when it comes to architecture and the built environment. Fine arts and music, as well as preferences in attire, restaurants and entertainment don’t seem to suffer the same frustration that architecture so often does.

  • Jakeb

    Some Conceptual Architecture works appear to be quite nice, and in keeping with older surroundings, such as we have here. I think any new Conceptual buildings should be judged as to how they work within the context of their surroundings here. There are bad Conceptual buildings as well as good ones. Many of W.U. Med’s new buildings seem to fit the Conceptual description. Some are drab, some quite interesting.

  • STLEnginerd

    I think the context is too important to overlook. If the customer was a business that specifically asked for something modern and distinct then they may have mislead you or just preferred another entrant better. This building looks like and interesting concept for a university building. But might be a harder sell as a public school (my guess for the intended purpose of the actual proposal). If you turned this concept on its end and built it downtown it would be a defining addition to the St. Louis skyline.

    The closer you get to the city the more acceptance a modern design would garner, but really if the color was muted, I doubt it would have been particularly shocking anywhere in the metro region.

    I for one am a skeptic of modern architecture. I feel it often produces a building which visually, to me, looks like a lazy compilation of squares and rectangles (not an insult just an expression of taste). I’m actually impressed by how much conceptual thought went into this buildings design but I honestly don’t know if I would have appreciated it without that explanation while driving by on the highway.

  • Presbyterian

    This is the Show-Me state. Selling anything *new* on the front end is the challenge here. Before most folks from Missouri can embrace something, they have to first experience it.

    BUT … if you build it, they will come. Great design seems to always be a winner in this town … once it’s built. Once people experience it, they love it and defend it. That’s why the Gateway Arch is on every other logo here.

    I love your concept. I wish it would get built. But then … I’m not originally from Missouri.

  • matthb

    I would say not just conceptual, but anything remotely modern. As discussed at length with the Aventura in FPSE (and other projects), there is an amazing lack of imagination or perhaps just laziness in the local development community when it comes to new construction.

    Even with suburban shopping centers, all of the cities you mention have interesting examples of forward thinking development and architecture, yet somehow St. Louis is satisfied with a little bit of St.Peters, in the midst of both one of its most vibrant and up and coming neighborhoods.

    Curious what the winning design is for the project you reference.

    • T-Leb

      I don’t know if you can make the claim that “st. louis is satisfied” … I’d argue StL is not satisfied with lackluster developments, however, there is still enough people to fill up crappy developments. Good developments like Metropolitan Artists Lofts ect don’t have any problem filling up.

  • T-Leb

    I’m sure StL is ready. You just have to sell it. Easier said than done in any industry.