Utopia or Oblivion: Erasing Kiener Plaza

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On a warm, gray November morning, St. Louis’ fleet bronze man was standing in a dry shell. At Kiener Plaza, the fountain was drained around William Zorach’s The Runner(1966). The statue famously runs westward, a siting dynamic that writer Barringer Fifield rightfully compared to the city’s own migration away from the river and the polyphony of the central city. Without fountain jets providing a sense of triumph over obstacle, the figure seemed less heroic than stilled. This state is fitting for a statue that will be the only relic that will survive the reconstruction of Kiener Plaza.

Allen{The Runner’s dry basin. Photograph by the author.}

Kiener Plaza’s cracked walkways and loose bricks resonate with the fading sidewalks and pavement of Washington Avenue across downtown, which have recently attracted public scrutiny (a regrettable step away from the 2011 “Great Street” award from the American Planning Association). While Washington Avenue’s civic landscape only needed a little more than a decade to show clear decay, Kiener Plaza’s two halves followed the path of over 50 years to reach a moment where destruction was proposed. The fates of these two public spaces illustrate the pitfalls of durational urbanism – the production of space to serve the momentary fits of downtown’s pursuit of reinvestment. From the perspective of heritage conservation (or historic preservation), the rapidity of decline and replacement of such spaces poses a major challenge. How can there be a robust cultural consideration of the significance of landscapes whose impermanence seems intentional, and which fall outside of both intellectual consideration and legal protection offered by preservation?

seeltobePerhaps the deeper lesson is that rapidity of revision is as much as problem as the individual choices that are being made about landscapes. Sanctioned preservation guides, such as the National Park Service brief Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes by Charles Birnbaum, compel identification and planning to protect “cultural landscapes” — ranging from parks to neighborhoods to even sidewalks. Birnbaum writes: “Like historic buildings and districts, these special places reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features and the ways they were used.” The National Park Service’s recommended approach, however, privileges designed elements (which are often very distinct from the “cultural”) to assert that “integrity” of cultural landscape derives from physical resemblance to some supposed origin. Most landscapes, like Kiener Plaza and Washington Avenue’s streetscapes, are far more fluid in both origin and threat. {at right: Washington Avenue under reconstruction, 2003, view southeast from 14th Street – image by Eric Seelig.}

The pattern of landscape decay and replacement also seem to be calling for a remedy that does not simply freeze one iteration as the “pure” form of a place, but instead one that disrupts the cyclical destruction of landscapes in tune with adjacent projects such as real estate investment and public works projects. Historian Pierre Nora wrote about the “acceleration of history,” which can literally displace sites of collective memory, which are forged through real human interaction, and give rise to narratives of history, which can be used by actors to organize or edit the past. Kiener Plaza and Washington Avenue are edited, contrived sites whose histories serve to provide symbolic and economic utility. They are little utopias with shelf lives, and they are set up for destruction to serve the next invented “history” of place. How many times can St. Louis rebuild its civic landscapes, and at what cumulative cost to a diminished city government and limited local economy?

IMG_2281{Kiener Plaza’s split identity is apparent in this aerial view, looking west from the Old Courthouse – via CityArchRiver}

Walking across Kiener Plaza, one is reminded of the virtue of maintenance — and the legibility of decay. Decay writes its own future relief. American urban history is the history of the anxieties of remaking places. Even historic preservation in America accepts the fable that J.B. Jackson calls “the necessity for ruins.” We can’t make any place without breaking it in some way, and reshaping its visual weight or meaning. The impetus to remake seems artistic, but ultimately is an expression of political economy.

IMG_7124{the postmodern cascades and plaza at Kiener Plaza, soon to be demolished}

Kiener Plaza itself is an agglomeration of place-making gestures that were spearheaded by downtown real estate and business leaders seeking a way to generate surplus value for adjacent property. The first instance of the plaza came in the 1960 document A Plan for Downtown St. Louis, and its utility was spelled out: the park blocks would be part of a park mall that would spur investment in new office buildings surrounding it. That vision, later called the “Gateway Mall,” largely came to pass. Today the drive for reinvestment is compelling the execution of the older landscape, and Kiener Plaza will be destroyed and remade soon.

1960_1{the two-block site of the extended Kiener Plaza is marked in red on this plate from the 1960 plan for downtown St. Louis}|

Kiener Plaza was fashioned in two incongruent phases: the tepid formalism of its eastern half where Zorach’s athlete holds court, completed in 1962, and a more imaginative and inviting western amphitheater completed in 1987. The two sections are joined by a closed section of Sixth Street. Kiener Plaza is a showcase of the changed iterative priorities of landscape architecture in a twenty year period. A revised classicism of the 1960s bows tenuously toward the postmodern sunken garden of the west. One vision, born in the era of perceived urban turmoil and mass reconstruction, presents an orderly and controllable space. The later addition offers a symbolic staging ground for civic pageantry that has indeed attracted uses ranging from Cardinals rallies to Occupy.

To the general public, the western half — officially named for civic giant Morton D. May – constitutes “Kiener Plaza.” The pomo recreation of Trevi, framed by the pergola of cast stone Doric columns and flimsy-looking fire engine red steel Howe truss pediments, is a public icon. Designed by Team Four Architects at the height of 1980s aesthetic over-reach, there is a campiness to the endeavor. The Roman fountain stands inside of a ghosted Green temple, while the hardscape is shameless in its red brick proto-St. Louis conceit. Yet there is also a dramatic sense of history, with the nods toward antiquity, the open agora of the European plaza, Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans and – most clearly – the form of the Old Courthouse to the east (Greek). The visual relationship between the Morton D. May Amphitheatre and the Old Courthouse is one of the few satisfying relational moments in all of the Gateway Mall.

PiazzaDItalia1990{the Piazza d’Italia, completed in 1978 in downtown new Orleans from plans by Charles Moore and Perez Architects}

Few today recall the origin of Zorach’s runner, which arose from steel company executive and former Olympic track competitor (1908) Harry J. Kiener’s gift of $200,000 to the City of St. Louis to fund the work of an architect and sculptor to design a statue with athletic theme set in a fountain. Kiener preferred Forest Park, but the Busch Memorial Stadium project led civic leaders to forecast siting near the new athletic facility as more appropriate. Kiener’s gift propelled an all-star mid-century jury committee chaired by St. Louis Art Museum Director Charles Nagel, and including St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editor Joseph Pulitzer, Jr.; Mrs. Eero Saarinen; architect Edward Durrell Stone; and Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Washington University Kenneth Hudson. While Kiener stipulated that the sculpture need at least one athletic figure and be inscribed with his name and birthdate, he left the details open.

Kiener entrusted execution to David R. Calhoun, Jr., president of the St. Louis Union Trust Company. Calhoun deliberately selected Mrs. Saarinen and Stone based on the Gateway Arch and Busch Memorial Stadium projects, and thus suggested that the project should coordinate with the new modernist architecture remaking the look of downtown. Alexander Calder nearly won the competition process, in fact, but his abstract mobile offended a literal-minded Calhoun, who reminded the jury that there must be a human figure. Thus Calder was nudged out by Zorach’s inspired runner. Zorach had already seen installation of his work at Radio City Music Hall and in the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in the District of Columbia, among other places. His heroic sprinting male figure seemed to echo the abstracted realism of Carl Milles’ figural group The Meeting of the Waters just eleven blocks west at Aloe Plaza — except for its obvious inferiority. The construction of the fountain started in May 1965, and the sculpture was placed in October 1966 to tepid welcome.

Perhaps Zorach’s lack of familiarity with cast sculpture spurred a work strangely lackluster, set in a modest circular fountain of somewhat superior grace, designed by Murphy & Mackey (same architects as the domed Climatron). Something about Zorach’s runner, beyond his westward pulse, bothered St. Louis. Architecture critic George McCue wrote in 1966 that the sculpture was “quite unequal to the occasion that is proposed by the site” and enumerated the site’s relationships to the Old Courthouse, Wainwright Building, Gateway Arch and Busch Memorial Stadium as reasons compelling a great work. Civic leader Howard Baer described Zorach’s statue as “less than second rate” in his autobiography, and many critics since — including St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic E.F. Porter, Jr. — have concurred. Why is it, then, that The Runner will be the sole remnant of Kiener Plaza to remain intact after the forthcoming revamp?

IMG_7190{the completed original block of Kiener Memorial Plaza (as it was known) in the context of modernist architecture downtown}

In 1976, city Parks Department Director Georgia Buckowitz lauded Kiener Plaza as “the No. 1 spot for downtown activity now.” Kiener Plaza hosted hundreds of permitted events that year, and even an outdoor café operated by John Abramson called “Café Marguerite.” Still the plaza’s heyday was short. By 1982, with an official plan for the Gateway Mall blocks between 7th and 10th streets adopted, and the block to the west eyed for addition to the official Kiener Plaza, the original design met scorn. In April 1983, the City of St. Louis, the American Institute of Architects St. Louis Chapter and the Washington University School of Architecture hosted a design forum on Kiener Plaza. Eight teams of architects presented designs, and public input was recorded (including a suggestion to remove Zorach’s statue altogether). The question of preservation of buildings to the west in the path of the Gateway Mall was met with a comment that “old buildings are nice, but St. Louis needs to be redone.” Within thirty years, Kiener Plaza itself would be felled by such logic.

The forum took place at the Buder Building, demolished the following year for the Gateway Mall, and included a talks by renowned urban planner Ed Bacon and Project for Public Spaces leader Fred Kent. According to an April 18, 1983 article by Post-Dispatch arts editor Robert Duffy, all eight teams called for removing Zorach’s statue and the fountain pool by Murphy & Mackey. One plan, designed by Kyu Song Woo of Woo & Williams Architects, introduced the sunken plaza idea along with a never-pursued plan for subterranean connections between Kiener Plaza and new downtown office buildings. Charles Blessing, an architecture professor from Detroit, called for enclosing Sixth Street as a glass shopping arcade.

IMG_7193{part of the poster for the 1983 Kiener Plaza Design Forum – via St. Louis Public Library Collection}

Most bombastic was the claim by Terry Wendt, director of the Crosstown Development Corporation in Kansas City and participant. Wendt claimed that his team’s plaza design constituted, in Duffy’s words, “a plaza so magnetic that it would persuade young professionals to flee the suburbs and to move downtown.” This refrain was an explicit utterance of a refrain downtown boosters still sing. Wendt’s proposal included an open-air theater, running track and fountain. These “active” landscape features are today commonplace in urban landscape design. At the time, the results of the forum – including Washington University School of Architecture Dean Joseph Passoneau’s rejection of the need to demolish any more buildings downtown to create open space – challenged both the downtown booster view of public space and earlier landscape architecture precedents.

Acquisition of the block west of the original section of Kiener Plaza started in 1984, but languished when Charles Cella’s Southern Real Estate and Financial Company sued the city to prevent condemnation of a parking garage that it owned on the block. Eventually the suit was settled, and the city assembled the land through purchase of 25 percent of the block and lease with Cella’s company for the rest. The American Café and Bar at 524 Chestnut Street, owned by Rick Yackey (still active in city development), was demolished. In June 1986, the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority unveiled the $3 million plan for the new block. Sixth Street would be closed and the western block would give rise — or fall — to the sunken amphitheater plan.

Architect William Albinson was principal project designer for Team Four Design, stated the project’s design principles: maintain symmetry to emphasize an east-west axis to sync with the Gateway Mall project; activate the site with features like the fountain and 500-seat amphitheater that would draw people; echo the architecture of the old Courthouse; create an “outdoor room.” Subtract the symmetry, and the goals seem generic today. This raises the question of whether the function of Kiener Plaza truly is obsolete, or simply its symbolic value.

IMG_7191{Team Four’s rendering of the Morton D. May Amphitheatre, 1985}

Albinson’s design, which was completed in October 1987, caught the scorn of Post-Dispatch critic E.F. Porter, Jr., who mocked its jocular classicism as “Tinkertoy Palladian.” The brick plaza and cascade across quadrilateral concrete elements and granite would become popular elements, but the defining pergola-style surround never found its constituency. Albinson publicly posed the assembly of cast-concrete Doric columns, standing-seam roofs, templar forms and steel tracery pediments and beams as playful. Porter countered that the design seemed flimsy, especially because of the red steel component. Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli was an obvious reference point, but one that set up a dismissal. Another source, albeit apostasy in architectural history, could have been the minimalist modernism of Mies van der Rohe, which embraced the ahistoric use of the color-neutral steel beam. The historicized steel beam in St. Louis Cardinals red offered quite a fun modernist pastiche.

Fontana_di_Trevi_a_Roma{Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Nicola Salvi in 1730 (with some nod to Bernini’s earlier drawings) and completed by Pietro Bracci in 1762 – via Wikipedia Commons photograph}

The durability of the landscape was always in doubt, especially when details such as the decision to give the white ash trees permanent Christmas light cladding emerged. Was the Morton D. May Amphitheatre more than civic spectacle, presenting an obviously contrived and invented past? The interrogation of the design at its inception seems appropriate, and a precedent that is not being followed today when critical writing more or less accepts the CityArchRiver design program as if details of construction budgets and street widths were the only lingering political openings. Porter may have been quick to appraise Albinson’s plan without the benefit of historic distance, but his assessment of the locus of the project in the tortured history of the Gateway Mall was sagacious. Porter even hinted at the nature of ephemeral public space as a function of capitalist value extraction. In a June 7, 1987 review, Porter wrote: “Over a century the Mall has become a symbol of indecision, uncertainty and unfulfilled expectations, complicated by touches of perfidy, tastelessness and greed.”

kiener-1{the fountain at the May Amphitheatre in its final summer}

Almost thirty years later, the same malaise is receiving a new cloak. Today’s civic push to generate value in downtown real estate demands a new face and the amphitheater will be demolished soon. CityArchRiver included a revamp of Kiener Plaza in its plans for remaking the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a project that nearly faithfully recreates the entire downtown placemaking program of the 1960s across conterminous geography. The utopia of the 1960 downtown plan, surmounted by the utopia of the 1980s city enshrined in the amphiteatre, will be subsumed again by today’s utopian architectural script. Each revision has required destruction – first of the historic city fabric, then of the earlier era of urban renewal, and now of the last revision to the postwar urban renewal’s visual manifestations. The domino game seems unlikely to guarantee that the new Kiener Plaza, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, will last a generation without some major alteration. There is the anxiety of decay.

Kiener-Site-Plan-1024x791{the latest site plan for Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ makeover of Kiener Plaza – via CityArchRiver}

Van Valkenburgh’s $20 million plan for Kiener Plaza addresses the visual disconnect across the park block, while applying some generally good ideas about arrangement of space. Taxpayers foot the bill this time again, with funding coming from a sales tax increase passed in 2012 for Great Rivers Greenway and CityArch River. The plan reduces assembly space slightly, from 22,500 square feet down to 20,000, and brings the space to the center. The size of the park will expand, due to narrowing of Market Street. Of the current features, only the Runner will remain. Architect Nate Trevethan in Van Vankenburgh’s office told St. Louis Public Radio in 2014 that public comments were strongly tilted toward keeping the statue on axis with the Old Courthouse. Public comment questioning the need for surgery, or valuing the amphitheater’s now-historic role in civic assembly, was summarily discarded by CityArchRiver and Van Valkenburgh.

CRO-KIENER-PLAZA-8{William Zorach’s statue will survive the annihilation of the existing landscape}

IMG_7123-e1449851529765{The Runner in the Murphy & Mackey-designed fountain today}

f053a082-f91c-4a7a-af41-ecbbbc80000e{The Runner given its best presentation by photographer Ben Evans}

The new Kiener Plaza throws shade on past ideas, without acknowledgment. Critic Porter opined back in 1987 that Kiener Plaza should have simply been articulated as “a grove of trees.” That idea itself is a continuation of Richard Serra’s poorly-implemented, beautifully-dreamed plan to surround his sculpture Twain with a grove of oak trees. Other sources are less concealed. There are shades of the use of a “hallway” and algorithmic asymmetry found in The Office of James Burnett’s Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and even the reliance on planting-border curvature found in Van Valkenburgh’s own Brooklyn Bridge Park.

7295790-bx4gud3-KlydeWarrenPark_Dallas_002{Klyde Warren Park – Dallas, Texas}

Even the city’s preservation apparatus failed to give Kiener Plaza consideration as a designed cultural resource. In October, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to approve the proposed redesign from architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. The city’s Cultural Resources Office made a recommendation to the Board that refrained from any identification of either the 1962 or 1985 section of Kiener Plaza as a cultural resource, and also from any evaluation of whether either designed component rated as “merit” or “high merit” under the city’s preservation ordinance. Landscapes remain ambiguously protected under the city’s preservation ordinance, and the architectural achievements of postmodernism continue to evade historic preservation consideration ahead of their annihilation.

The Cultural Resources Office staff recommendation did make a recommendation – not explicitly endorsed by the Preservation Board – that the logic of reconstruction bow to consideration of the visual relationship of the park space and adjacent buildings, especially the Old Courthouse. The Office called form a “stronger visual, civic relationship between Kiener Plaza and the Old Courthouse.” Furthermore: “Without this link, no signature backdrop will be available for public events, such as ralleys; the Old Courthouse is the obvious iconic background for such events.””The recommendation also included a call for “a sense of permanence and longevity” in public spaces and a valiant assertion that the city use its preservation ordinance to “temper current trends in landscape design with some long-held design principles for civic places.”

IMG_7137{is this a cultural landscape or not?}

In the case of Kiener Plaza, the design principles that would impair constant reinvention seem elusive, but they might become more apparent through an explicit examination of the cultural heritage components of the landscape. The use of the amphitheater for all manner of public events ought to bestow some consideration of the designed elements as “cultural resources,” especially since at least a few members of the public have expressly made such claims. Beyond that, the coordination between the original fountain and statue design and the modernist remaking of downtown seems very significant. In light of the city’s own survey of non-residential mid-century modern architecture, and the current St. Louis Art Museum exhibition St. Louis Modern, the confusing Murphy & Mackey/Zorach design moment via a jury that combined Pulitzer, Stone and Saarinen seems worth some pause on the part of authority. The preservation of historically flawed space is not necessary, but compels a strong evaluation of design merit and public reception. Kiener’s own legacy clearly is profoundly intriguing. Yet no civic remorse has been offered for the gesture of erasure of any of these aspects of cultural heritage – even the designed cultural heritage more easily identified as protected by the city’s preservation ordinance.

The durational instability of Kiener Plaza’s landscape makes it clear that the process for making and remaking public space in St. Louis is not effectively constrained by considerations of cultural heritage, architectural merit, cultural appreciation for the recent past, preservationist willingness to conserve postmodern architecture and landscape architecture, material durability, public input and fiscal restraint. Fundamentally, clarification of the preservation ordinance’s protection of recent past and landscape designs is needed. A larger step would be the adoption of a public commission – not a nonprofit advisory board, but an actual public body – to govern the revision of public parks.

IMG_7189{in the end, the least admired and most artistically problematic aspect of Kiener Plaza is all that will be preserved – this is the headline for critic George McCue’s searing 1966 review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch}

In the end, however, the Kiener Plaza story – like that of the Washington Avenue streetscape – is one in which durability, cost and longevity of civic space design have been clearly subordinated behind the civic imperatives for economic growth and symbolic spaces. If St. Louis is to replace Kiener Plaza or any other space with a design that will last longer than thirty years, it will need to reconsider the ways in which the city initially creates public spaces – and the casual (and expensive) ways it discards its own celebrated spaces when the party is over. The cycle of utopia and oblivion could even come to a rest at some point.

[More from nextSTL on the planned remake of Kiener Plaza as part of the CityArchRiver project]

*this article first appeared on Michael Allen’s Building Culture site

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  • illusion87

    Whatever goes here will always be fine, if you can keep the bums out of it is the real challenge.

  • betsy

    so does the cella family still own the land that is kiener plaza? does the city lease it from them and if so, how much annually and how long is the lease?

  • Chicagoan

    It’s pretty cool that Michael Van Valkenburgh is involved. He’s done great work on Brooklyn Bridge Park and he’s been very active in Chicago, with great results as well.

    His style can be a little wild, but there’s no denying that he’s a big name in the industry.

  • Eddie Roth

    Elliot Porter got it right. Kiener Plaza was destined, at best, to be an unloved mediocrity. Public spaces that are unloved mediocrity often don’t last. They shouldn’t. The good news is that nextKienerPlaza won’t have to single-handedly attempt to carry the Gateway Mall. It can take a place on a sublime continuum running from CityGarden to the Arch. Fix the Serra block (including the Civil Courts east plaza) and you really will have something. (Gateway One/Peabody Energy, unfortunately, is an unloved mediocrity we will have to live with.)

    • Eddie Roth

      A couple of clarifications: 1. When I say “fix the Serra block” I only mean put something around the Serra sculpture — landscaping, hardscape, lighting, something — that befits and shows off the work; 2. Earlier generations deserve credit for dreaming and activating Kiener Plaza, it just didn’t work out as they had hoped; 3. I would argue that Kiener Plaza’s social high point was when it was occupied by Occupy St. Louis activists, serving as symbolic space, and then vacated after due process of law (before a Federal Judge) and non-violent civil disobedience.

      • I agree, regarding Occupy’s use of the space. Better organization would’ve been appreciated, but the spirit of civic use was right on. I feel though that the Serra block (minus ‘Twain’) could be a better location for that kind of activity — and one planned specifically for it.

        Its location next to the courthouse makes it an obvious meeting point for matters of local/regional/national interest. Perhaps the creation of a built-in step-up “stage” from which politicians and organizers can address the public and media alike would be included. And on the northern edge, a strip of space wherein organizations could install (with proper permitting) temporary booths or stalls from which to promote their causes.

        By encouraging that kind of use, that’s one way to ensure regular use/activity.

        • Chicagoan

          That’s a great idea, regarding the stage.

          I still think the best thing they could do for the Gateway Mall is to restore the shape of each block by getting rid of all of the parking considerations. There’s already too much parking in downtown St. Louis, they don’t need more along this stretch.

          Perhaps also fix the strange curving design of 17th St, as it goes from Chestnut to Market. Unless it needs to be that way, for some reason.

          Restoring the urbanity of the Gateway Mall and making it something people would enjoy walking up and down is a great way to help activate the space. Having parking all around it and allowing people to drive up to the single block they’d like to see doesn’t help one bit.

      • onecity

        Fixing the Serra block should consist of loading the Serra onto a flatbed trailer, and moving it to Laumeier. Twain is junk. It ruins the space it is in. It is anti-urban to the max.

        • rgbose

          Amen!

        • STLEnginerd

          I would be fine with that. BUT I will say if that was not an option for political reasons they COULD improve it without destroying its context. How you ask? Twain is absolute garbage from the outside that’s true. From the inside it has some redeeming artistic merit. I have read some analysis of its and it was sort of designed as a thought experiment on perspective.

          Standing inside the sculpture near one of the gaps looking out presents a framed view of specifically chosen urban vistas. The arch, the the courthouse, One Bell Center, and others. To maintain the context the line of site from those gaps must be preserved.

          Standing in the center and the gaps kind of melt away and you are completely isolated from the outside city. Anti urban? probably. I’d liken it to a sensory deprivation tank, a serene, natural island in the heart of a bustling city. (imagine St. Louis as bustling and it makes some sense).

          The solution:
          Modify the exterior landscape of Twain in the vein of City Garden. Elevation changes, interactive sculpture, and public amenities. Maintain the interior of Twain as is, or perhaps plant some trees toward its center. Build paths that guide people to explore the inside of the sculpture, to experience the intent of the art.

          That, or just tear it down. I am fine with either but the status quo is intolerable.

          • rbeedee

            I think tearing Twain down would be a loss, especially with nothing to replace it. It is an interesting experience to watch the city through the cracks, especially now that Citygarden is so active to the east. There is an artist named James Turrell who makes oculus sculptures that also force perspective, though his are more isolating. There is one outside the Crystal Bridges Art Museum in Arkansas (well worth a weekend road trip IMHO: http://crystalbridges.org/trails-and-grounds/skyspace/).

            I do think Twain needs some serious investment in the grounds if it is going to be something more than an underutilized eyesore, though. Landscaping as Serra envisioned, security, basic maintenance. Since the sculpture is so controversial among St. Louisans, I can’t see much if any city money going towards it, though. I think the Pulitzers, the Gateway Foundation, or some similar group would have to step in to do the funding. I believe the Pulitzer family has a long-standing relationship with Serra, maybe they could even persuade him to participate in a re-imagining of the block.

          • STLEnginerd

            “I think tearing Twain down would be a loss, especially with nothing to replace it”

            Very few things are worth tearing down, without a plan to replace it. This is not one of those things. I agree, plan first then action.

            “maybe they could even persuade him to participate in a re-imagining of the block”

            Not sure i would be to keen on handing the keys back to the guy who wrecked the car in the first place. To be fair its not all on him, but IMHO the concept is a little underwhelming. Just because he is a famous artist doesn’t mean he should be given carte blanche. I’d be curious what he thinks should be done with the sculpture to make it more engaging so starting there is not the worst idea. The few quotes i read from him about Twain seemed full of thinly veiled contempt at the idea of improving upon his work though.

    • jhoff1257

      Gateway One: The Ultimate Schoemehl Pot.

  • Jeff Leonard

    I generally follow and agree with the points being made here. One that hasn’t been discussed is the practicality (or not) of embedding Kiener with CityArchRiver. By doing so, you gain access to a funding source that will maintain/enrich the plaza over time. This appears to be a key perennial problem for St. Louis, given the lack of sufficient tax base to maintain – much less improve – civic landmarks and basic infrastructure alike. The quid pro quo of doing this is that MVKA needed to integrate Kiener into the larger CAR effort. Is the existing plaza worth keeping over the access to funding? Did they have to be mutually exclusive? As you say, that question would have benefited from a robust public discussion.

    Nonetheless, I went to the meetings where MKVA outlined the reasons for revisiting the previous design and moving in the direction they ultimately recommended. I don’t think their design is arbitrary. But that’s from today’s perspective, as you point out. Will it become the central east-west / north-south axis for STL they envision, and have the iconic quality of Union Square in SF or Columbus Circle in NYC? Time will tell, but I think the answer will depend as much on what grows up around Kiener as the plaza itself. It’s hard for an island in a sea of uninspired parking garages, fast food restaurants and a Hooters to overcome it’s surroundings, no matter how good the design.

    • citylover

      I agree. I think the gateway mall can be very successful if its surroundings are improved. Would love to see one of the kiener garages demo’d for a residential tower as well as replacing the Hardee’s and hooters with drug stores, retail, and cafe spaces.

      For the rest of the mall, I definitely think the triangle thing should go along with gateway one. We could replace those blocks with maybe 10 story apartment/condo buildings that fit with historic architecture. Fill the mall with employees, residents, and street retail. Could really make this area the hub for downtown. Strengthen the central core not just wash avenue

      • jhoff1257

        Gateway One and Twain need to go but nothing but improved park space needs to replace them. I would however argue for building on the Mall between 15th and 18th and Kauffman Park and the Eternal Flame Park. Leave a nice “hallway” between the Central Library and the old Municipal Courts building. And another nice “hallway” between the Arch and the Peabody Opera House. Between the new Kiener, Citygarden, and a revamped Old Courthouse the Mall between the Arch and 12th (Tucker) could be really something. In terms of adding residential, demo the Kiener garages and build there. Also we really don’t need anymore “faux” historic buildings. It’s time to get modern.

        • STLEnginerd

          It’s hard to root for demolition of Gateway One even though I wish it had been built elsewhere…

          • jhoff1257

            Maybe for you. I for one would love nothing more then to take that thing down lol.

  • Presbyterian

    There are examples of public spaces that have endured through centuries. Think of Baron Hausemann’s boulevards and plazas throughout Paris which still stun and invite 150 years later.

    We seem to design and build a lot of disposable spaces.

    • Chicagoan

      Some of my favorites:

      El Retiro in Madrid (Much bigger, not a good comparison for this one).

      Krakow’s Main Square, London’s Trafalgar Square, all of the Plaza Mayor’s across Spain.

      The difference being, they maintain their spaces, a lot of American cities don’t.

      • STLEnginerd

        Many of these places have less attraction or appeal than the current Kiener. What they do have is people… We maintain our spaces, we just don’t use our spaces.

  • Frank Absher

    Thank you for the insight and commentary. The plaza, along with deteriorating Washington Avenue and the median planter areas are perfect examples of a city government that seems unable to uphold its responsibility to create and maintain a “quality of life” standard for downtown.
    I find it depressing to realize that many other cities are able to build and maintain these sorts of amenities but we cannot. The city hall attitude seems to be, “Okay, it’s built. Now somebody else has to take care of it.” So we end up with a non-profit maintaining all the plantings in the medians, and it falls to merchant groups to fund infrastructure upkeep.
    I wish there were some way to bring in intelligent, quality leadership for the city. It would be fun to see what St. Louis could be.

    • Eddie Roth

      How depressing it is to overlook the extraordinary accomplishments of partnerships that have improved and maintain cherished public space such as Forest Park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, CityGarden, Tower Grove Park, the Missouri Botanical Garden — and that have built and maintained recreational amenities at Carondelet and O’Fallon Parks and passed a bond issue that has brought maintenance and improvement to all of our parks. What else have we overlooked?

      • Adam

        Well, we seem to have overlooked downtown St. Louis for a number of decades now. What should be our front door/visitors’ first impression/the most important neighborhood in the city has been neglected/screwed up pretty badly.

      • jhoff1257

        We got hosed on the new Arch grounds. $400 million for a bigger museum and a bridge. The rest is just new roads, parkland and paths. No restaurants, no beer garden, no ice rink, no east side access. Absolutely nothing to really truly activate the area. Don’t get me wrong, the Arch Grounds desperately needed the renovation, and it will look amazing, but for what we are spending we aren’t getting shit. Which is par for the course in St. Louis. If our leaders had any backbone at all we’d have some new activities down there. If our leaders had a backbone there would have been a serious discussion about, if not outright removal, of at least the elevated portion of I-70. You know, the idea that the vast majority of the public supported…that officials summarily dismissed. As usual.

        I love this city, but the parts that I love are the parts you people thankfully haven’t destroyed yet. The old, dense, historic, and slowly vanishing historic neighborhoods. The parts of this city that truly succeed hold all the keys for a very successful future in St. Louis. And yet somehow the idiots at City Hall are still too blind to see that. You keep chasing massive silver bullet projects, the stadium, NGA, Arch Grounds, etc. None of those things will ever provide the benefits a healthy Lafayette Square, Soulard, CWE, South Grand, The Grove, and other redeveloped neighborhoods do. We have decades of proof too. Look at the Mill Creek Valley, the area around Busch Stadium and the Arch, Pruitt-Igoe. These massive “urban renewal” projects were supposed to save the city! They don’t work and yet you just keep trying. It’s infuriating to watch you people make the same damn mistakes over and over again.

        No one is denying that Forest Park, Shaw’s Garden, Tower Grove, and others aren’t great examples of partnerships and people coming together for the common good of the City. But 7 nice parks do not make for a thriving city.

        Getting back to Frank Absher’s comment: “I wish there were some way to bring in intelligent, quality leadership for the city. It would be fun to see what St. Louis could be.”

        Truer words have never been spoken.

      • Frank Absher

        Eddie: I appreciate your response. Let’s break it down:
        Forest Park – Charitable foundation had to come to its rescue to get private donations for its rescue/upkeep.
        Arch – Lots of federal money there. Those are not specifically municipal improvements.
        City Garden – Privately funded by a foundation.
        Tower Grove Park – Historically funded by a foundation and “friends” association.
        Missouri Botanical Garden – Much of the funding comes from memberships and grants.
        Carondelet – Rec center is a partnership with the YMCA
        O’Fallon – yes.

        To my original point: If it weren’t for generous foundations, corporations and individuals, St. Louis would be a disaster. It shouldn’t be that way.

  • matimal

    I think that context is all. Amazing as it may seem, I don’t think 60s planners didn’t understand how the suburban industrial complex would empty out cities. They thought they were creating a place of separation from a city that would continue to remain noisy and busy. They didn’t see that St. Louis’ challenge would not be congestion, but connection as many took advantage of the bribes that the suburban agenda offered to those who participated in it. It all seems self-evident to us now, but we forget how revolutionary the Great Leap to the suburbs was from what had existed for generations in American cities. They simply couldn’t foresee the revolutionary changes that public policy would create in postwar American cities.

    • Alex Ihnen

      There is some evidence that 60’s planners well understood how and why the suburban industrial complex would empty out cities. The revolutionary leap was known. A solution that would maintain the residential and commerical density of the city was not. I don’t imagine that many foresaw a result that would leave the city at ~320K residents and still basically functioning, and with relatively healthy suburbs. https://nextstl.com/2015/12/why-go-downtown-at-all-presaging-urban-decline-in-st-louis/

      • matimal

        That’s not Kenneth Jackson’s argument in Crabgrass Frontier, but he doesn’t restrict his argument to postwar America. https://books.google.com/books/about/Crabgrass_Frontier.html?id=XDQC1w1LIFMC
        What DOES explain postwar public spaces then?

        • Chicagoan

          MSA’s are less dense, more suburban (especially St. Louis). People have backyards, parents work too much (less recreational time), children are more tech-savvy, spend more time indoors. Communities aren’t as tight-knit, people don’t work together to maintain civic spaces, solve problems.

          It’s a tough question, just throwing some ideas around.

          • matimal

            I don’t think anything you mention has anything to do with whether there or are or are not successful public spaces in St. Louis or anywhere else. St. Louis has some wonderfully successful urban areas. Many sunbelt cities have much to learn from St. Louis about successful public spaces. Forest Park is a triumph and has only improved in recent years. Chicago wishes it had something as good. I was just wondering about the motivations of those involved in unsuccessful public spaces designed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

          • Chicagoan

            You’re right, we don’t have anything as nice as Forest Park. It’s awesome, I go see it every time I’m in St. Louis.

            I was just throwing ideas around regarding what’s changed, regarding the public, that’s made these spaces less a central part of urban life.

            After World War II, America began experimenting with this idea called suburbia. People wanted more space, so they moved to the suburbs. They got a backyard, a frontyard, and a driveway. People had their own space as a result, so these public spaces, built as a retreat from dense urban life, just weren’t as important to people anymore.

            I don’t necessarily think Kiener Plaza was that bad. It just never had a chance to age gracefully. The walkways are in terrible shape, landscaping is non-existent, and it was an overall poorly maintained space. Perhaps if it was taken care of, it’d be better.

            I just don’t think most people care about public spaces anymore, so officials can allocate funds and resources elsewhere.

          • matimal

            I think it was the 60s planners who changed. I think they walked away from time-tested models of what people want in public spaces. I think Forest Park proves this. Forest Park isn’t just great because of its structure, but because large number of people actually and regularly use it.

          • Chicagoan

            That’s a great point. There’s definitely a difference in quality between the work of, say, Frederick Law Olmsted and the guy who designed Kiener Plaza. Granted, Olmsted likely had more autonomy and bigger plots of land to work with, but still.

            The Gateway Mall has a lot of potential and it’s nice to see Van Valkenburgh involved in reviving it. I can’t believe that in that prime space is that bland sculpture of the runner, though. And the city needs to get rid of all of the parking along that area.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Unfortunately the designer is only as good as the client (and project).

          • JZ71

            Were you around in postwar America? I was. And there WAS a significant desire for bigger houses and yards, after years spent in cramped apartments, first because of the Depression, followed by WW II rationing.

          • Alex Ihnen

            There was clearly pent up demand. Very little, relatively, was built from 1929 to 1945. I don’t recall the exact percentage, but a shocking number of homes in the city lacked indoor plumbing, for example. In a place like St. Louis, where land was readily available to develop, it was relatively easy to sprawl.

          • matimal

            WAS the land readily available to develop and “easy to sprawl”? Didn’t it require finding sources of money to build roads, sewers, schools, hospitals in new places BEFORE the place had residents to pay for them. Which came first, the money to develop these places or the residents to pay for the development of these new places? Without the national growth agenda targeted at cheap land and new construction technologies, it would have been MUCH less “sprawly’ If St. Louis city had had to pay for St. Louis county all on its own, there would have been much less to work with. The demand for housing and the suburban industrial complex coincided and proved useful for those demanding new housing, but the later did not create the former. Correlation is not causation. A national technocratic elite empowered by a newly powerful national government that had been created to win the war caused the suburban industrial complex according to Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, not a broad democratic upswelling of demand.

          • Alex Ihnen

            I mostly agree, though I think you’re only presenting a partial view of the argument presented by Jackson. Anyway, suburban development here is a fascinating history. Almost by definition, the landscape here was easily developed compared to the geography of other cities. But if you look at historical planning documents you see that planners assumed the hilliest parts of the county, and St. Charles County (west/north) of the Missouri River wouldn’t be developed for a very long time. They underestimated the money and politics behind the effort – and the demand from individuals.

          • matimal

            I may not understand Jackson entirely, but I think it’s hard to argue that suburban expansion wasn’t profoundly altered by free expressways, government mortgage guarantees and interest deductions, and state and federal money for local roads, sewers, schools, etc. If the genuine pre-existing demand and resources of St. Louis itself had been all that was available to pay for the development of St. Louis suburbs in the last 60 years, they, and St. Louis, would be far denser and more functional.

          • matimal

            “pent up demand” for what? Improved housing? or the creation of a virtually new society far beyond where people other than farmers had never lived before with no local governments? Read Kenneth Jackon’s Crabgrass Frontier for more information. He makes clear that technological change and an all-consuming suburban industrial complex emerged after WWII that went FAR beyond a demonstrated desire for improved housing.

          • JZ71

            I’ll repeat, were you around in the fifties and sixties? Looking at what happened, with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, sure, there are things that could, and should, have been done differently. I remember my parents, my grandparents, their friends and most of our extended family all embracing the suburban ideal and not lamenting no longer having to live in an apartment or use public transit. What you see as the preferred alternative, they saw as very unappealing, especially after having been trapped in it for a couple of decades, from 1929 to the late 1940’s.

          • matimal

            I’ll repeat, I never said what I preferred. Nor do your preferences or those of your ancestors matter. You’re personal memories are yours, history isn’t. Systematically looking at the past and representing it in the present is open to all. People see their chances and take them. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have acted very differently if the chances had been different. Nothing is inevitable or unambiguous. Historians have evidence that suburban expansion in postwar America was a revolutionary change from what had been and that it was driven by a newly powerful national government under the influence of a newly powerful corporate class. It wasn’t what Americans wanted, it was what they could get and what corporate interests were able to make the most money from. Suburbanization was the corporatization of American land development, not the democratization of it. Suburbia was the triumph of the technocrat over the politician, the corporation over the local government. People saw their chances and took them, but they didn’t create those chances and wouldn’t have if they’d even though to do so in the first place. Demand for housing didn’t cause the creation of the suburban industrial complex. The desire of corporations to CREATE demand created the suburban industrial complex.

  • David

    I wonder if this project and the Memorial projects will end up shifting the public gathering spaces of St. Louis. Old Post Office Plaza and the Public Media Commons are great but lack the capacity. Will the city resort to shutting down Market or other streets to avoid disrupting these soon to be cloistered spaces for public gatherings? Are we supposed to shuttle out to Art Hill?

    While the typical preservationist stance about buildings that provide little utility for a living city frustrate me in a city that struggles for progress, I find myself agreeing with almost all of this piece. The proposals for Kiener Plaza seem to dismiss it as a public space and seek to turn into yet another extension of City Garden design for children to romp, cyclists to park, and business people to lunch. While perhaps pleasant to tourists, that lacks any character, let alone the mess and charm that is St. Louis. Kiener is certainly the mess we are and the mess we deserve, but at least it is ours as it is now. The new design is more about who we hope to be next.

  • Questions/comments about that 1960s plate…

    1) The various circled ’10’ markers show the biggest problem with mid-century sensibilities toward interaction with a city. It basically creates a grade-separated city between pedestrians and cars, from the stadium to the Mall and west to Washington. Thankfully, this wasn’t built fully as planned, and the last few vestiges are being undone with removals of walkways connecting the numerous parking garages, former department stores and convention center.

    2) Are those DB ramps (circled ‘3’ markers) suggesting cars would exit directly from the highway and into a garage? I don’t see any surface connections from beneath the buildings. If so, wow.

    3) I assume all those grid-based structures are parking garages? Or structures built primarily for parking purposes? So, so, so much parking…

    What an amazing glimpse at how backward urban planning can be given the advantage of time. I’m sure in 1960, this made perfect sense to the planners but wowzers…that would’ve made for a hideously impersonal downtown St. Louis. Even having implemented only ~35% of this plan, the effect has been overwhelmingly negative on the CBD’s growth, status and experience.

    • Alex Ihnen

      “What an amazing glimpse at how backward urban planning can be given the advantage of time.”

      I think this is it. And largely, the process, sales pitch, and desire of boosters, that created past “revitalization” efforts are still at work today. The desire to remake, and the belief in its impact (most especially when using other’s (including taxpayer’s) money, is unchanged.

      • That’s the rub though for elected officials, tax-funded civic groups, etc. To most voters, inactivity is often unfairly viewed as inability.

        So if you want to keep your job you’re pressured to present and implement these big, transformational visions that, to quote a widely-heralded urban planner, “stir men’s blood”.

        • Chicagoan

          Burnham’d