It’s one of the most recognizable structures in the world and a national historic landmark, yet the true vision for the Gateway Arch in St. Louis was never fully realized. Eero Saarinen’s simple but brilliant design created a breathtaking stainless-steel catenary arch that soars 630 feet above the Mississippi River, but the final scheme at ground level left much to be desired. Saarinen died long before the project was completed in 1967—nearly 20 years after he emerged from behind the shadow of his famous father, Eliel, with his competition-winning entry for a memorial to commemorate westward expansion. The landscape architect Dan Kiley, a close collaborator of Saarinen’s on the project for years, was let go from the team not long after Saarinen’s death in 1961. “The monument was supposed to represent a gateway to discovery; instead, they surrounded it in concrete,” says Walter Metcalfe, a prominent St. Louisan who, as former chairman of CityArchRiver (now Gateway Arch Park Foundation), launched the 2010 competition to redesign the Arch grounds and raised money for their rebuilding.
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The biggest drawback was the barrier formed by multiple lanes of traffic, including the sunken Interstate 44, that cut the Arch off from nearby downtown St. Louis. Another was the large garage that was unceremoniously plopped on the northern edge of the 91-acre national park site, just beside the landmark Eads Bridge. That combination created a scenario in which most visitors—whose numbers fluctuate between 2 and 3.5 million a year—would park their cars, walk to a base on either side of the Arch, take the tram ride up to its top, then drive away without ever visiting the underground museum just below the Arch, or the city, a down-on-its-luck Midwest metropolis whose best days seemed to be behind her.
So the hope for the redesign was not only to bring the grounds closer to Saarinen’s and Kiley’s original vision, but to spark a major urban-regeneration project. “The idea was to put feet on the street,” says Metcalfe. “From an economic standpoint, keeping visitors to the Arch in the city for even a half day longer would be equivalent to another Cardinals baseball season.”
In September 2010, a team led by landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) was selected to take on the enormous challenge, which involved coordinating among almost 30 different agencies including the National Park Service, the Missouri Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard, and the City of St. Louis, as well as local businesses. “If what was there wasn’t already so good, it might have been difficult to get through the process,” says Van Valkenburgh.
MVVA’s scheme, developed with Cooper Robertson and James Carpenter Design Associates, is not about big gestures. Instead, its moves are subtle but very deliberate. Most discernibly, it sets up an east–west axis—previously implied but sliced by the highway—running through the center point of the Arch. A new land bridge straddles the highway, organically connecting visitors to the project from downtown. In order to ride the tram to the top, one must now enter the Arch through the newly expanded museum, which appears unobtrusively at grade in the form of a circular steel and glass canopy, the main architectural component and centerpiece of the project. That axial progression continues in the opposite direction as well, with the bridge connecting to the previously sunken and now redesigned Luther Ely Smith Park, which fronts both the historic Old Courthouse building on the edge of downtown and a series of landscaped plazas lined up to the west, designed as part of the City Beautiful movement a century ago. “We reinvented the choreography of how you enter this place,” says MVVA principal Gullivar Shepard.
According to Metcalfe, “Michael’s was the lightest but most complete touch” of the designers in the competition; the jury said MVVA struck the proper balance of reverence for the existing site and new ideas to invigorate it. “I’m the last person in the world to give credit to an architect for a landscape design that he or she didn’t do,” admits Van Valkenburgh, “but the forms on the ground were forms Saarinen was preoccupied with. I am in awe of what he and Kiley did in collaboration.”
The awful garage was one of the first things to go, along with several small service buildings on the grounds, replaced with lawn and swirling paths. Deals were struck with underused parking facilities within several blocks of the park to offer a special rate to visitors to the Arch, who can now walk from downtown to the site over the new pedestrian bridge that traverses I-44 where it lines up with the Arch. The highway’s retaining walls dictated the maximum depth for the new museum entrance, which is shielded in blast-proof glass and tucked beneath a berm as it circles around a pool of water, allowing in visitors on either side. “We wanted to create the experience not of descending but of moving into the earth,” explains James Carpenter. The surprisingly luminous subterranean space—made so through a series of custom aluminum tubes with integrated uplighting that shines onto a highly reflective aluminum ceiling—includes 47,000 square feet for ticketing, coat check, and new displays. The entire exhibition, including the renovated portion of the existing, connected museum, was reimagined and designed by UK-based Haley Sharpe Design.
The curving path of the entrance saw many iterations, including a version that arced in the opposite direction. The final design for how one moves through the site reflects in plan the Arch in elevation. It also reflects a strict adherence to universal design standards, which—by going beyond ADA regulations—offers the same experience to all visitors, as do the thousands of linear feet of new pathways and loops throughout the park.
The previously inaccessible grounds, which comprise 40 feet of grade change, were completely overhauled. For one thing, the existing 900 ash trees—which were not specified by Kiley and were left to grow in highly compacted construction fill—never thrived. They have been replaced with London planes, a species that has a form similar to Kiley’s original renderings and is not susceptible to a destructive beetle encroaching on the region. New light poles, based on Saarinen’s original drawings but never before produced, were developed by St. Louis firm Randy Burkett Lighting Design, in collaboration with lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen, and added along the pathways.
A litany of other important but less perceptible interventions, including flood mitigation, was part of the strategic design, which was executed and backed by a consortium of entities, including St. Louisans themselves, who voted to increase their own taxes to help pay for the $380 million effort. While it proved impossible to realize some of the competition goals—such as a connection to the opposite bank of the Mississippi, in East St. Louis—the incremental improvements to St. Louis’s downtown, from food trucks and other amenities along the riverfront to planned construction of a significant number of new downtown housing units, will ultimately bring to fruition the project’s main objective of uniting city, river, and Arch.
With one of the biggest architectural gestures ever built looming overhead, MVVA’s team wisely avoided creating another. Instead, they brought the Arch down to the ground—visually and experientially—creating a new civic space in the process.
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Cooper Robertson — Scott Newman, partner in charge; Andrew Barwick, project architect
James Carpenter Design Associates, Trivers Associates
Eckersley O'Callaghan (structural glazing, facade);
Tillotson Design Associates (building lighting design)
McCarthy Building Companies
Steel and glass entry enclosure
Exit devices and hardware
Aluminum-tube ceiling with integrated LEDs
Usai, Electrix, LiteLab, Linear Lighting, Bartco, Lithonia, Zumtobel, Selux
Lithonia, Bega, Louis Poulsen