The Price of Monumentality
This small, minimally illustrated black-and-white book is a curious tribute to Eero Saarinen's soaring monument in St. Louis. It is part of a series called Icons of America, joining the Statue of Liberty, Joe DiMaggio, Wall Street, Alger Hiss, The Hamburger, and others. The Gateway Arch has been back in the news since Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates won a competition in 2010 to redesign the area around it. That firm's scheme, intended to rejuvenate both the park and the adjacent downtown, will submerge and plant over the highway that separates the two areas.
This book provides a solid and complete history of the political maneuverings that led to funding the arch, the competition that chose its design, and the process of actually building it. The book is carefully researched and clearly written by University of Kentucky history professor Tracy Campbell, who wonders whether building the arch was folly. Initially, he rues the loss of a historic cast-iron district on the riverfront, which was razed to make way for the monument. Then he suggests that, had the old district been preserved, St. Louis might not have declined so precipitously in later years—though he admits that political decisions, such as separating the city government from the county administration, were a major factor. While the loss of the neighborhood was unfortunate, other Midwestern river cities, where no wholesale demolition of old riverfront properties occurred, also declined.
Campbell clearly despises Saarinen, whom he calls “arrogant.” He pretty much ignores the astounding array of buildings the architect designed (before he died of a brain tumor, in 1961), so the reader cannot see the arch in the context of a body of work. But he devotes a lot of space to Saarinen's troubled first marriage—portrayed solely from the point of view of his wife Lily. Saarinen was a workaholic who put his architecture first—not an easy partner. But had Campbell quoted Saarinen's second wife, Aline, instead of concentrating solely on their sexual encounters, a very different portrait of the architect would have emerged. An art and architecture critic, she appreciated his genius and insecurity, and understood its roots in his upbringing.
Campbell softens his reservations about the arch toward the end but remains ambivalent about whether it should have been built. Intriguingly, he concludes, “Its real symbolism is not to the westward expansion of the 19th century, but to the power and dominance of the United States in the 20th century,” a moment in history that may now be closing as once-mighty cities like St. Louis retrench. If the Van Valkenburgh project, which has yet to be funded, doesn't move forward, we may see that the era was as fleeting as he suggests.
Contributing editor Jayne Merkel is the author of Eero Saarinen published by Phaidon in 2005.