Friday, 13 September 2013

Preview: The Gateway Arch

In 1803 Napoleon needed money for more war, and for a planned invasion of Britain. Over on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean the French colony of Louisiana provided the answer. Formerly part of the New France colony, which had been broken up the century before, it was a vast swathe of land in the centre of North America that had little interest for Napoleon. The French before him likewise had never had the time or effort to do much with it, and in fact it was at risk from the British seizing it. And so just as we might sell a car or a bunch of CDs we don't listen to for a quick sale, Napoleon sold 800,000 square miles of land west of Mississippi. Although the native Indian population who actually lived there had little say, the buyer was the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who had been strongly involved in the independence movement from the British just 27 years earlier, helping to write the Declaration of Independence. "Yours for a bargain $15 million," Napoleon said, except in French ("Votres pour un bargain quinze milles dollars." Or something like that). He then proceeded to blow the money on a series of wars, never managed to invade Britain, killed millions, and bankrupted the country, all while putting the US on its first steps to being a superpower. Nice work there, Napoleon.

Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, with this one handy purchase managed to double the size of his new nation, and open the door to westward expansion. St Louis in Missouri was part of the sale, and soon expanded to become the regional capital, and the starting point for numerous expeditions to the West Coast. In a sense, it was a gateway to a new world, in which pioneers of a new country settled and built upon land stretching for 2000 miles to the Pacific Ocean. And so in the 20th Century, residents of St Louis decided to commemorate this, with a grand monument. They built this:

This is the Gateway Arch, the chief feature of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and icon of St Louis. A 192 metre-high and 192-metre wide stainless steel arch by the Mississippi riverside, at the spot the city was founded in 1754, it is a dominant and striking feature of St Louis, and a feature that, to my knowledge, has nothing else in the world that could be called an equal. Arches appear across the planet in all kinds of forms, but a gigantic and kind of futuristic arch like this doesn't. 53 metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, it is wonderfully, deceptively simple. Just a sleek, modern arch, no fuss, no need for fancy decoration, standing in a purpose-built park just beyond the older 19th Century Old Courthouse.

Before the arch had been conceived, the idea for some kind of memorial was already long born. Although St Louis had been an important city during the 19th Century, by the 20th Century it was waning. A local lawyer called Luther Ely Smith wanted to try and change that, and felt that a memorial park and a glorious monument celebrating the city's past might help. He had been involved with the recently completed George Rogers Clark Memorial in Indiana, dedicated to a hero of the American Revolution, and thought this was just the kind of thing St Louis needed. In 1934, he formed and became chairman of an association of residents to do just that.

The entire thing would involve the development of the run-down riverfront. Government approval and financial help came quickly - President Roosevelt signed a bill to cover three-quarters of the expected $30 million costs. But then... delays. Land had to be acquired and this involved various legal battles. Eventually by 1939, a 91-acre site was ready for work to proceed. Buildings were demolished, and this almost included the Old Courthouse. It had to be rescued by some local residents who rightfully reckoned that it was somewhat ironic to demolish a beautiful part of the past in order to build a memorial to it. But just as things were making progress, the entire project was again put on hold - this time due to the Second World War.

By 1947, the association started to think about kickstarting things back into life. Fifteen years had gone by and all they'd managed to do was clear a large space - it was time to start doing things. And it must have occurred to them all, what exactly was this big central monument the memorial park would revolve around? In the 1930s, vague ideas like obelisks and statues had been tossed around, all nice and safe and very generic, but nothing actually was decided upon. They decided to have a competition, with a $75,000 prize for the winner. The criteria was for an architectural centrepiece in a landscaped park which kept the spirit of Old St Louis with some preserved buildings and reproductions, as well as a theatre and a museum, and various recreatonal facilities. The panel of judges to assess the designs had perhaps the weirdest names of any jury ever before gathered together. I believe they were all respected architects, and not simply chosen for novelty value: Fiske Kimball, Richard Neutra, Charles Nagel Jr., Roland Wank, William Wurster, Louis LaBeaume, and S. Herbert Hare. Anyway, 172 people entered; there was one unanimous winner. And we've seen him before on these pages. His name was Eero Saarinen.

A Finnish-born architect to a family of architects and artists, Saarinen had moved to the US at age 13. We've seen him before on these pages - he was the guy who chose Jorn Utzon to design the Sydney Opera House, although in 1947 that was still ten years away. He'd been one of the judges assessing the design competition but had arrived late. Insisting upon going through the pile the other judges had already rejected, he came across Utzon's dashed-off swoops and curves. This is the winner, he announced, and the rest is history. This wasn't a one-off, he pulled off exactly the same trick when choosing Toronto City Hall, also picking a little known Scandavian architect from the depths of the reject pile. Saarinen didn't like to play safe, he'd rather take the risk of making a monstrosity than playing safe and creating something banally generic.

Such was his design for the memorial's centrepiece. It wasn't a spin-off obelisk, or a noble statue, it was a vast metal arch that in his own submission notes symbolised "the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot." It would be built without any framework - the steel outer layer would also be the support. The shape was that of an inverted catenary curve, the natural shape assumed by a chain or line when hanging (although in the Gateway Arch's case, a slightly weighed-down line if we're going to be mathematically accurate). It was Saarinen's first major success - but he didn't live to see it.

Just as in the 1930s, delays crept in. This time it was the relocation of railway tracks, involving redesigns of the entire site, coupled with another war, the Korean War, which meant a shortage of funding. It was only in 1958 that President Eisenhower resumed the funding. Finally, by June 1962, 20-metre-deep holes for the two legs of the arch had been dug and 26,000 tons of concrete poured into them - work on the arch had begun. But it was too late for Saarinen, for nine months earlier, on 1st September 1961, aged 51, he'd died during an operation for a brain tumour.

After a fifteen year wait from inception to start of construction (and almost 30 years since the idea of a memorial had been conceived), the Gateway Arch just took six years to build. It was officially opened on May 25th 1968, and was an immediate hit. In the first 30 years, over 65 million people are said to have visited, and it today attracts up to four million a year. The Gateway Arch isn't just a colossal metal sculpture though, you can actually go inside it. Each leg has a 1076-step stairway, although they're just for emergencies or workers, and normal civilians like me have to take a kind of mini-train capsule that travels to the top. There doesn't appear to be much at the top, just some windows to enjoy the view, but Saarinen wasn't building a high-rise hotel and nightclub, he was building a crazy symbolic metal arch.

I'm looking forward to visiting this one - it's big, it's different, and it's got that slight edge of appealing insanity. A giant metal arch that I can go inside - it sounds great. In spirit, it reminds me of the Millau Viaduct - very elegant, minimal, and striking. From what I can gather, it's very well known in America, but I have to admit that until starting this Wonder quest I'd never heard of it - I suppose that being in St Louis rather than New York or San Francisco will do that. But as Wonders go, on paper it seems to very much fit the bill. While breaking into the top Seven seems a stretch, I think the Gateway Arch might be a dark horse for featuring quite high up the list.

As ever, we'll see - an on-paper judgement is sometimes way off from an actual in-person judgement. And that will be done... whenever I go to America. Late next year at the earliest. And I'll give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.

“The Gateway Arch” Katherine M. Doherty
"Arch Celebration: Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Gateway Arch, 1965-1990" Steve Givens, Tom Ebenhoh
“Building of the Arch” Robert F Arteaga


  1. I'm in two minds about this one.

    On the plus side:

    - it's original. I can't think of any structure, anywhere, that's like this one. Like you say, they didn't go for some generic neo-classical straight-out-of-a-kit monument or anything like that.

    - it certainly puts St Louis on a map. It's literally the only thing that I know about St Louis (well, having just read your article I now know a little more); in fact that's even saying something as I still can't put St Louis on a map (other than "somewhere in the middle bit" of the United States). So just for that it does its job.

    - I've never seen it for real, but I reckon it's the kind of structure that would definitely make me go "gasp!" at seeing it first-hand. Hard to tell from photos but that's what I suspect.

    On the minus side:

    - I don't actually like it that much. If there were a proposition in my city to put something like that up I would protest that it's an eyesore; of course that's a bit unfair as different cities can "absorb" different types of architecture/monuments based on their existing styles.

    - I can't help thinking that it looks like half a McDonald's logo. Again, probably unfair as that's more a reflection of McDonald's ubiquity than St Louis' choice of style for an arch, but there you go.

    All in all I reckon that it's a good monument for where it is, but I'm afraid that I just don't like it aesthetically.

  2. A lot of modern architecture is quite divisive in terms of taste. I'm wary of a lot of sleek, metal buildings as I think they can look quite "tinny"; the Gateway Arch might fall into this category when I see it in person, but from the photos I think it works.

    I hadn't considered the McDonald's logo however. A quick Google search shows what it might have looked like if they'd made two Arches - (bottom of page)

  3. I was unable to see that on that site, seems to be a problem. On a slightly different but related subject, St Louis doesn't register here in France as a well-known city despite the fact that it was founded by the French and has the name of a French King (and Saint) Louis IX. If you were to ask the average French person in the street which North American cities were founded by the French, they would probably say Québec (City), Montréal, New Orleans (in no particular order). Not counting current French territories in the Caribbean.

    One thing that I have always found interesting is that in France, New Orleans is known by its original name "La Nouvelle Orléans", yet New York is called "New York"; whereas Hispanics call New York "Nuevo York". One of those things I guess, depending on history, culture and habit. Louisiana is called "La Louisiane".