Saturday, 16 August 2014

59. Wonder: The Gateway Arch

(For the Gateway Arch preview, please click here.)

Is this the greatest hyperbolic cosine function in the world?

with constants

This little piece of maths describes the shape of a catenary curve, which describes the Gateway Arch, the shining piece of symbolic architecture that dominates the skyline of St Louis in Missouri. What's a catenary curve, you might ask. Or you might not, in which case you may lightly skim the rest of this paragraph, but I promise you it's my last piece of mathematics for this review. The word derives from the Latin catenaria, meaning “chain”; imagine holding a chain by its two ends, letting the middle hang down: that's a catenary. Now, flip that round - that's a catenary arch. And imagine that arch was 192 metres tall and 192 metres wide (and a little wider at its end than at the middle - it's technically a weighted catenary, though let's not trouble ourselves about this too much). That's the Gateway Arch.

Trust me, 192 metres in this case really is big. Travelling around, visiting some of the world's greatest constructions, it can sometimes be a little easy to get complacent about gigantic dimensions. 192 metres? Well, that's nothing compared to the 442 metres of the Willis Tower. The Three Gorges Dam might be a drab chunk of concrete, but it's 2335 metres long - over 12 times that of the Gateway Arch. And the Great Wall of China, hell it's something like 8000 kilometres, give or take. What's 192 metres? Well, just try standing next to it and looking up.

Dimensions as numbers on a piece of paper only tell part of the story. Dimensions when witnessed in person as part of a construction take on a whole new aspect. To see the Gateway Arch is to see something colossal, like a vast silver rainbow sprouting from the ground, soaring through the sky. Stand at one edge, and it plunges upwards and curves out of sight. Stand beneath and it becomes a thin, distant line cutting the sky in two. Clad in stainless steel, it seems to come from some futuristic world, something out of place and out of time, placed by the shores of the Mississippi, in the pristine green of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park. It is dominant. It is St Louis's tallest structure and city planning means it will stay this way. 192 metres might not be high by some standards, and it might not be wide by some standards, but together in the slim, steel elegance of the catenary curve of the Gateway Arch, it becomes majestic. Across two days of visiting, with another two of glimpsing it from afar, both Danielle and I were very impressed.

As the name suggests, there is a strong symbolic element to the Arch. It is the visual focus of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park, named after the 3rd president of America, Thomas Jefferson. You might recognise him from Mount Rushmore, sneaking in just to the right of George Washington. He was in charge from 1801 to 1809 and was widely regarded as a good thing. As well as helping write the Declaration of Independence and forming the country that America is today, he did a pretty shrewd deal with Napoleon in 1803 and bought 800,000 square miles of territory from France, a vast swathe west of the Mississippi River, in what we call the Louisiana Purchase. He also happened to be the owner of a slave plantation and did nothing for emancipation during his presidency, but that tends to be conveniently forgotten as we prefer our heroes uncomplicated. All this new land turned out to be quite a big deal for America, as it allowed massive westward expansion for the country, turning the country from big to really big. It may have been pretty empty - except for these pesky native Indians - but there was plenty of potential. The potential was used.

The formerly French city of St Louis, on the banks of the Mississippi, became quite important as a result. Although the French influences are almost entirely gone - it's even now pronounced as St Lewis rather than St Lou-ee - it had been founded by the French in 1764, but really came into its own when it came under American control after Jefferson's purchase. It became an important trading outpost, being the last major town before the huge sprawl of the Midwest. Hence, it played a key role in the expansion of the United States, and it prospered just as the country did.

By the 1930s, however, things had grown a little stale. The city had lost its vibrancy. Some locals residents thought it needed a bit of a boost, a kick up the ass to stir in back into life. Down by the Mississippi was a large area of unwanted rail tracks and warehouses, which were pretty unsightly. How about using it to create something that St Louis could show off about? Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was conceived - a grand park and memorial to remind America about Thomas Jefferson's and the city's role in the westward expansion of the country. A commemoration of a great president and the many other brave American pioneers who settled and built upon land stretching for 2000 miles all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It was an era of grand projects - the world's tallest skyscrapers appearing in New York, the world's longest suspension bridge in San Francisco, the world's biggest dam on the Colorado River, and another tribute to American presidents in the form of mountain sculptures up in South Dakota. This would be St Louis's effort. Problem was, nobody had quite figured out quite what form this memorial would take. A symbol of some sort was required - but what? But hey, no problem, they'd think of something. The government approved of the project and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on it. And then - nothing happened.

Clearing what was around 40 city blocks worth of buildings and railways turned out to be a thorny and expensive issue. Most was eventually done by 1939, but then the Second World War broke out and there were other things to worry about. It wasn't till 1947 that the project came back to life. What should the centrepiece be? An obelisk? A statue? An architectural competition was held, with a $75,000 prize for the winner. A man called Eero Saarinen and his symbolic archway to the west was the unanimous winner.

Saarinen's role in my World Wonders has already been discussed - he's the man who saved Jorn Utzon's design for the Sydney Opera House from the reject pile and so gave Australia an architectural icon. He did the same for Toronto's City Hall. And he's the man behind the widely acclaimed TWA Terminal at JFK Airport - I'm not a fan, but I've never been able to get excited about airport terminals. He was the son of an acclaimed architect Eliel Saarinen - a guy so good that his rejects could change architectural history. A week or so back I visited Chicago and its Tribune Tower - Eliel Saarinen's design was the runner-up in the design competition, but his design won such acclaim that it influenced numerous other skyscrapers. And, in fact, at first it was Eliel that was awarded the first place prize. He had also submitted an entry and there was a bit of a muddle, with he, the better known architect, being notified of success. The whole family celebrated with champagne. Just a couple of hours later an official contacted him again with what must have been a very sheepish apology. Wrong Saarinen: it was Eero's design which they'd chosen. Oops, sorry. Eliel didn't mind though - he broke out a second bottle of champagne to celebrate his son's first major success. Alas, Eero Saarinen never lived to see it complete. Or even begun. He died in 1961, aged 51, after surgery for a brain tumour. Construction of the Arch only started in June 1962.

Since Saarinen's 1947 competition win, funding and logistical problems, and another war - the Korean War - had caused more delays. President Eisenhower eventually gave funds in 1958 and in June 1962, 30 feet (9 metres) of soil and 30 feet of rock were dug, twice, 192 metres apart. 26,200 tons of concrete were poured into these holes and by February 1963, the first steel section of the giant arch was in place. Both legs are triangular, 16.5 metres each side but narrowing to just 5 metres at the top (that's why it's a weighted catenary arch rather than a pure-and-simple honest-to-God catenary). Although the Gateway Arch seems a slender thing, it's actually pretty big when you stand next to it.

It might look like a giant piece of sculpture, but it's a little more than that. Just as the Statue of Liberty isn't an unfeasibly heavy solid copper statue, the Gateway Arch isn't an unfeasibly heavy solid steel arch. Both are hollow and relatively light. However, unlike the Statue of Liberty, which is copper skin over an iron frame, the Gateway Arch isn't a steel skin over an internal framework. Instead, the design is something called an orthotropic design, in which the outer and inner steel layers combine to become stronger than their individual parts. This means that the shining stainless steel outer layer that we see is the frame itself. The entire arch weighs 16678 tons, not counting the massive 26,200 tons of concrete foundations. It's strong - in tornado winds of 150 miles an hour, it will only sway 40 centimetres. All the same, I don't think I'd like to be in there at the time.

So, the Arch isn't solid, and the exterior is the frame. That means there must be an interior. Indeed there is - and it's one that can be visited. Look up at the top of the Arch and you can see it - sixteen observation windows on each side.

Some accounts suggest up to 30,000 day visit the Gateway Arch, with 5500 getting inside and going to the top. Although recent Tripadvisor accounts had several tales of woe about epic queues, I'm skeptical these are regular visitor figures - it was fairly quiet on the afternoon Danielle and I visited. To enter the Arch you must first go underneath, through one of two subterranean entrances, pass security, and find yourself in a spacious central hallway. Leading from this are a large museum dedicated to the westward expansion of the country, two cinemas showing films (about the Arch's construction, and about the 1804 to 1806 Lewis and Clark expedition across the newly acquired territory), a couple of gift shops, and entrances to either the north or south leg of the Arch.

It's all pretty tastefully done. Like Mount Rushmore, the Jefferson Expansion Nat... no, the Jefferson Memo... seriously, what a name. The best way to remember it is that's a National Memorial, rather like Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore's full name is Mount Rushmore National Memorial and there are around 30 National Memorials around the U.S, dedicated to important people or events in history. The Gateway Arch belongs to the Jefferson Expansion one, therefore the Jefferson Expansion National Mem... no, wait, it's the other way around - the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. I give up, it's a hopelessly clunky name. Anyway, the National Park Services take care of it, and that's a good thing as they do an all-round excellent job. Americans do their National Parks really well. A prime example is Niagara Falls. I've not been, but from all accounts the American side - which is a National Park - is pleasant and tasteful: National Parks don't allow for rampant commercialism. Cross over to Canada? It's rampant, all tacky neon motels and casinos and theme parks. The upshot is that just as the entirety of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is a pleasant stroll through trees and lawns, running alongside the Mississippi River, with a dramatic silver arch plonked right in the middle, the museum below the Arch is likewise very pleasant. In the middle was an information desk with a very pleasant park ranger, sporting a tremendous shaggy beard. He told me he'd stayed the night in Edinburgh Castle once, many years ago. He'd been at sea - I guess in the Navy - off Scotland, and a storm had been predicted. His boat docked and he and the rest of his crewmates were taken to barracks. They were large, he remembers, and to his surprise seemed to be very prominently positioned in the middle of the city. In the morning he was woken to the squeal of bagpipes. A man in full kilted regalia had appeared, marched through the barracks, and all the crew had followed him to breakfast, "like mice following the Pied Piper."

Letting down the rest of the museum complex, upon entering one of the legs of the Arch, Danielle and I were obliged to pose for a photo, later to be displayed for sale at a unreasonable price. I'm sure it's a good little earner, but it's an unfortunate American habit and definitely tiresome after the first few times. The Gateway Arch quickly makes up for it with this:

This is the tram to the top. The first picture is an exhibition one, the second is Danielle in the real thing. Tram is a bit of a misleading word; for want of a better one, I'd describe it as a retro space-age carriage. Each leg has a stairway of 1086 steps and Saarinen knew that most tourists wouldn't be too keen on the climb. But the curving nature of the arch makes a regular lift impossible. Saarinen hired a man called Richard Bowser, a man who'd designed elevators for parking garages, that went up, down, and diagonally. He had two weeks to come up with something for the Gateway Arch, and he delivered, combining a regular cable lift system with cosy Ferris Wheel-style carriages, that hang from the lift system. This is every bit as shaky as it sounds - the carriage rocks around with any movement. Danielle did not appreciate my exploration of this.

The carriages were among the final parts of the Arch's construction. The two legs of the Arch were joined towards the end of October 1965, after over three years of work. This might seem like quite a lot of time for something that, to look at, seems simple, but it is deceptively simple. Nothing like the Gateway Arch had ever been built before. In fact, if they had started construction when the design was approved, in 1947, it wouldn't have been possible - the technology didn't yet exist. Calculations had to be precise. Two curving legs starting 192 metres apart had to join precisely in the middle, or else you were left with a wonky arch. This almost occurred. Just before it was complete, it became clear the legs had leaned in on each other a little, and so wouldn't connect properly, and so they had to be prized apart with massive jacks for the final piece to slotted in. During this time, fire engines sprayed it continuously with water, so that heat expansion wouldn't stop the final piece fitting. It was a close squeeze. The underground visitor centre followed, and the first passengers were able to visit the top, via the north leg, in June 1967. Completion of the south leg took another year, and the Gateway Arch officially opened on May 25th 1968.

Visiting the top of the Gateway Arch is an unusual experience. The observation deck is small, and rises and falls to the curve of the Arch. Additionally, the legs, or walls, of the Arch are triangular, with the ceiling being the horizontal surface, and the windows on each side are on the underside of the triangle. Like being in a gigantic upside-down non-chocolate curving metal Toblerone. If you choose to imagine such a thing.

Unlike standing on the observation deck of a building, with hundreds of metres of building beneath you, the windows on the Arch point downwards, and it is very clear that around 192 metres of nothing at all is right beneath you. Except, eventually, a park. Needless to say, the views are great.

The Old Courthouse is a key part of the view, with the Arch cleverly built in line with it. Completed in 1864, its dome is 59 metres high, just over three-quarters of the Taj Mahal, or two-thirds of a closer lookalike, the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It has history - a slave called Dred Scott tried to sue for his freedom here, and failed, with the judge declaring that Americans of African ancestry weren't eligible to be citizens as they had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." It was not a popular decision, and the conflict that ensued is seen as an indirect catalyst for the American Civil War. The Old Courthouse was almost demolished as part of the late 1930s redevelopment of the area, but locals fought to save it. Thank God, as it is an intrinsic part of visiting the Gateway Arch.

Likewise, the Arch is an intrinsic part of St Louis. It is a truly unmistakable addition to the skyline. Drive in, fly in, sail in, whatever, there's no question it's St Louis you're arriving at. It does the whole CN Tower thing of giving immediate identity to the skyline and the city. But it is far better than the CN Tower. The CN Tower has a certain tapering elegance from a distance, but is an ugly concrete brute up close. The Gateway Arch has the elegance from afar and up close. And while the CN Tower is just one of many tall towers, the Gateway Arch is without peers. It is a striking, beautiful and unique creation.

Not everybody agrees. The Gateway Way has managed to accrue a wonderful conspiracy theory about weather control. Broadly speaking, the theory seems to go that, fresh from trying to create a doomsday weapon in the 1940s, scientists decided they wanted to control the weather. That is why the Gateway Arch was built. By day, the Gateway Arch is an iconic monument, by night, with the tourists gone, it produces ionic pulses that can push storms out of the way. It can also, more sinisterly, pull storms in if it so chooses, a technology that could be used for military effect - hence why the government continues to hide the truth. Naturally, there is nothing beyond selective anecdotal evidence, and all I can say personally is that during our few days in St Louis, the weather was really, really nice.

The future of the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson Park is a bright one. During our visit, there was a lot of building work going on between the Arch and the Old Courthouse. Since the park's construction, the multi-lane Interstate-70 has been a barrier, rather disrupting the harmonious experience of the visitor who wants, quite naturally, to wander between the two. This is to change, and the already sunken road is to be covered over, so that there will be seamless park land from the Mississippi to the city. St Louis, like many American cities, is a city for cars, and has lots of big roads everywhere. But it also has a lot of parks. And it's nice to see the parks, and pedestrians, gaining the upper hand.

As this review will have probably made clear, both Danielle and I really liked the Gateway Arch. In essence, it's just a very big sculpture, a piece of symbolic architecture that doesn't have a function, per se, but is simply there to represent something (in this case St Louis's role as a gateway to the west) and to look nice. It succeeds. In some ways it reminds me of the Millau Viaduct, being slim, attractive, graceful, futuristic, yet still simple and appealing. In other ways, it reminds me of the Eiffel Tower, as a city-defining icon. Probably, in this regard, St Louis lets the Gateway Arch down a little. Not because St Louis isn't a great city - it's been one of the trip's most pleasant surprises - but because it simply doesn't have the world profile of somewhere like Paris. Imagine if the Gateway Arch was somewhere like Rome. In fact, it almost was.

This was the arch planned for the 1942 World Fair in Rome, never realised because of the war, obviously. It was to have been 240 metres high. Although the Gateway Arch superficially resembles it, they are very different in design, but it does make you wonder what impact it might have had. Probably, even without the war it wouldn't have been realised, but put something incredible like the Gateway Arch in an incredible city like Rome and suddenly you've got a real world icon. Outside of America, the Gateway Arch is pretty obscure, but it deserves better. It has the looks. It has the class. It just needs the profile.

Criteria then. 

Size: 192 metres tall, 192 metres wide. It seems even more immense when seen in person.
Engineering: A highly skilled piece of architecture, right at the edge of what was possible then. But it's more a feat for the purists, let's not pretend it bewilders the average person into wondering "How on earth did they do that?" This is no ancient pyramid or cathedral, it's a modern piece of architecture.
Artistry: Simplicity itself, a huge swooping curve. And beautiful for it. This is definitely one of these times when less is more - any kind of decoration would just detract. 
Age: 50 years old. For an idea about how long it might have, without maintenance, if civilisation fell, then this truly fascinating article guesses at much less than a thousand years for the complete arch, but perhaps a few thousand for a ruined version, with two stubby legs.
Fame/Iconicity: It's clearly the Eiffel Tower of St Louis, and is well known throughout America, but unlike many of America's icons, it's a lot more obscure around the rest of the world. Hollywood needs to set a few blockbusters here.
Context: St Louis gives it the perfect place to shine. It's not obscured by buildings or stuck way out in the distance, but instead stands just at the edge of downtown, by the Mississippi, within the lovely but terribly-named Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park, the tallest structure in the city, visible from many miles around.
Back Story: Locals wanted a park, so they built one. They wanted a big icon in the park, so they found one. Except for the hilarious weather-changing conspiracy theories, the Gateway Arch has a pretty straight history.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Very.
Wow Factor: Yup, it's got the wow.

I love cathedrals and I love huge skyscrapers, but no doubt they can get a bit samey - and I've got a higher tolerance than most. The Gateway Arch offers something very different. Sure arches have been done before - but not like this. The Gateway Arch is a perfect marriage of the ancient arch into a modern, minimal, and massive style, and it pulls it off with aplomb. Elegant and dynamic, St Louis has the perfect icon. Clearly, I rate it very highly, and perhaps the only real things letting it down is it's lack of Eiffel Tower style celebrity factor, and the fact it's pretty modern and therefore doesn't bamboozle the visitor with any air of mystery. Nonetheless, it's the best thing I've seen in America so far, and it nudges ahead of the Empire State Building and into my Other Wonders category, just behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower

Other Wonders
The Millau Viaduct
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sagrada Familia
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch

Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Florence Cathedral
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers
Mount Rushmore

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle
Shwedagon Pagoda
Pont du Gard
Forbidden City
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Verona Arena
Avignon Papal Palace
Tower Bridge 
CN Tower
Thiepval Memorial
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha 
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. From what I gathered from your article and the photos, it does appear that the Gateway Arch and Saint Louis complement each other perfectly. If it were in another, better known city, it would probably be more famous, as you say, but I reckon it would have more detractors. In Rome, it would probably face a lot of criticism for sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the fabric of the city; in Dubai or Shanghai, it would probably be seen to be another wacky shaped stucture amongst a jumble of other wacky shaped structures, each trying to outwack each other.

    You summed it up prefectly with your "context" criteria.


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