Eero Saarinen, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Framing a modern masterpiece

Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis is at the centre of a landscape competition

It isn't every day that an architect gets the chance to work on an iconic piece of modern architecture, but last month a team led by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) won a competition to redesign the public area around Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri (completed in 1965).

The brief from the National Park Service was straightforward: to take one of America's first urban park sites and weave it into the fabric of the St Louis region, connecting it with both sides of the Mississippi River.  The significance of the site and Saarinen's iconic landmark should not be forgotten.  Standing at 630 feet tall and 630 feet wide at its base, The Arch is considered by many to be Saarinen’s masterpiece. Designed in 1947 as a memorial to honour America's western pioneers, it is the tallest monument in the United States and attracts more than four million visitors each year, who ride the trams (egg-shaped elevators) to the observation area at the top of the arch.

A design competition to revamp the area surrounding the arch was launched in December 2009 and attracted more than 50 teams including Studio Daniel Libeskind, Adjaye Associates and Rafael Viñoly. This led to a shortlist of five teams including MVVA, Behnischen Architekten, PWP Landscape Architecture with Foster + Partners, SOM and Weiss/Manfredi

But it was MVVA's proposal of a network of finely grained interventions with a holistic philosophy of ecological urbanism that won over the jury. MVVA said of their plans: “Responding to the Memorial’s monumental scale is the central challenge of this assignment. Given the site’s sheer immensity, sectional complexity, and competing scales—all in a parcel surrounded by a crushing maze of infrastructure—we believe that expanding the site’s scalar and experiential range is crucial to engaging the wide-ranging competition goals. The creation of a new range of more intimate experiences, based primarily in landscape, will be the main engine for the transformation of the Memorial and its relationship with both the city and the river.”

Highlights of MVVA's project include removing the existing parking garage and replacing it with an amphitheatre and playground, while adding a garage on the south side, the roof of which is to be used for an ice rink in the winter and a beer garden in the summer. 

The practice has also built in a range of sustainable features, including the use of water taxis instead of gondolas to cross the river. Sixty acres of wetlands will also be restored on the East bank of the Mississippi River. 

In its report the jury said: “The proposal shows a superior technical knowledge of the site and effectively analyzes the dilemma of historic preservation versus a changing landscape. A most thoughtful approach to the historic landscape, the design is realistic and shows much reverence and skill. Integration of structures and a carefully scaled new entrance to the expanded museum are woven into the landscape to provide minimal disruption to the historic landscape.”

The MVVA-led team is now working with the city of St Louis and the National Park Service to refine the plans and establish a budget to get the project finished for a deadline of 28 October 2015 – the 50th anniversary of Saarinen’s elegant Gateway Arch. 


Andrea Klettner is a freelance journalist and the editor of Love London Council Housing