Gateway Arch Park
The St. Louis Arch is an architectural icon in the United States; an important part of the country’s national identity, akin to Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, the Arch is a symbol of American ingenuity and inventiveness.
Af Finn MacLeod
Designed by modernist icon Eero Saarinen, it was envisioned as a transformative feature for St. Louis and the American Midwest. The Arch introduced Saarinen’s signature curves and minimalist aesthetic to St. Louis’s historic city center, juxtaposing with its Midwestern architecture. Completed in 1965, the Arch redefined St. Louis’s identity, providing the city a monument and national park to call its own.
Fast-forward 53 years and the Gateway Arch is again at the fore of conversations on urban renewal. The original park was designed for a different time and no longer responded to the needs of residents or visitors in the twenty-first century. The construction of the Arch had allowed a once-thriving neighborhood to be razed. Decades later, a sunken highway was constructed through the heart of the city, bisecting the Arch’s public park, cutting it off from the city and creating an immense void that could only be crossed using a narrow pedestrian path.
Like many American cities in the twentieth century, the riverfront in St. Louis was largely overlooked at the time of the Arch’s construction, subsequently allowing the riverbank to become detached from city, park, and monument. The park lacked the majesty and cohesion expected of the space surrounding a monument like the Arch, and it had become a challenge for the city’s downtown.
However, the Arch has grown over time as a tourist hot spot and currently receives more than four million visitors annually. It ranks as one of the world’s most visited monuments. In 2009, it was decided that the Arch and park would undergo an extensive renovation as a part of “City+Arch+River,” an initiative designed to better integrate the arch with the city and adjacent riverfront, leveraging its iconic reputation to breathe new life into the expansive site.
A team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) was selected to lead the redesign, with Cooper Robertson and James Carpenter Design Associates leading the museum and architectural design. Together, the firms realized a 380-million-dollar renovation of the park and museum, revitalizing the public spaces and imbuing the monument with a new purpose.
Most noticeable is the new pedestrian bridge spanning the highway, blurring the line between bridge and park, and eliminating the void to create a lush and continuous green space at street level. The new connected park creates a sequence of green spaces that connect adjacent amenities from west to east, including Washington Square Park, Poelker Park, Serra Sculpture Park, Citygarden, Kiener Plaza, the restored Old Courthouse, Luther Ely Smith Park, and the now-accessible Gateway Arch and the banks of the Mississippi, creating a seamless pedestrian experience.
Designed by MVVA, the landscape design is minimal, sinuous, and pristine, echoing the elegant curves of the Arch while establishing a contemporary architectural vocabulary for the park. A fully accessible site, the park includes a variety of spaces for people of all ages, fulfilling its mandate to be a vibrant public space for visitors and locals alike.
The museum is buried in the landscape near the base of the Arch, accessible through a new circular, glass-enclosed entrance that recalls the Arch’s curves. “The new West Entry and Museum expansion are discretely incised into the landscape,” said James Carpenter. “This welcoming gesture is announced by an arc of glass laid flat on the ground, reflecting the image of the sky above, while the Arch itself scribes an arc against the sky beyond.”
Inside, the museum’s new spaces are airy and bright, with strong visual connections to the park and Arch. Extending far beyond the visible entrance, the newly expanded museum replaced all existing spaces and added more than 47,000 square feet of exhibition and programming space. “As a work of great monumental public art, Saarinen’s Arch is imbued with meaning, technological achievement, and beauty… the design of the new Museum and surrounding landscape has more fully realized that potential through an ambitious but respectful intervention that interprets the spirit of the Arch and amplifies its relevance to our time,” reads Cooper Robertson’s statement on the project.
A first step in healing the architectural fabric of downtown St. Louis, the new park and museum demonstrate the capacity for American cities to knit disparate elements back together. Confronting the site’s fraught history, the new park and museum have begun to make amends and bridge connections, serving as a welcoming place for visitors and locals alike.