Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sculpture as the Symbolic Heart of a City

St. Louis Arch, February 6, 2010. All pictures courtesy the author unless otherwise noted.

Sculpture is the symbolic heart of St. Louis. Not architecture, as we've come to expect with urban "starchitecture" of the past decade.

At the edge of St. Louis is the Gateway Arch, a truly exquisite structure that soars above your head like an arrow to heaven.

Unfortunately, too many city buildings crowd the Arch to its west. Very sad that city leaders allowed architectural ambition to sully this gorgeous sculpture.

Just to the east of the Arch, down below, back on land, is a rather dismal parking lot ($4 rather than $10 in the covered city lot). I've never parked within lapping distance of a major river before.

Images of the great flood of 1993 kept coming to me--what if the river rose just a few feet? My ride would be on a sight-seeing tour downstream before I knew it!

The Museum of Westward Expansion, inside the Arch's "shoes", was chaotic Saturday. The huge line was not for the educational films on the building of the arch nor for the film on Lewis & Clark's voyage to the West coast.

No, everyone was in line to take a five-passenger elevator to the top of the Arch, where you can peer out at the surrounding landscape from itty-bitty windows. (I am just claustrophobic enough to leave that trip to others--and I've gotta prise my car from the maws of the river!)

I don't quarrel with the commercialization of this historic site, though I may question some of the narratives explored through the concentric half-circles of display materials in the Museum.

Image of Carl Milles fountain outside Union Station, St. Louis. © Sharron Archibald

To fulfill the promise of the Arch as a symbolic heart of St. Louis, a group of business people are working with the National Park Service to re-imagine this space. The primary goal is to move tourists more effectively between the casinos and the Arch. This new waterfront will then truly be linked to the Gateway "spine" of sculpture that includes the new City Garden (full of sculpture), the Richard Serra "Twain" piece (sculpture), hop over the courthouse and cascade through the fountains, crowned with the sculptures "The Wedding of the Waters" by Carl Milles, outside of Union Station, above.

Henry Weber, The Captain's Return, 2006

Once the reconfiguration of the waterfront is completed, surely more people will see this sculpture in honor of the return of Lewis & Clark to St. Louis. [Note: the dog is not a Labrador, as I first thought, but Clark's Newfoundland who made the trip with the Corps of Discovery.]

The nation is on the cusp of a major ideological shift--in our understanding of our financial capacity and through our now-unbreakable bond with markets elsewhere--and the symbolic Arch complex has the chance to re-interpret our nation-building past in light of our nation-building future. Let the myths of western conquest and expansion be reconfigured; St. Louis can play an interesting role in this reinterpretation.

Our urban landscape, in great need of reparation and stitching back together, can represent the next phase of our American identity via sculpture.


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