Friday, August 31, 2012

Eero's Arch

Gateway Arch, 2012

The great Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was commissioned in the late 1940s to design something for St. Louis that would commemorate the city’s history as a jumping off point for westward exploration. No doubt there were many who were expecting a “monument” or, worse, a “memorial.” Efforts to create such a commemoration had moved in fits and starts for many years.
What Saarinen gave St. Louis is better than a mere monument. Calling it a memorial seems insulting. It was a gift, a structure as elegant, timely and conceptual today as it was when it was finished almost fifty years ago.
Saarinen’s gift was an arch, and not just any arch.  It’s a soaring arc of steel more than sixty stories high. Saarinen said that he wanted the arch to be "transcending in spiritual and aesthetic values…one central feature: a single shaft, a building, an arch, or something else that would symbolize American culture and civilization."
According to The New York Times architectural critic of the day, Saarinen also wanted the national park around the base of the arch to be "be so densely covered with trees” that it would not only separate the arch from the noise and chaos of a busy downtown, but also convey a feeling of the uncharted wilderness into which settlers departed when they headed west from St. Louis.
Like any kind of unexpected artistic expression, some local citizens initially resisted Saarinen’s arch concept. They wanted a monument, after all. There’d been long standing disagreement over the merit of even having a monument at all. So the idea that they’d resist something as modern and conceptual as a stainless steel arch isn’t surprising.
The design wasn’t the only tricky part, though. It took fifteen years just to figure out how the arch could be built without toppling over before the keystone section could be installed at the peak.
Today visitors can ride a little tram to the top of the arch and peek out narrow windows. “Little” isn’t an exaggeration. The compartments—it’s probably safer to call them capsules because they actually hang from a track—are smaller than the inside of a Mini Cooper and take between four minutes or so to creep and clank up the inside of the arch. Being claustrophobic, I wasn’t about to get into one. Besides, the views of Illinois and Missouri from the top of the arch are broad and flat. (You can probably see the other side of each state from there, but who cares?)

For me, the fascinating discovery about this monument is that it takes on different shapes depending on where you’re standing. From an aerial perspective or from a distance, Saarinen’s symmetrical arch is obvious. (Both the width and height are 630 feet.) But the closer you get the more it takes on a seemingly infinite number of other shapes. This, for me, is the symbol of opportunity that awaited those brave enough to leave the comforts of the East behind, stake their claim and take their chances on life in the American West. 

Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012
Gateway Arch [section], 2012


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  2. Wow--love your photos of it, Chris! I'm heading there this fall, and I'll have to think about your perspective when I see it again. Beautiful!