March 1, 2006

Arch Ideas

Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch Turns 40

The history of Eero Saarinen's renowned Gateway Arch is actually far older than the current celebrations for its 40th birthday would indicate. The site for this parabolic structure along the St. Louis riverfront was first earmarked as the spot for a commemoration of 19th-century westward American expansion all the way back in 1935. It was in 1947 that Saarinen entered the competition for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- a move that allowed the young architect (then in his 30s) to distinguish himself from his well-known father, Finnish-born architect, Eliel Saarinen. Eighteen years later the soaring 630 foot symbol of St. Louis would become a reality in 1965.

In truth, Saarinen was not the first to consider using such an arch, one based on the mathematics of the catenary curve (the form produced by hanging a chain secured by its two ends); others had preceded him. For example, Antonio Gaudi, the great Spanish architect of a century ago created forms using this principle, albeit not designs appearing smooth and modern like Saarinen's. At mid-century, Italian architect Adalberto Libera produced a monumental design for the entrance to the Esposizione Universale di Roma (the World’s Fair in Rome) of 1942. This arch, very similar in appearance to Saarinen's final design, was never realized but was likely known to Saarinen. (Libera is the same architect who designed the famed Casa Malaparte in Capri, a house well known as the location for many of the scenes in Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt.)

So, perhaps Saarinen was not completely original in his appropriation of a mathematically derived curve for his dramatic structure, but he was the one to put his imprimatur on this form so popular with other designers. Here in Miami we have our own version of such a monument, the Archway at the Sunshine State Industrial Park of 1964. All of these designs took on the challenge of combining an ancient concept, that of the monumental arch with modern expression -- a contemporary problem indeed. Whether mathematics can produce forms and images more appropriate to the modern-day than other approaches to design is a question to be debated.

The Miami arch has an interesting history. It was built by William Webb, a contractor who turned to development. He had acquired the land for an industrial park in 1955, located near the Palmetto Expressway and Florida Turnpike at the Golden Glades Interchange (1300 NW 167 Street). Here he built a number of buildings in what we today call the MiMo style. Webb was willing to make an artistic statement at the site that spoke of his commitment to upgrade the concept of an industrial park. He hired O.K. Houston and Charles Giller to design the arch as an optimistic monument.

Of course, Saarinen's work outstrips its architectural cousins, not only by its prominence, size (it is taller than both the Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument), and its status as a national monument, but also because of its interactive nature. Visitors not only view that memorial from afar or at its base, they can also enter the arch and travel to its summit via an internal train. It takes 10 minutes to make the round trip from one leg to the other using this conveyance. Like the London Eye designed for the Millennium, which allows visitors and locals to view the English capital at great height on this Ferris wheel-style monument, the Gateway Arch is an architectural device for experiencing expansive views of a city. Now that's a democratic concept appropriate for a design commemorating Thomas Jefferson and his eye to the West.

This article first appeared in HOME Miami.

Copyright 2006 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

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