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Commentary: The competition to improve Arch grounds promises to be bold, creative

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2010 - Here's what Don Stastny suggested to the architects, designers, planners and others who came together Wednesday to learn more about the competition to create a plan to better connect the Gateway Arch to the Mississippi River, to St. Louis and to Illinois:

Do not include in your entry materials your big design for four speculative office buildings.

Do include your thoughtful plan for a very good house for a dog.

Stastny is competition manager of the bold, ambitious contest that will choose a design team for the Arch grounds connections projects. His was one of those funny-serious proclamations you hear from time to time, one designed to lead a student or protege or colleague gently away from the anodyne or the grand toward something sharp and interesting, perhaps even offbeat.

Stastny's doghouse notion (one shared by his colleagues) is directed at achieving originality and greatness in the competition, which was announced late last year, but is now gathering steam.

His strategy has been to create a process that is transparent, humane, intelligent, thorough, rigorous and distinguished by utility and clarity. It's a bit of less-is-more and a lot of form and function being one. Plus speedy: The winner is to be announced late September..

Stastny, chief of the firm of Stastny Brun, Portland, Ore., has experience conducting competitions such as this one, which has a budget of about $1.5 million. He supervised the competition for the Flight 93 National Memorial in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as the memorial to those killed in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

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Rules of the game

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On Wednesday, he set down the rules for hopefuls who may want to compete for the St. Louis project. The process is neither for the inexperienced nor the faint of heart. It is, however, tantalizing for anyone with a strong commitment to urban renaissances, to good design, to history and posterity. It is a plum, if for no other reason than propinquity. The new design will exist in the company of an older one -- the late Eero Saarinen's gleaming genius-work, America's triumphant Gateway Arch.

Stastny took the podium Wednesday after the audience heard from St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley, lawyer Walter Metcalfe Jr., Arch historian Bob Moore, and Sandra Washington, chief of planning and compliance for the Midwest region of the National Park Service. The Park Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior, is responsible for the Arch, officially known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
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Stastny and his colleagues on the platform provided background on the Arch itself, its history and surroundings and the enduring problems with access to it from surrounding neighborhoods, from the Mississippi riverfront and from Illinois. They pronounced the rules for about 100 possible competitors who attended the meeting, which was preliminary to the submission of any entries.

Walter Metcalfe, who has considerable experience in and dedication to smoothing over the divides between Arch and surroundings, spoke fervently of the stratospherically high standards set by Saarinen and his design. He described the monument as speaking to the qualities of courage, discovery and optimism.

Metcalfe enumerated the goals that should be met in reconfiguring the Arch grounds while protecting them from damage or egregious change.

He called on competitors to make the place of the Arch as great as the Arch itself, and to be the sparkplug for increased recreational and commercial activity -- not only in the adjoining neighborhoods but also in the entire region.

Honor the history of the place, he said. Embrace the Mississippi, don't turn away from it. Reinvigorate the telling of the story of St. Louis and its place in the history of westward expansion. Create attractions to promote extended visits. Improve the experiences available to visitors. "Put heads on beds," he said. He also mentioned the sticky, tricky business of mitigating transportation problems in the region, and the issue of creating a sustainable environmental and economic future for the Arch and region.

Stastny followed Metcalfe and talked specifics. He said it was critical that the process itself be carefully designed so there were no questions about what was required in entries. The guidelines and timelines for the competition are meant not to put obstacles in the paths of designers, architects and artists who may compete, but to create an environment in which the teams might do their best work.

Stastny said he not only designed the process but he also designed the jury. It is composed of eight individuals. They gradually will winnow the field of contestants to five finalists, and eventually will chose the victorious team.

Jurors, Stastny said, were selected not for who they are, he said, but for the reasons they would make smart, sound contributions to the selection process. The eight represent a variety of disciplines, including architecture, planning, museum work and academia.

The ground rules and requirements that describe the competition will rule out participation by many. However, Bruce Lindsey, dean of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the competition governance group, said the requirements will not stifle creativity. The rules require teams to reflect diversity of talents, interests, expertise and backgrounds.

Stastny said there is tremendous interest in the competition, coming not only from participants at the Wednesday meeting but from around the nation and the world.

The selection process, Stastny said, eliminates a common affliction these days, that of a "starchitect's" arriving on the playing field and trampling on less celebrated contestants, then winning the prize simply on the strength of his or her name.

And, he said, there are firewalls to guarantee fairness. Competitors are forbidden contact with competition sponsors and jurors, and if this rule is broken, the offending team will be disqualified. There is to be no corporate or personal lobbying. Strict communications protocols have been established, and all information must be requested through competition management.

The winning team will be announced in late September of this year.

And the ribbon cutting is scheduled for considerably more propitious moment: October 28, 2015 -- the 50th anniversary to the day of the topping off of the Gateway Arch.

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