New show celebrates the genius of Saarinen | St. Louis Public Radio

New show celebrates the genius of Saarinen

Jan 26, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 26, 2009 - The planning, design and construction of the Gateway Arch was one of the region's most ambitious and arguably finest hours. Although tarnished at times by politics and remaining at the center of debates about appropriate land use, it was at its inception, and remains today, a monument not only to the great westward migration and the shaping of the landscape of modern America but also a testament to the tenacity of public-spirited citizens who made up their minds to do something and did it.

The Arch is a triumph of dynamic civic leadership. It is a reminder that such efforts have been seen only rarely since, if at all. Some would say the Expansion Memorial effort was misdirected and infected with a sort of imperial hubris and a towering insensitivity to the past. No one can say the effort was a failure, however.

Its visibility and its success summon up a central question about regional life. As we contemplate this heroic gesture in light, air, stainless steel and symbolism, we are compelled to inquire: Could we possibly summon the energy and strategic nerve to accomplish such a wonder in 2009?

The Arch has trenchant power. It is etched indelibly in the imagination of St. Louis, of the nation and the world. Along with everyday visitors from near and far away, hereditary monarchs and democratically elected officials seek out its radiance and evidence a desire to reflect its majesty. When the Emperor and Empress of Japan made their ceremonial visit here in 1994, they greeted the people of St. Louis first at the Arch. In October, the then presidential candidate Barack Obama was greeted by as many as 100,000 enthusiastic partisans in St. Louis beneath the Arch.

Its power evokes a sense of the grand sweep of 20th century ingenuity as well as the healthy optimism that was at the philosophical core of modernist movements in architecture and art. So, it is entirely appropriate that on Friday evening, the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, which shares academic geography with the art school and architecture college of the university, opens an exhibition that celebrates this edifice and the genius of its architect, Eero Saarinen (1910-1961). It is the first genuinely comprehensive exhibition of Saarinen's work, and it reaches far beyond the work done by the architect for his clients in St. Louis.

But what interests us is St. Louis, and its relationship to the monument. The pristine quality of it, its singular magnificence, does not betray the complex process that made it a reality, nor does it reveal that those ongoing debates about various aspects of it and its history.

As noted by Peter Mackeith, associate dean and associate professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School at Washington University and resident curator of the Saarinen show, the Arch represents more than the elegant and the metaphorical.

"There are tangled and difficult histories prior to 1947," Mackeith said in a prepared statement, "and subsequent to the Arch's completion. But there was also this astonishing moment of the competition. It's a moment that seemed to encapsulate St. Louis' past and present, and one that remains intertwined with our civic future."

The show itself - because of the extraordinary quality and nature of the materials gathered together to mount it - should be of interest to casual visitors, to dedicated Gateway Archophiles, to politicians and public servants, architects and scholars.

Called "Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future," it explores not only the Arch and its influence on history and modernism but also on the architect's long and dynamic career.

In company with the exhibition, there is to be a daylong public symposium titled "On the Riverfront: St. Louis and the Gateway Arch" on Saturday (Jan. 31). The symposium was organized by the Sam Fox School of Visual Arts and Design at Washington University, and the presentations are to be wide ranging, from the history of the Arch site before construction began to observations on "Monumentality/Mentality" by the distinguished novelist and philosopher William Gass, professor emeritus in humanities at Washington University. (Full disclosure: This writer is on the program, alphabetically just ahead of Professor Gass.)

Among the other participants are Saarinen's daughter, Susan Saarinen, and a second cousin of the architect, the Finnish ambassador and diplomat Matti Hakkanen. Architect Robert Burley, leader of the design team for Eero Saarinen and Associates' work on the Arch, will speak, as will Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation and former coordinator of the National Park Service's Historic Landscape Initiative.

Mackeith and Eric Mumford, associate professor in the Sam Fox School, are curators of the show in St. Louis and are among the chief planners of the symposium.

The show was organized by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York; the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki; and the National Building Museum in Washington. Washington University provided support, as did the Yale University School of Architecture. Donald Albrecht is curator; he worked in conjunction with an international consortium of Finnish and American scholars.