Monday, May 10, 2010

Arch contest not your grandmother's design competition

In the mid-1940s, when Eero Saarinen proposed his iconic Arch design, telephones had dials, St. Louis had almost 900,000 residents, engineers used slide rules, the first electronic computers were being developed, gasoline cost about 15 cents per gallon and the US had just come out of World War II.

Seventy years later, people use their phones as computers, gasoline costs nearly $3.00 per gallon, the population of St. Louis has dropped by 60 percent, the US lost in Viet Nam but won WW2 and the Cold War, and, we have the internet - the technology that is changing everything.

We live in a different world, one with a trend towards increasing transparency. How will the final five teams in the Arch design competition tailor their work to our current times? Will they take advantage of the internet to engage the public in the design process? Will they seek community input online? Would opening up their design work put them at a competitive disadvantage? Or would it make their proposal stronger?

One of the most interesting elements of the Arch design competition is that this effort is more about fixing broken connections between the Arch, riverfront and downtown, than doing anything with the Arch itself. Those bad connections are where the city of St. Louis meets the National Park.

With the close connection between the City of St. Louis and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, how should the public be engaged in the development of the design to reconnect the city to the riverfront and Arch grounds, if at all? The technology is in place to make the design process completely transparent and interactive.

For the Arch design competition, will average citizens get their first glimpse of the design team's plans just weeks before the winning team and design is chosen, or will the general public from both sides of the river be engaged in the process of helping determine the winning design that will set the tone and direction for the future of the Arch grounds, the riverfront, downtown St. Louis, and the region?

(Post edited with thanks to comment from reader "Jeem")


Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. said...

It would be a horrible misstep to share details with only a handful of judges, designers and VIPs when selecting the winner. I fear though, that is exactly what will happen.

I think the fear comes from this being called a 'Competition.' in any competition there are winners and losers and, accordingly, they competitors will play their cards close to the vest. Maybe 'Collaboration" is a better word: with other designers, the city, both states and the wide community of locals and tourists who make it successful through their participation.

Let's hope the designers realize this isn't a 'look-at-me' contest and get the community involved even before the winners are announced. Look at London's Cloud project ( -- people are genuinely excited, due much to the community voice it sought and the interactivity of it's website with those who will be visiting (and funding) it.

jeem said...

Minor pedantry: the design competition that gave us the Arch was held in 1947, not the early '60s.

samizdat said...

One minor quibble OT: "We live in a different world, one with a trend towards increasing transparency." Well, if you are referencing the proliferation of "social networking", Facebook, and putting your junk and your sex life all over the web, yes, people don't value their privacy, and their personal transparency is largely irrelevent to them. However, in nearly all matters corporate, governmental, and institutional, the trend towards opaqueness in operations and disclosure protocols is obvious and dangerous. A society which tolerates secrecy in the operational functions of its various actors is one which is headed towards increaased restrictions on personal liberties. A constitutional, pluralistic democratic republic needs, above all, the free movement of information to not only survive, but thrive. In my opinion, a dangerously large number of political and corporate elites, regardless of political affiliation, find this idea of transparency antithetical to their ambitions and operations. A decidedly anti-American and seditious viewpoint.