A few weeks ago, Bob Duffy, longtime agent provocateur at the Post-Dispatch, wrote an article about the new St. Louis City Justice Center -- or, rather, the new city jail. The design, by the ever-present Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Duffy notes, looks nothing like a penal institution (the RFT made a similar observation about the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton [Silva, "HOK-Dokey," April 18, 2001]). As with other local HOK projects, the architectural goal was to blend into the landscape.
Duffy remarks on the lack of ambition in such an undertaking. "One longs for the building impulse in St. Louis to turn away from the safe and toward buildings that speak the language of the 21st century," he argues, "a polyglot internationalist language that may be ambiguous or serene, or garish or rambunctious, or, to traditional sensibilities, loud and perhaps even vulgar."
The exterior of the new Washington University art museum has all the charm of a dental office, but, then, the word "bunker" was once used somewhere to describe the exterior of the Pulitzer Foundation.
One always takes note when the P-Dpraises vulgarity.
The PFA, the Contemporary, the Schmidt and the Fox Arts Center speak that language, but all in similar dialects. St. Louis is not a place where bold moves are applauded, except maybe on the football field.
Don't expect the St. Louis Art Museum to hire an architect who will place a garish winglike accessory on its new addition, as the Milwaukee Art Museum has done. It might dazzle the natives, but it's not SLAM's style.
HOK has already landed the contract for the next baseball stadium, a retread of a design the firm has been spinning off since it first conceived of the retro style for Baltimore's Oriole Park and Camden Yards. It was great when HOK made the old look new ten years ago, but now the St. Louis plans just seem uninspired.
The narrow economic window for the city of St. Louis to have initiated great building projects may have already closed. Everybody's broke.
Underlying this discussion, of course, is the dubious assumption that making great buildings inspires a city. In the mid-'60s, both Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch were constructed downtown, and the city proceeded to go right down the toilet in the years after these bold architectural statements were made on the urban landscape.
But those structures didn't cause St. Louis' decline, any more than the preservation of Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building did. As decrepit as St. Louis becomes, imagine where we'd be without these markers of distinction.
Imagine where we might be if we had more of them -- and who we might be if we gave approving nods to exuberance, innovation, ambition.