The Scarlet Letter

In St. Louis, the "A" is for "ambition"

"Ambition" is a discomfiting word in St. Louis, so much so that it nearly confers our town's version of the scarlet letter "A" on those who possess it.

A friend who has lived in more ambitious cities, then spent a few years' hiatus in St. Louis, once said the locals' aversion to or disdain for or neglect of ambition is one of our most puzzling characteristics. "Nobody here seems to get it." He looked profoundly befuddled as he said this.

Ambition can be a good thing -- not the kind of ambition one finds in Macbeth or in the office of the Reverend Lawrence Biondi, that's for sure, but the kind of ambition that lifts oneself and others, lifts one's city out of the doldrums and into the light of a new set of conundrums.

Ambition that seeks more than that -- that seeks utopia -- is very, very dangerous indeed.

Cities that one considers vibrant, exciting, filled with a kind of energy you could feed on for about a week -- those are cities of ambition, made so because they're filled with ambitious people striving for something more than the way things are. That's why those cities move, shift and change.

St. Louis is a city of stasis. Worse, St. Louis is a city in perilous decay.

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.
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.

Yet the city and the region find themselves in the midst of a fine-arts building boom, of all things. By the start of 2002, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts had opened to the public. Tadao Ando's concrete splendor has been labeled, among other things, the first great building of the 21st century. Now, with the completion of Ando's Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, it seems he's designed the second great building of the new century. The guy's on a roll.

Next door to the PFA rises Brad Cloepfil's Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, slated for opening in the fall of 2003. In its current state of incompletion, the Contemporary impedes the formerly glorious view of the great gray-white cloud the PFA is on certain days, but Cloepfil's design is a promising architectural complement to the Ando and to Grand Center as a whole. The Contemporary will be a great building in its own right.

At the eastern end of the MetroLink line, the Schmidt Art Center, an art and conference space on the campus of Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, opened to modest fanfare this year. The Schmidt is a warm, inviting space, and director/curator Libby Reuter has presented a number of shows worthy of the train ride, including a traveling exhibition of contemporary art from Iran, as well as the landscapes of local painter George Atkinson, who paints family farms the way Vermeer painted solitary women in north-lit rooms.

St. Louis University executed an exquisite renovation of a nineteenth-century French Revival mansion, then filled it with a lot of crap and called it the St. Louis University Museum of Art. SLU president Biondi's ambition finds its limits within his own bad taste.

Readers who think the Riverfront Timesspends too much ink picking on the father's figures will be pleased to know that the plans for Washington University's Sam Fox Arts Center have arrived, and they call for some equal-opportunity bashing.

At a projected price tag of $56.8 million, with a renowned architect in Fumihiko Maki, the best that can be said for the design for the new arts center is that at least it isn't more pink granite. The exterior of the new museum building has all the charm of a dental office.

As this is being written, a colleague stops by to mention that the word "bunker" was once used somewhere to describe the exterior of the Ando. Granted, the beauties of the PFA's outer walls reveal themselves after one has entered the light and shadow of the interior spaces. Maki's museum building could as well; renderings of the galleries and atrium present an intriguing use of natural light.

So if the new arts center succeeds, despite the lamentably drab exterior, it will do so in a quiet way, subtly, unobtrusively.

Which brings us back to the theme of "ambition."

The aforementioned projects are modest in scale. They appeal to an individual's sense of intimacy. If they inspire, as Ando's architecture clearly intends to do, they inspire us inward toward contemplation rather than outward toward social engagement.

That's not a bad thing. But St. Louis' affection for the gentle architecture that's been appearing over the last year or so reflects the city's inclination toward modesty, its disdain for swagger.

Cloepfil wouldn't design a building like Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, even if he didn't have the looming presence and reputation of the Ando with which to contend. That's not to say Cloepfil isn't ambitious -- he is -- but he chooses to make his name with an elegant resolution to the concerns of creating an art space that functions in relation to its urban surroundings.

Hadid is flash and flair. Her downtown building, slated to open in the spring of 2003, is loud, outlandish, a little rude; the floors of the CAC are exposed like stacks of glittering shoeboxes, balanced precariously. Hadid's hip -- and she's in Cincinnati.

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."

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.

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