Miss-ed Opportunity

Commerce may have thrown a wet blanket on the block party planned for the new federal courthouse by artist Mary Miss

Apr 19, 2000 at 4:00 am
Artist Mary Miss had a "grand and glorious idea" (in the words of one government spokesperson) for the space adjacent to the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse, an ambitious concept that explored local history and memory through the use of remnants of the past (the internal structures of old buildings, for instance) and reinterpretations of the city's preindustrial landscape (a pond, native grasses, trees). Miss wanted to extend the public space beyond the single block of federal property allocated for the General Services Administration (GSA) Art in Architecture program. Miss told The Riverfront Times last summer that she believed the single block to the east of the courthouse "was so minimal it could barely be effective" ("Public Exchange," RFT, July 14). She proposed moving off-site, to include blocks to the north and south, and off-budget, reportedly to the tune of $8 million, far beyond the GSA's $750,000. Miss' "exuberance" (as one GSA official described the proposal) meant raising the additional money from private sources. But as of last summer, it seemed that various parties were intrigued with the plan, including Bank of America, whose downtown offices lie to the north of the courthouse, and McCormack Baron and Associates, which is developing Cupples Station and the Westin Hotel to the south. Miss told the RFT, "It was a matter of getting the other pieces in place."

Those pieces never came together, however. McCormack Baron has announced that it has its own plan for its block and for Spruce Street to the south, and Bank of America's landscaping is just fine as it is, thank you. "I think the design took longer than people anticipated to get it together," explains GSA project manager Linda Phillips from her Kansas City headquarters. "As the Cupples Station started working toward their whole building complex, they wanted to do more their own thing. I don't mean that in a mean way; it was just better for what they were doing. I think NationsBank (now Bank of America) looked at their property and said, 'This looks pretty good the way it is. Do we really want to spend a million bucks changing it?'"

Overtures had been made to local foundations, to the state, to private business and citizens, but the GSA came to realize, as Phillips puts it, "Everybody kind of said, 'It wasn't going to happen.'"

"It was nobody's fault," says Senior U.S. District Judge Edward L. Filippine, head of the local Art in Architecture panel and a primary liaison between artist, GSA and those other necessary parties. Although there has been some grumbling locally about Miss' "exuberance," presumably delaying and complicating an already difficult process, Filippine asserts, "Everybody agreed to let Mary go ahead and expand. It just got to a point where it became sort of impractical. In the case of the bank, they thought their situation looked pretty good as it was. They thought it would coordinate with any other plan. (McCormack Baron) just kind of went a different way. It was a situation where it just never really got together.

"It had to do with budgets and what was involved, a number of aspects -- whether there would be a little pond through the Missouri Department of Conservation -- there were a lot of loose ends. It was considered, but they never really got tied together. It wasn't just one day we had a meeting and everybody walked out of the meeting in a huff. It was just considering it, trying to work it out and to see if that was the way it should go.

"We have an Art in Architecture budget, and that's what we had. That's what we were going to use to develop our property. To do three or more blocks would have cost a whale of a lot more money. Everybody looked at it and considered it: Would this be nice, or would that be nice? An adjustment here -- do you like the concept? A general evolving-in and a general evolving-out."

One of the parties that "evolved out" was Bank of America, whose green space of grass and trees would have become part of Miss' expanded project to the north, providing a corridor to the Gateway Mall. The complications involved in making any public-art project happen, especially one that attempts to extend beyond the standard strictures, are evident in such matters as the shifting identities of the parties involved. When the project began, Miss and the GSA were negotiating with NationsBank. Now, Julie Westermann of Bank of America fields questions about why they were part of the "general evolving-out."

"We were willing, eager partners," she asserts, but Bank of America currently owns only one-third of its downtown building, which is up for sale. Beneath that "green space is a footprint for a foundation for a twin tower that could be there," says Westermann. So although NationsBank and then Bank of America participated in discussions until it became clear that the additional millions weren't going to be raised, competing ambitions were also a factor. A new owner might want to build another tower and wouldn't want a public-art space to get in the way.

Miss' ambitions also came into competition with those of McCormack Baron. Last summer, Miss described how "the project came alive again" when Richard Baron showed interest in the project. Baron and his partners, however, as they considered the needs of Cupples Station, turned their interests in another direction. Baron explains: "We set out on our own because it was very important to have our own kind of space between the hotel and the office complex. What Mary Miss had designed was not conceptually what we were hoping to achieve over there as far as a destination space." McCormack Baron hired Hellmuth Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), the same firm that gave downtown the federal courthouse and the proposed baseball stadium, to design "a venue where we could really host different activities and other things that would draw people to Cupples, both from within the complex itself and also from the outside. That's something we were really pretty focused on. Mary's design, while it was very nice and I certainly thought it was a lovely idea, just didn't really work for what we needed at Cupples."

As Judge Filippine puts it, "It's probably not too bad if somebody looks to spruce up Spruce." Baron says this of the HOK design: "It's terrific. We're probably going to roll it out in another couple weeks, but we've got a very different kind of an approach with a wonderful pavilion and also some water that will allow for people to gather while they're eating their lunch or when they're simply wanting to relax. It's going to be a very interesting space. It's part of an overall design with lighting and sidewalks and street furniture and streetscape."

Baron, like others who have been involved in the last three years of proposals, discussions, meetings, fundraising -- all leading to the subsequent dissolution of those efforts -- is upbeat. Last fall, the GSA's Phillips says, "We met with Mary again and said, 'This is where we're at. We're back to our block, by ourselves with our money. Let's start again.'"

Miss declined to comment for this article, except to express her disappointment and to confirm that she has gone back to the drawing board. She will be presenting a new proposal to the Art in Architecture committee next month. It's not as if she hasn't faced such disappointments, and such challenges, before. The territory of public art is a precarious one for any artist to traverse. Any number of variables can delay or dismantle a project. Miss told the RFT last summer of one GSA project she was involved with in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in which she had full approval to design an area for government workers to congregate in the landscape beyond the employee parking lot. Then the Oklahoma City bombing occurred and security became paramount in the minds of government officials. Miss' budget went to surveillance cameras.

Miss' proposal was ambitious and lost out to other ambitions. The price tag of $8 million was a lot of money to raise, especially for, as Filippine describes the concept, "an artistic presentation of space." Miss' work involves memory, history and an attempt to engage the individual within the mass. Such ideas lose out to the more obvious concerns of commerce almost every time. Not that anyone really needs a reminder of the status of the artist in America, but as the urban environment continues to be redefined -- either by the wrecking ball and parking garage or by further extensions into the fast-dissolving rural landscape with strip malls and subdivisions -- the lack of artistic input into these changes is glaring. Cost efficiency supersedes imagination and beauty. The result is the bland edifices of commerce, thoughtless, ugly. A city bound to the ambitions of merchants.

Judge Filippine is not so dour. The money for the public space is still there, and Miss has presented some working ideas. "It will be very user-friendly," he says encouragingly. "Again, it will be a place where people will meet. It will be a good community spot for people to rest, to meet, but also to enjoy artistically.

"I was very pleased with the preliminary concept that I saw. I'm buoyed up about it. I think it will be good. I'm very, very pleased with what she's come up with. I think it's going to be terrific. I think it will define the space very well. It will supplement the courthouse. I just think it's going to be extremely nice. It's funny how things evolve, but I think it's evolved in a very positive manner."

On that optimistic note, it seems the interview is over, then Filippine asks, "What do you think of our courthouse? I know the last article I read you had some pretty nasty lines in there."

True, the federal courthouse did not receive words of praise in last summer's feature article.

"It's one thing to say, 'I don't like something,'" Filippine instructs, "but you really put some language in there that I thought was a little rough for our courthouse, a little rough for anybody."

The specific language in question -- "the big pink penis violating the St. Louis skyline" -- isn't exactly original, Filippine is told. Everybody calls it that.

"You're the only person I've ever heard refer to it like that," Filippine says.

Which says a lot about the decisions made about public architecture and public art, about the public involved, and the public that is never heard.