Fifty years ago next week — on October 28, 1965 — St. Louis finished building its big arch, the “Gateway Arch,” which was intended to memorialize the United States’ westward expansion and St. Louis’s role as gateway to the West. What it does in practice is define St. Louis’s skyline.
It is the most easily recognized memorial in the country, with the possible exception of the Washington Monument. With the possible exception of the Empire State Building and Hollywood’s “Hollywood” sign, it’s the most distinctive city-icon in the country. Outside the country, it is — to Americans — more recognizable than any city-icon that isn’t the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Parthenon, St. Basil’s, or the Colosseum. That’s pretty good for a city that’s half the size of Milwaukee, and doesn’t much matter to anyone who doesn’t live there.
St. Louis’s arch was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who won an open competition. His design was chosen unanimously, and it came off perfectly. It’s a catenary arch, 630 feet tall and 630 feet wide, standing on triangular legs, plated in stainless steel. It’s the tallest arch in the world, and one of the tallest monuments. It’s 50 years old but looks utterly modern. It’s beautiful. It’s a masterpiece.
The skyscraper was invented in Chicago in the 1880s; from 1901 to 1998, the tallest building in the world was somewhere in the United States. This was something the United States took rightful pride in — but monumental construction isn’t what it used to be. The Gateway Arch was dedicated the same year the Apollo space program flew its first manned mission. The launch of Apollo 11 was protested by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which thought it was a waste of money. The protest’s leader, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, insisted that NASA’s budget should be used “to combat the nation’s poverty, hunger, and other social problems.” Abernathy’s position is admirable, in its way, but hopelessly shortsighted. When Apollo 11 launched, that was something the country understood. But at some point between then and now, we lost our national sense of grandeur.
The St. Louis Arch and the Apollo program are remarkable for more or less the same reason. Neither was meant to serve a practical function. They were big ideas, big things that inspire people through their bigness, the same way cathedrals did in 13th-century France, or Jerusalem’s Temple in Jesus-era Israel, or the Colossus of Rhodes till the great earthquake of 226 b.c.
Say what you want about Trump — and I have my misgivings — but this is something he understood in the Eighties, when he tried to bring the title of world’s tallest building back to New York (it was then in Chicago; it’s now in Dubai). Forgetting the glory of its Empire State vs. Chrysler Building days, New York guffawed — according to the Times, “skyscrapers much taller than 100 stories make sense only for the kind of builder who is as concerned with symbolizing power as with the specifics of his cash flow”; this was meant as an insult.
The Times wondered if super-tall buildings “make sense anywhere,” and warned that they are inevitably “a constant looming presence.” “Living 120 or 130 or 140 stories up in the air is fine stuff for fairy tales, but it has little appeal in real life . . . given how long the trip to the street is sure to be from 1,600 feet high, how cut off these apartments can be from weather, and how psychologically distant they are from the city below.” (My emphasis.)
Every city in the U.S. ought to have a Gateway Arch, or an Empire State Building, or a Space Needle, to remind itself what a piece of work is a man.
Those are the words of someone who misses the point. You might call this the Bernie Sanders doctrine, in deference to his campaign remark that Americans “don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants.” “Enough,” he might say, “is enough.” Or, “Is it really worth the expense of paying Michelangelo to paint a ceiling that has already been painted once?” But some people still get the picture. When Taiwan was trying to step onto the world stage, it built Taipei 101, which was the world’s tallest building till Dubai built the Burj Khalifa for its own coming-out party. They were, respectively, Taiwan’s and the UAE’s Gateway Arches (though neither is anywhere near as good looking).
Every city in the U.S. ought to have a Gateway Arch, or an Empire State Building, or a Space Needle, to remind itself what a piece of work is a man. In the meantime, let’s salute one city that figured this out 50 years ago and gave the U.S. one of its great works of art.