IS ST LOUIS READY FOR CONCEPTUAL ARCHITECTURE?
(Note: All images are copyrighted by SPACE Architecture and Design.)
A bit of background to provide context for the question raised above, and to describe the images shown here:
A few months ago, we were approached by a client who had seen and experienced some of our work, and liked the thoughts behind our designs. We were asked to put together a design team, and in the matter of only a few weeks, designed and priced the largest project that has come through our office. Our design solution, only partially presented here, aimed to create a work of Modern Architecture that would immediately become recognizable to the region. The bold colors, simple forms, and articulated circulation path would play off the sloping, highly visible site, serving to create a landmark in a suburban location usually devoid of originality or meaning.
(Conceptual muse for the building’s design: A dynamic path that aims to make the experience of traversing the building more special, memorable, and meaningful than the typical experience in a building of its type.)
The building’s design concept became a balancing act between treading lightly on the partially natural site and reconciling the complex circulation systems necessary for the project. Our solution involved preserving the existing view of the hillside from the highway, while creating new viewing opportunities from inside the building.
The building’s relationship with the hillside is best exemplified as one drives by the site on the highway. The building first appears from behind a row of trees. As the volumes unfold, The Path emerges, morphing and disappearing at various stopping points along the way. Sometimes it dives deep within the volumes of the form, and sometimes occupies a condition where the line between the building’s interior and exterior blurs. A webbing of interior-exterior spaces connected physically, visually, and conceptually.
This highway view of the building would be the most common experience of the building’s Path concept. But the full breadth of the meaning embedded into the design would become apparent only when it became time to experience this Path up close, with loved ones. The significance of the Path is revealed through one’s unique experience of it. This may seem like an abstract concept to guide a building’s design (especially without critical info about the building’s use), but suffice it to say that the Path concept’s paramount purpose is to help to make the experiences in the building an adventure for all involved.
(This portion of the Path consists of various walkways and nodes along a single atrium. Stopping points, gathering places, and dynamic artwork occupy thin vertical slivers of space, providing a spatial experience unique to this building type.)
The design concept is a product of both the site and the building’s program, and most importantly the particular reactions between the two. Further explanation and appreciation of the design concept requires additional information about the project, including diagrams and other drawings that are too sensitive to release at this time.
Ultimately, we did not win the project. We were given numerous reasons as to why, but one of the most intriguing was that, to paraphrase: “our design was too difficult to sell to the community.” This statement is the catalyst for this post, which is not intended to vent about not winning, or trying to convince anyone that we should have. We have not seen the other proposals, and therefore do not know how our design compares in terms of cost, aesthetics, or concept.
Rather, this post serves partially as a brief introduction to our idea, but more importantly to raise the question of whether St. Louis is ready for high concept design, for Conceptual Architecture.
If our design was not selected on these grounds, how many other conceptual projects in St. Louis have died on the drawing boards because somebody felt that the design was too difficult to sell to the community? How often have architects immediately watered down their designs as a result of this fear? Or worse, watered down their thinking? How many talented creative professionals have left St. Louis as a result of this cultural conservatism? Or never considered coming here in the first place?
These are not trivial questions. The implications of what is culturally acceptable to include in our built environment matters greatly to the future quality of our city, and the subsequent quality of lives its citizens will lead. These decisions play into who our region attracts, and who it will retain. Great cities aren’t accidental. They are the product of our collective preferences and subsequent decisons, built up and played out over time.
St. Louis once built great Architecture. Our amazing brick streets are punctuated by mid-century modern classics. The numbers of both slowly decrease and once gone they’ll never come back. Yet how many meaningful buildings have been built in St. Louis lately? A deserved and worthwhile focus on preservation and adaptive reuse surely plays a part in these small numbers, but what else?
How would you classify the prevailing attitude in St. Louis towards Conceptual Architecture? Is the placement that you gave St. Louis on the spectrum good for the region long-term? What would the city look like in 100 years if it kept on that tragectory?
Clearly, many buildings of all uses and sizes get built in St. Louis everyday, and many are designed by architects. Yet very, very few of these buildings have something meaningful to say about their era, their neighborhood, or even how they’re used; they are just buildings. Herein lies the critical distinction between building and Architecture. Building occurs when something is constructed, while Architecture occurs when the design concept is embedded with a certain meaning or purpose. Great cities need a vibrant combination of both.
Even though buildings are still being built in St. Louis, we need more Architecture.
Obviously, high-design, Conceptual Architecture is common and expected in our country’s coastal cultural hubs. But, it has also become increasingly common in cities like Kansas City, Louisville, and Denver. Yet this type of thoughtful, progressive design remains elusive (mostly non-existent) in present-day St. Louis. Why?
We raise many questions, because we are curious with your answers. Is St. Louis ready for Conceptual Architecture?
(see NextSTL for additional discussion on this topic)