Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Can we talk about the Arch, and whatnot?

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never been to the Arch. In my four years as a student here at Washington University, I have never actually seen the symbol of this wonderful city in person. I also don’t feel too bad about it. Why is the Arch so important? Seriously, it’s just an arch. It’s definitely a really big and shiny steel arch (the tallest arch in the world, actually), but it’s still just an arch.

What does it really represent? According to its architect, Eero Saarinen, the Gateway Arch represents “the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot.” That doesn’t sound terribly compelling. Sure, St. Louis might be located on the Mississippi River, which sort of bisects the continental United States, but I don’t quite understand what exactly this dainty steel ribbon has to do with that.

What are the merits of being the “gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot”? Great, St. Louis is the start of part of the United States. That doesn’t actually mean anything. How does an arch represent “national expansion”? Architecturally, I don’t think arches are related to expansion or growth, and to my knowledge, arches are not a readily identifiable symbol of westward expansion in American culture (or any culture for that matter). Obviously, I’m not an architect or a particularly well-versed lover of monuments, but neither are most Americans.

I feel like we’re sort of grasping for reasons to build a monument here. It is almost as if Saarinen felt inspired to build a giant silver arch for the sake of building a giant silver arch and then realized that he would somehow have to convince municipal, state and federal governments to give him the funds to do so. And props to him for convincing them because I am definitely not convinced.

Don’t get me wrong—the Arch is an impressive monument. The design and construction of the Arch were masterful feats of engineering and, at 630 feet tall, the Gateway Arch is an imposing, captivating structure. But the Arch is just that: an arch. Looking at it, I don’t feel inspired to venture out into the unknown or see images of Americans forging westward toward the Pacific. As a feat of engineering, I find it impressive. As a monument and stand-in for the City of St. Louis, I find it decidedly underwhelming. I feel like using the Arch as a symbol for St. Louis would be like New York City touting Prospect Park in Brooklyn as its crowning cultural accomplishment.

I think St. Louis is a fantastic city. I’ve grown to love it over the past four years. I still do not understand why the Arch was built and why St. Louis adopted it as its symbol. Seriously, if no one told you what the Arch represented, I’m not sure you would ever guess it represents national expansionism. Are natives of St. Louis and the Arch part of an unfortunate marriage of convenience? Is the Arch the symbol of St. Louis because it happened to be built in St. Louis and the city didn’t have a more identifiable landmark with which to identify? Maybe. I cannot think of a better reason why such a friendly, wonderful city would choose such a crappy symbol for itself. I can think of no more inadequate a symbol of the kindness and generosity I have found in this city than a rusting metal arch.


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  • Johannes de Silentio says:

    This article reads like a drunken dorm-room rant from an ignorant freshman who, with any luck, would apologize and be embarrassed when he sobered up. “Hey man, you know what I don’t like… TOAST! Why would you cook your bread??”
    I sincerely pray this article is satire and was written to rile up the student body to demand more intellectually driven and rigorous articles. We are an elite university and Studlife, with this article, has proven itself not worth the price of the issue. Get it together. I only hope that Mr. Kram will not take his new post as merely resume fodder and not allow garbage articles like this to continually clutter what could be, and needs to be, the voice of the campus.

    Turn this paper into something relevant or shut it down.

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  • Joe says:

    Hi Scott,
    I didn’t really understand the Arch either until I got a chance to do a little exploring. If you have an afternoon off sometime before you graduate, I’d invite you to take a trip downtown to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Gateway Arch is one part of the memorial, which also includes the Old Courthouse and the Museum of Westward Expansion. If you go there and glance at some of the exhibits, you can learn more about the area and the city (which you know is celebrating its 250th birthday) and you’ll also find information about the competition that Eero won with his design. You can look at the other designs that his arch beat out. Read about the symbolism. Then, if you have time, take the tram up to the top of the Arch and look out, imagining what Americans from 200 years ago to the present day see when they look west and also when they imagine the future of their country. The Arch is part of that imagination – not just the product of Saarinen’s desire to build a giant silver arch. Personally, after learning a little more I came to a new appreciation of why the Arch is such a big deal, and I can appreciate it more as an epic, graceful, and timeless monument. Maybe your reaction will be different, but I’d at least invite you to give some exploring a try.

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  • Eli says:

    I wouldn’t understand the Washington Monument if it hadn’t been explained to me. It doesn’t mean it does not have tremendous historical value and represent important themes of our national culture.

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  • huh says:

    I know you meant to be philosophical and enter new forums of thought by writing this, but it comes off as ignorant. Sure, the arch is not the Statue of Liberty, but it has history that you should research before writing this. People come from all over to see this, so don’t just write it off, please. Studlife needs to get away from its own editorials and focus on what it does best.

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  • Anonimo says:

    This is the worst StudLife article I’ve read.

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  • Duh says:

    The reason for St. Louis being described as the “Gateway to the West” has already been explained, but as you’re an econ major, you should be able to see the inherent value in having a large, unique, defining icon visible from miles away. Because of the arch, St. Louis has recognition that cities like Fort Wayne and Indianapolis lack.

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  • Nice says:

    My favorite part is when the author can’t figure out how an arch could possibly symbolize a gateway.

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  • Peter Rosen says:

    Typically stupid comment from someone without any aesthetic sensibility. Culturally illiterate . I bet he’s a scientist, or something.

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    • WUSTL watcher says:

      A scientist or mathematician would recognize the arch as a catenary curve and appreciate it from that perspective as well as its beauty.

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  • Sid says:

    The only good reason to keep the arch around is to give filmmakers an easy way to set up an establishing shot.

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  • Clark says:

    Can we talk about how stupid this article is?

    Maybe if you visited the arch, you would know why the built it. Or even read Wikipedia for that matter…..

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  • RUKiddingMe says:

    This is as ignorant as a newspaper staff could possibly be… you didnt even bother to learn a city’s history

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  • Merriwether says:

    Hey Scott… its called the gateway to the west because it’s the city from which people left to travel the Oregon Trail. St. Louis was the last city where people could stop to buy supplies, and the place from which Lewis and Clark set out to explore the rest of the country.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878