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.