SLU Cloister Walk, Best In Show

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St. Louis University Cloister Walk
Grand & Chouteau, St. Louis City, MO
Some people are highly attuned and obsessive about the built environment while others pay little attention because their fascinations lie elsewhere. This is as it should be, because the diversity of human experiences is what makes our lives such a compelling journey.

There are a heaping handful of people in my world who exactly share my passion for buildings, while many others kindly tolerate my comments, exclamations and head swivels (and near crashes from not paying attention to the road) as we drive around. Most fall in the middle of these two extremes.

But there is one new-ish feature on our city landscape that everyone has a comment on – all of them favorable – and that is such a rare occurrence that it must be noted.

The Joan & Joseph Lipic Cloister Walk on the campus of the Edward A. Doisy Research Center at St. Louis University gets most everyone’s attention. The Research Center itself is the star attraction (see pages 4-6 of this pdf), as its tall, shiny and unique. It has a prime location, LEEDs certification and the best of intentions. I like the building, though I enjoyed watching it go up more than the final result. But in my opinion, it causes no harm or embarrassment, and entertains me in an Off-Broadway musical kind of way.

But its the brick “tail” of the building, snaking diagonally to the southeast across the campus, that thrills me the most. And it is this promenade connector that has elicited positive comments from everyone I’ve been with as we passed by. I’m talking unsolicited and unprompted comments by people who normally don’t notice these types of things, especially when it’s a low-lying, secondary feature of a major building situated far from the street. One has to make the slightest of efforts to notice it, and when they do, they instantly love it!

There definitely exists a snobbish line of thought among architects and designers that if the uninformed masses like something, it must be intentionally pandering to the cheap seats. This imperious manner is sometimes worn as a protective shield by those who design buildings and objects, and the fewer number of people who “get it” confirms its success to the creator.

I can buy into that aesthetic, but I also firmly believe that when it comes to buildings, the context, the purpose and the people it was created for deeply matters, and when the uninformed masses react apathetically or negatively to a new building it is because the creators failed on one or more of these fronts.

For instance, a Frank Gehry building is a dramatic and dynamic thing, but when it sends snow and ice flows crashing onto heads or blinds the neighbors on a sunny day, then form murdered function. The benefactors’ got a glorious trophy building while the inhabitants in and around it got shafted.

So, the Cloister Walk gets the attention and admiration of the St. Louis masses. The form pleases every eye. It looks intriguing but how does it function? It was time to investigate up close.

The Research Center comes courtesy of Cannon Design, and because the Cloister Walk shows up in their concept drawings, I’m assuming they designed it as well, even though no one has bothered to single out that fact. Again, the Research Center is the star, while the Walk is a bit player used to advance the plot, a way to get from one point to another in a formal and protective way.

It is a true pleasure to walk near and in this place. It mimics and facilitates movement in a low key manner, which is quite the accomplishment when it has so much going on. A Zen garden, and wild vegetation and babbling brooks go on in and around it, but it works as intended. The flanking rows of arcing ellipses create frames for the ever-changing scenes as you walk on, so the experience is both peaceful and invigorating. Its form is thoroughly modern urban, its intent is old fashioned and the result is a friendly addition to time and space.

The Walk is a private structure intended for people using the Research Center and the medical school complex it connects to, but no signs or efforts indicate that the public is not allowed to experience it. Because of where it’s situated, one does have to make a concerted effort to drive into and navigate the complex, which is full of paid parking lots and pass-only parking garages. But there’s free street parking to be found, and those who have business there truly don’t seem to mind the presence of those who don’t.

People were using it constantly, with folks even lounging on the benches and soaking up the sun by the fountain at the southern end of the Walk (which resolves a bit awkwardly; it evokes a hippo or dragon). So its function is good: it facilitates, accommodates and inspires additional uses.

It’s form looks good and feels even better, to the eye and the soul. I can see this becoming a popular place for photography students, especially for black & white assignments; it just keeps on giving and creating arresting still lifes, with intense plays of light and shadow.

It is joyous to have something that has captured so many’s attention from afar be even better up close. And it feels odd (but good) to finally be able to thank St. Louis University for a truly worthy and enjoyable architectural contribution in the 21st century.

SIDE NOTE One of the greatest views from this campus is the old Peveley complex across the intersection. I love all the contrasts of the Research tower against the Peveley smokestack, the boldly modern in concert with the contentedly industrial. The Pevely building is now for sale, and as the article points out, it is a significant plot of land in a prime city location. Which is why I’m worried. Please, oh please, let it find a new use that allows it to remain essentially intact. Fingers crossed.

12 thoughts on “SLU Cloister Walk, Best In Show

  1. And does anyone remember Peerless restaurant supply?! It was a poorly maintained wreck. I’m glad SLU bought them. Otherwise, it’d still look the same.

  2. Great photos, it looks nicer than I would have expected. Good design, at least there is an attempt at art.
    It is great you went to explore.
    The corner is a problem. At least with all of that green space it is still possible to put some low rise 3 to 6 story storefronts, (maybe on all four corners while saving the Pevely).
    The Fleur de lis are ill-proportioned and almost ugly. It’s too bad because it can be a beautiful form.

  3. I just have to say that the last thing St. Louis needs is more green space facing the street. It needs well designed buildings.

  4. There was at least one viable buisness on the south side of the parsel, they supplied restaraunt equipment. SLU forced them out and have since moved the Westport area. It seems foolish to trade a nice building and a viable buisness for 50 feet of green space and a wall, no matter how good it looks.

    Ah, the name of the company was Peerless Restaraunt Supply.


  5. Maybe the fleur-de-lis is actually a corn cob being dehusked, and it’s a sign that SLU is planning to plant several acres of corn on that expanse, and use the cloister walk as a sales bazaar for those seeking to purchase freshly husked corn cobs.

  6. Both the research building and the walkway are quite commendable from a design standpoint, except for the silly sign on top that looks at night like a giant ear of corn being dehusked. My problem with this whole ensemble is that it is an example of horrible planning! One building occupies FOUR square blocks of space that have been turned into a superblock. The building dangles in space from its elegant but poorly placed umbilical cord and holds neither the building line along Grand nor more importantly as Kara points out, the corner of a major City intersection. We can only hope that someday in the future all that wasted space will be filled with more research or med school buildings, but I’m not holding my breath. Its simply ONE MORE example of SLU injecting suburban planning ideals over the City with disastrous results.

  7. Point taken, but there was nothing there to begin with. Maybe 100 years ago there was, but not in recent memory. If there had been an urban streetscape razed in the name of the research center I would have a complete change of heart. All I’m saying is that what’s there now sure beats what was there ten years ago so I see no reason to complain about it.

  8. I must agree with the naysayers. The tail is not terrible, but its relationship to Grand and Chouteau is deplorable, yet another example that SLU wishes to invest in their campus but not in integrating it into the city. Wouldn’t it have been possible to create a cloister garden like this in the interior of a building complex that respected the street wall?

  9. I am all about preservation, but sometimes you have to be realistic. Before the new research center was there, there was nothing. At least nothing notable that I remember and I’ve driven by there everyday for eight years. The building is certainly not offensive and has beautiful grounds. And because of who owns it, we can pretty well guarantee it will still look pristine twenty years from now and beyond. As a resident of the area I’m happy to see something there besides open land and a few derelict buildings.

  10. While this building covered walkway looks stunning in these photos, in real life this design has created a bleak and empty corner at Grand and Chouteau. The building calls attention to itself with its grandness, while at the same time has no meaningful relationship to the Pevely building or the major intersection of our city that it sits on.

  11. Nice post. I really like this building. I also read the article about the Pevely Campus. I would be really disappointed if this happened:

    “DeSantis said the dairy’s old location near the city’s center is its strongest attribute, creating a number of future uses for the land. If the property were cleared, it would hold significant value as a large parcel of land in the center of the city near two interstate highways, DeSantis said. It could be used for parking for other developments in the area, for instance.”

  12. Sadly, the building in question has permanently eliminated (for the next 50 years at least) any chance of South Grand and Midtown being linked together again with urban fabric. SLU has just about accomplished making a complete dead zone all the way from Highway 40 to I-44.

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