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  • The Gateway Arch is Unimpressive

    Posted on September 9th, 2012 Toby Weiss 8 comments

    The October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair shares results that 46% of the 1,027 adults polled nationwide find The Gateway Arch the least impressive national landmark.

    What an odd question to ask people. But since they asked, Americans are good with natural occurrences like falls or canyons, they’re even good with carving presidents into the side of a mountain. But wholly man-made landmarks are ripe for a shrug.

    After an initial wave of irritation that anyone slam on our Arch, I remember that I used to take it for granted. It’s always been there, and once you go up inside of it and catch the view, what’s left?

    If I – as a proud St. Louisan – have treated it as the most boring ride at an amusement park, then the views of 1,027 people who may or may not have seen it in person are acceptable. I don’t see the point of The Alamo, because anything to do with war or battles bores and confuses me. But I’ve also never seen it, so it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.

    Beauty for Beauty’s Sake

    Americans tend to be practical people who want things to serve a purpose. Admirable form like the Chrysler Building also has a function as an office building, so it’s acceptable. Even the Seattle Space Needle (which is only a couple of years older than the Arch), goes a bit beyond being a symbol of its city with a restaurant at the top so it has some function beyond the views.

    But the Gateway Arch is basically a modern sculpture with an elevator. Take the elevator up to see views to the east and to the west in a narrow curved space that’s not conducive to hanging out. And back down you go.

    It’s truly a symbolic, minimalist art piece. An understanding of geometry, architecture and modern construction makes it impressive. But all those concepts may be too subtle for the room, naturally leading to the theoretical question, “What is the point?”

    What is the point of a flower? We understand its benefits for bees, butterflies and the environment, but they are not crucial to human existence. But their beauty and fragrance can move our souls, and many are willing to cultivate them for just that purpose – beauty for beauty’s sake. And that’s The Arch, as well.

    The Arch has other purposes beyond the beauty of its facade as the changing light and dark of day dances around it.

    It is the symbol of a time in America when power and progress could be poetic.
    It is a beacon that guides you without a compass, and takes you to the river.
    It is the impossible made real.
    It is the strength inherent in grace.
    It is eternally modern, but with the erosion of American dignity, it has become nostalgic.

    I didn’t realize all these things about The Arch until an early 21st century sunset ride as a passenger in car gave me the opportunity to simply gaze at it. And these realizations hit me fast and forcefully. Suddenly, I “got it.” And I was proud of our City for once having the towering vision to persevere for decades to build something that was only and simply beautiful and symbolic. It’s as simple as a flower, which is a complicated thing.

    Taking The Arch for granted is not just a Vanity Fair poll result. How many decades did it take for St. Louis to light it at night? And how many of you in St. Louis have never been near it, touched it, or been up inside of it? None of these things are crucial, but it does stir the soul, and you don’t know how powerful and empowering that can be until it overtakes you.

    My absolute favorite summary of the power of the Gateway Arch comes from Joe Thebeau, in the Finn’s Motel song “Eero Saarinen“:

    Eero, arching, westward over my city
    Stainless and brilliant
    Eero, arching, skyward into the universe
    Expanding, expansive possibility.

     

  • Architecture Rock, St. Louis Style

    Posted on August 20th, 2009 Toby Weiss 9 comments

    Finn’s Motel and The Blind Eyes are two St. Louis rock bands that have something in common that makes this building geek deeply happy: a propulsive, uplifting song specifically about architecture.

    finns-motelJoe Thebeau was responsible for one of the very best albums of 2006, Escape Velocity.  It is an engrossing and far-reaching concept album about being a 40-year old family man and corporate drone who can’t escape the feeling that there’s something else waiting for him just beyond the horizon; how do you get to that place and what happens once you do?

    Among the 17 songs that tell the tale is a piece that addresses the Gateway Arch as a metaphor for high and/or dashed expectations, “Eero Saarinen”:

    Eero
    Arching
    Westward over my city
    Stainless and brilliant
    Eero
    Arching
    Skyward into the universe
    Expanding
    Expansive possibilities
    The kind of vision I can look up to
    Arching over
    Into a future we couldn’t hope to
    Live up to
    Eero

    Listen to the song “Eero Saarinen” by Finn’s Motel.

    arch-sketch

    For the sake of full disclosure, Joe Thebeau asked me to sing with him on the song, but trust that it has nothing to do with why I love it.  It’s definitely a case of him inviting me because I loved the simple and emotional geometry of his sentiment.  It made me look at the Arch – something most of us in this city tend to take for granted – in a whole new and personal way, which was also reflected in the CD cover shot and other photos of the Arch he sent me out to capture.

    Atop that, the song just frickin’ rocks! It’s 1:32 minutes of rapid heart beat and laser point precision.  Architecture has been described as frozen music, and I’d always “heard” the Arch as a wistful symphonic piece.  Thanks to Thebeau’s artistic vision, I will forever “hear” the Arch as the Red Bull energy required to be the eternal Gateway to the West.

    Finn’s Motel is playing at Off Broadway on Saturday, August 22, 2009. Do go check them out, and ask them to play this song.

    blind-eyes

    I have been listening to The Blind Eyes debut record for 7 days straight, and the brilliance of it multiplies with repetition.  During the first couple of listens – wherein I don’t pay attetion to lyrics, just overall sonics – I assumed from the chorus of “Brasil, 1957″  (“We could only make it on the plane, on a plane”) that the song was about The Mile High Club.

    On the third listen I finally heard:

    Moving westward up the river
    Steel and concrete to deliver
    Out of nothing springs a city
    Monument to modernity

    Holy crap, these guys are singing about the building of Brasilia, and by association, architect Oscar Niemeyer!  And – duh! – the T-shirt design (above) featuring Niemeyer’s National Congress building has way more significance than using it simply because Niemeyer is the coolest (and oldest) living architect.  Oh, and double duh, this also references/inspired the title of the record.

    Listen to the song “Brasil, 1957″ by The Blind Eyes.

    national-congress-sketch

    I’m not normally this slow on the uptake, and in defense it should be pointed out: how often do we hear a song that concisely and poetically sums up the construction of a mid-century modern capitol?  Previous to this, never!

    The chorus of this ingenious song now takes on an extra layer of clever:  is it “plain” or “plane”?  Because both of them work.  The city of Brasilia was purposely built far inland on an empty plain.  Aerial views confirm that the city was purposely laid out in the shape of a plane.

    What inspired them to tackle this as a song topic?  Is one of them a fellow architecture geek?  Until answers appear, I’m just impressed and thankful that it – and the entire record – exists. And I’m so proud that two St. Louis bands decided that songs about architecture should rock mightily.

    Question

    Aside from these two towering St. Louis musical achievements, what other rock or pop songs are specifically about an architect or a building?  The only other song that comes to mind is “Alec Eiffel” by The Pixies.

    If you think of others, do let me know, and if enough of them exist, it could turn into the rare case of a second B.E.L.T. entry about architecture rock.

    .