Interstate 70 as it rips through Downtown St. Louis was the product of the Modern Age of planning which looked at cities not as living breathing organisms, but as geometric abstractions. The St. Louis Post Dispatch illustrates this in Mondays editorial “Downtown St. Louis’ future now focuses on people”. The editorial, which covers Downtown’s latest blueprint for the future, first looks back at 1964 with a description of the new Downtown of that time taken from a special section published by the Post for St. Louis’ bicentennial:
The Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium II barely had started to rise from the ground. Aerial photographs of downtown revealed clusters of low, industrial-age buildings, many seemingly darkened by coal dust. The central business district was pocked with open lots — evidence of urban renewal’s destructive beginnings.
The artists’ conceptions of downtown’s future, meanwhile, consisted of a cool sweep of modern, unadorned buildings filling the voids, creating a new order around the eagerly anticipated Arch.
You don’t see many people in these pictures. You don’t get any sense of how people would move from place to place or why they would want to. Downtown St. Louis had been reduced in our civic consciousness to geometric abstractions. We seemed fixated on creating structures and spaces.
One of the godfathers of modern planning, Le Corbusier, saw ordinary city life including crowded streets full of people and shops as clutter – something to be eliminated. His famous Radiant City was envisioned as a machine full of identical towers connected by nothing but highways amidst a pervasive sea of green.
Unfortunately, Le Corbusier had a lot of influence on designers, with an entire generation of architects and planners churning out city plans based on this model. These plans were largely out of scale abstractions completely disconnected from the life of cities and how they function. If you look at an aerial view of Downtown St. Louis west of the Arch you can see this influence with the interstate slipping past the large green space with an anonymous faceless row of towers rising in the background.
This is the City that we have inherited from the Modern Era of planning. Today, nearly 50 years later, we have a rare opportunity to re-establish the connections lost during the era of abstraction and re-build an environment based on how people live and use the City. It is now our responsibility to correct the planning mistakes of the past.
Link to Post editorial: