Interstate 70 Through Downtown St. Louis: The Product of Abstract Modern Planning

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:

http://tinyurl.com/2a2r4d6

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.

3 Responses to “Interstate 70 Through Downtown St. Louis: The Product of Abstract Modern Planning”

  1. Ely Smith says:

    Love the analysis, but what are the action steps needed to remove the highway? Don’t get too abstract, City to River. We need your leadership not just to tell us what is wrong but how we can undo the wrongs.

  2. samizdat says:

    Yeah, Mr. Jeanneret was a great architect, for shit as a planner. Too bad many of his foolish ideas were taken up with gusto by people who didn’t know any better. He should have stuck to designing individual buildings, rather than let his ego get in front of his judgement.

  3. equals42 says:

    There are also right-of-ways that need to be restored from 4th Ave to Memorial. Those towers present a true barrier to the Arch grounds that need to be rectified.

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