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The St. Louis Gateway Arch Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 4th, 2022

The Gateway Arch of St. Louis is one of the nation’s more identifiable landmarks. Designed in 1947 but not built until the 1960s, the Arch is 630 feet tall and 630 feet wide at its base (Escherich, 2006). It was the design of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who was considered one of the most celebrated and controversial architects of his time (Barbano, 2006), yet the difference between when it was designed and when it was built spans a shift in artistic approaches that places the Arch a little behind its time aesthetically speaking. Saarinen was the son of Eilel Saarinen who was himself an internationally recognized architect.

His designs were considered radical for his time and they helped to promote the achievements of the age – automobiles, airplanes, television and computers. Unfortunately, Saarinen died in 1961 at the age of 51 and two years before work began on the Arch. The project was carried forward by Hannskarl Bandel, a German structural engineer who emigrated to the United States after World War II. “When Saarinen tried to demonstrate his desired shape with a chain suspended in his hands, he couldn’t achieve the slightly elongated, ‘soaring’ effect he wanted; Bandel asked for the chain, came back in a few days, and delighted the architect by producing Saarinen’s curve, as if by magic” (Encyclopedia, 2009).

As this indicates, Bandel was also well-known for his innovation and style. Because artistic styles had already changed by the time the Gateway Arch was built, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the many ways in which this design represents its modernistic era. The best way to understand the innovative approach of these individuals, then, is to compare the Gateway Arch with the ideals of the Modernist style under which it was developed.

Modernism was in full swing when Saarinen developed his ideas for the Gateway Arch in 1947. Dominating the early half of the 1900s, the Modern movement is characterized by a focus on the wonders of the machine age. It was widely influential, finding expression in the United States and throughout Europe, predominantly in urban areas and in industrialized nations. Furniture, architecture, sculpture and typography were created that demonstrated a harsh functionality that idealized the power of the machine and the ability of man to fashion his own environment.

In working to find the ‘essence’ of their material in order to condense it down into its most functional form, the Modern movement had a profound impact on typography and design layout. “When used together, asymmetrical typography, geometric layout, and photographic illustration defined the radical new form language of Modernist design” (Chwast & Heller, 2000: 89). It was during the Modern movement that the rise in the social middle class in America gave birth to a growing graphic design industry in important areas such as advertising and packaging. Key artists during this period included Paul Renner and Jan Tschichold who re-wrote the rules of typography to more accurately reflect the modernist ideals in blatant recognition of the communicative qualities of the typeface itself. Levin, in her critical review of the period, indicates modernism “longed for perfection and demanded purity, clarity, order.

And it denied everything else, especially the past: idealistic, ideological and optimistic” (Levin, 1988: 14). Through this, Modernism kept its focus on the brilliance that was offered in the future and rejected any other views. It was misunderstood by the public as emphasizing structure over substance making it seem dogmatic and brutal. It was competitive, individualistic and materialistic. In this regard, another architect, Auguste Perret, has made himself famous through his bold designs and emphasis on clean faces and solid use of material.

These are largely what make the Gateway Arch stand out among other monuments, its innovative use of clean faces and solid material. The Arch is exactly what it indicates it might be, two steel legs rising from the ground near the Mississippi River, executing a gentle sweeping curve and joining high up in the center. The cross-sections of the legs are equilateral triangles, meaning if you cut the legs in half across the longest side, you would have two triangles with equal lengths and equal angles (Leland, 2006). Since the triangle is considered to be the world’s most stable form, this provides a sense of comfort and stability to the overall structure, which remains the nation’s tallest monument.

These measure approximately 51 feet at the base and only 17 feet at the top, giving the arch a gently tapered look as it swings up into the sky and carefully traverses back down. The curve of the arch is based on what is called a centenary curve. “This is the curve that would result by hanging a chain upside down from two points” (Leland, 2006). It is considered to be one of the most stable curves found in nature and has proven to be so within this structure, which has sustained no damage despite numerous storms in the area, including one that heavily damaged the grounds upon which the arch stands (Escherich, 2006).

The arch is cased with stainless steel, giving it a sleek, modern appearance yet this fragile appearing exterior is reinforced by carbon steel walls and concrete to a level of approximately 300 feet and carbon steel and rebar reaching from this point to the top (Escherich, 2006).

The interior of the arch is hollow and permits the monument to be used as a tourist attraction. The interior conceals a specialized tram system developed specifically for use within the arch and that has been in place since shortly after the arch was opened in the late 1960s and continues to move passengers from the ground to the top of the arch where there is an observation deck from which people can look out over the countryside (Leland, 2006). In addition, there is a set of stairwells within each leg to help visitors get in and out of the arch should anything ever happen to one of the trams. Displays at the north and south entrance areas depict different scenes for visitors to become more educated about the arch.

The north side tells visitors about how the arch was constructed, including the story of how the two halves did not meet upon first completion because of the way the heat of the day encouraged the metal to move and the St. Louis fire department sprayed the structure with cold water to get the metal to cool enough to be moved into proper position for joining. The south side display tells visitors what life was like in that location in the 1800s, during the period of westward expansion that St. Louis played such a vital role in helping to launch.

Looking at this arch, it is impossible not to imagine the country doing great things. The sleek design of it gives one a sense that this nation does things smoothly and efficiently, leaving behind beauty and grace as an effect of having passed here. Its clean faces and reserved decorative features, consisting primarily of informative plaques found within the interior of the arch rather than being available to a large degree on the outside, are classic modernism, allowing the beauty of the construction materials and the foundational form of the structure to stand forth as its own form of beauty. The sheer size of the arch instills a sense of awe to those viewing it as it becomes clear that anything is possible when this nation sets its mind to accomplishing something while the form of an arch conveys the sense that this truly is a gateway to the west as it was intended to represent.

The mass of steel that makes up its exterior appearance also conveys the sense that this nation is powerful and modern in its use of technology and thinking while the arch’s stability speaks of the nation’s continued strength as it pushes ever forward into the wilderness. The ability to ride up inside of the arch to an observation deck at the top further illustrates the modernized abilities of the country while the ability to look out over the surrounding landscape reinforces the concepts of conquest, ownership and adventure that the arch was intended to celebrate.

Actually standing at the base of the arch and looking at it certainly conveys all of these ideas and more. The curve of the arch as well as its size and apparent stability are almost magical as it takes on the sense of a gateway from one known country into the uncharted territories that the arch reminds us were there at one time. Seeing the arch instills a sense of wonder and awe at the great task that lie before people of the 1800s just after Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase and acquired more land than the nation held up to that point in time. Standing as it does near the banks of the Mississippi River, the arch takes on a sense of fairy magic, as if by passing underneath that arch, one can step from one world into another one completely different from anything that’s been known before.

At the same time, it gives a sense that the nation that constructed it will have ample skills and materials available to conquer anything that might be encountered on the other side. It feels almost otherworldly in itself as if some giant hand placed it here as a means of signifying to the race of ordinary people living here that this was a unique place on the planet and should be celebrated for its position. Standing here, one gets the impression that one is part of something much bigger, stronger, grander and more powerful than anything standing alone should be while still conveying a sense of grace, beauty and achievement that cannot be equaled.


Barbano, Michael. (2006). “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.” Finnish Cultural Institute. New York. Web.

Chwast, Seymour and Steven Heller. (2000). Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

“Encyclopedia: Hannskarl Bandel.” (2009). NationMaster. Web.

Escherich, Susan. (2006). “Gateway Arch.” National Historic Landmarks. Web.

Leland, J. Michael. (2006). “St. Louis Arch.” Michael’s Architecture Page. Web.

Levin, Kim. (1988). Beyond Modernism: Essays on Art from the ‘70s and ‘80s. New York: Harper & Row.

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