The Thirteenth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2011
Berkeley Prize 2011

Davis Owen Proposal

A Wall Along the River: Fringe Graffiti in St. Louis

Across the world, people worship their rivers. Americans, perhaps, focus on the lands adjoined to the river’s current. St. Louis, Missouri grew from the floodplains of the Mississippi River. The river hosted the steamboat traffic that swelled the city. Industry’s long residency has created a landscape of great beauty: staccato smokestacks interrupt squared warehouses, geodesic domes cut the sky, the floodwalls flow down the shores.

Although society has at times dismissed floodwalls as necessary, ugly things, people understand the innate power of a wall. Walls barricade and insulate. They interrupt, and by their nature, direct motion. Walls are pure façade, forgoing great depth for great expanse. This last quality, the façade, has made the Riverfront floodwall sacred to many.

From the Gateway Arch, the Riverfront floodwall winds southward in a four-mile mural of graffiti. The wall functions as a message board, studio, and meeting ground for hundreds of graffiti artist. International artists pilgrimage to this wall. The floodwall is a brief ribbon of color to commuters as they cross the river between Missouri and Illinois. To those who know it however, the Riverfront floodwall is a sacred space.

The floodwall butts against the south face of the Gateway Arch Riverfront Park, an area subject to recent development interest. The city of St. Louis aims to redesign the park to stress community interaction through mixed-use performance and green space. The city holds precious few collections of emerging artwork by young artists, and the floodwall survives as the area’s preeminent example. The redesigning of the Riverfront Park offers the opportunity to graft the floodwall with its adjacent community.

An architectural intervention at this point could leach away the sacrosanct quality of the floodwall from those who use and respect it. Visitors will naturally flow southward and pool in this sacred space. In order for the space to maintain its identity, the community must respect the commensal relationship between graffiti culture, industry and the floodwall. The park and floodwall attract very different citizens of St. Louis, and these spaces intertwine as cultural landmarks. Yet to institutionalize the floodwall would sap its life.

My essay will explore the balance between an articulated sacred space and its surroundings. It will ask how we might design with a fringe group, one that readily defends its sacred space. For this, it is necessary to examine the developing relationship between the fringe graffiti culture and their community. Most cities deem graffiti as vandalism, and at times rightfully so. Yet vandalism is an effect, not a cause, of larger problems in a city. Ostracizing the graffiti artists only weakens the city, and it destroys communication between the fringe group and the city body. This directly leads to fringe groups establishing exclusive sacred spaces. I will address how design might respect the needs of a small, stigmatized clan and those of the city culture. Perhaps we might more humbly approach a foreign sacred space, such as the floodwall, and seek to first serve the groups who define that environment.

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