Lack of accessibility and awareness have historically been major issues in attracting visitors to the museum. The museum sits at the base of Eero Saarinen’s soaring gateway to the American west, which was originally envisioned as both a tribute to westward expansion and as a way to clear low-income waterfront property. Gullivar Shepard, Principal of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), which has been handling the redesign of the landscape beneath the arch since 2010, said: “Eighty percent of visitors don’t even know there’s a museum underneath the arch.”
That’s changed radically since the CityArchRiver Foundation (now the Gateway Arch Park Foundation) kicked off a competition in 2010 to re-envision the campus while respecting Saarinen’s and the original landscape architect Dan Kiley’s vision for the 91-acre park. The completed museum now takes center stage beneath the arch and acts as a link between the Old Courthouse and the recently covered Interstate 44 to the west, and the Mississippi River to the east.
The Museum at the Gateway Arch uses its sunken, circular form to carve out wide views of the St. Louis skyline without impacting sightlines towards the Arch. That was a deliberate choice on the behalf of New York’s Cooper Robertson and James Carpenter Design Associates (JCDA), who, with the St. Louis-based Trivers Associates, renovated and uncovered the existing Saarinen-designed museum.
“The new West Entry and Museum expansion [are] discretely incised into the landscape,” said James Carpenter, Founder and Principal of JCDA. “This welcoming gesture is announced by an arc of glass laid flat on the ground, reflecting the image of the sky above, while the Arch itself scribes an arc against the sky beyond.”
The ribbed glass canopy above the museum’s entrance serves to reduce the outside natural light and ease visitors into the subterranean museum, which has been programmatically transformed. The museum, formerly the Museum of Westward Expansion, will now focus more on the design and construction of the Gateway Arch itself and present more diverse narratives in American history.
Inside, the museum’s layout follows the natural contours of the surrounding landscape. The lighting has been designed to keep a consistent level of brightness as visitors move from the glass entrance to the underground galleries. The wraparound paths have been laid out to funnel traffic to the west-facing entry, as visitors coming from either side converge at the entrance and are presented with framed views of the Arch and courthouse.
A time-lapse video of the museum’s construction, courtesy of EarthCam.