Structural Conditioning or “Meet Me in St. Louis”

Despite a climate of continuing mask confusion and deviantly “variant” COVID-19 strains: “It’s Tourist Season Again in the United States of America!”  Now, if you’re traveling across the USA this Summer, you may encounter a startling sight known as the St Louis “Gateway” Arch as you navigate which Interstate Highway will best deliver you to your preferred destination in this Continental Empire.  The Arch, however, is pretty far from a navigational device; it’s really a free-standing sculpture that defies all of the prairie-woodlandscapes that you’ve just driven through.  To local boosters, St Louis and its Arch are known as “The Gateway to the West”; but, if you follow the sightline from Kansas City, like KC culture writer Calvin Trillin, then this Mississippi river town morphs into “The Exit from the East.”

East or West, this rather conspicuous Jefferson Expansion Memorial structure, the Arch, was erected in the middle 1960s from a monumental idea sprung during the middle 1930s to aesthetically revitalize the blighted banks of an overmidland city astride the mighty Mississippi River, sometimes conceived of as the “New World Nile” of North America (e.g., the names of cities like Cairo and Memphis south of St Louis).  And there it stands, over one-half century later:  so much stainless and carbon steel, curved and soaring, catenary, this Gateway Arch, its core and foundation concrete.  Besides representing a most emphatic incarnation of 20th century building materials, the Arch also embodies a decisively fascist quality:  this stainless steel monolith piercing the river face of St Louis that not only unifies, but totally dominates, the space and perspective around it.

Neither quaint, cozy, nor cuddly, this Sky-thrusting Arch literally overarches its riverine urban environment and, like any good fascist sculpture worth its oversize:  Commands attention!  And — I like it!  Who doesn’t?  Compared to the sepia-toned jumble of industrial mish-mash that otherwise characterizes the St Louis riverfront, the Arch superimposes a certain surreal allure that absolutely epitomizes the epithet “neo-futurist.”  Technically, if we follow the sightline from Wikipedia, then the Arch is a form of “structural expressionism,” which the entry goes on to note is more typical of the 1970s.  Either way, the Arch is a forward-looking structure, as well as a monument to the conquest of the American West.

At first glance, the association of this massive catenary monolith to fascism, whether aesthetic or political, might sound outlandish; however, there is historical precedence for advancing this claim.  Eero Saarinen, the Arch’s Finnish-American architect, for example, explicitly rejected any interpretation of his design as “fascist.” The “fascist view” of the Arch was perhaps first forwarded by Gilmore D. Clarke, a New York engineer and landscape architect in 1948, the very month and year that Saarinen’s Arch proposal won a unanimous thumbs-up from the Jefferson Expansion Memorial committee.  An “Arch was born!”  Meanwhile…

The committee itself, composed primarily of local architects, also maintained that the “Arch form is not inherently fascist,” which was a civic-good thing to say at the time, since the forces of conventional fascism had only quite recently been “defeated,” at considerable cost in U.$ lives, propaganda, and treasure; after all, “We didn’t whip’em in the field only to have them take first prize in our mid-continental art competitions — No Way!”

Nevertheless, all civic-nationalist-minded boostering aside, as a historical symbol, the fascist case for the Arch is easy enough to make.  Although void of any overt political content as a purely aesthetic object, the Arch’s cultural context as a Westward Expansion Monument certifies its political significance and triumphal essence.

To be sure, no one has ever mistaken the Arch for a wigwam or teepee, and for good reason.  The defeat and subsequent subjugation of indigenous North American people in the concentration camp foreshadowing Reservation System is inscribed in each and every heavy metal rivet that helps bear the Gateway Arch aloftwaffe (The recent Israeli aggressions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza apply as contemporary analogues to this situation, historically sprechen…).  The term “Expansion” here functions as  an obvious euphemism for “domination,” Manifest Destiny, and lebensraum or “living space,” in Mein Kampf-speak, to re-appropriate one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite pet concept-phrases.  So, “We the People” expanded West after the Jefferson Louisiana Purchase (1803), and aggressively expropriated the lands of Native Americans already occupying them.  The Arch unavoidably consecrates this militaristic conquest of the West, into which the Euro-American invaders expanded — like a gas..

Thus the Arch appears, in its Westward Expansionist context, in all of its triumphal glory, as a symbolically fascist hood ornament to our alien domination of the Northern American land mass and its pre-existing inhabitants.  This inherently fascist quality of the Arch becomes doubly ironic when seen in the klieg-light of our totalitarian victory over the most traditionally known forms of modern historical Fascism–“You know, the European ones!” — during the 1940s.  Herein lies the real twist of steel in the “fascist view” of the Gateway Arch.

To re-iterate:  Eero Saarinen, the Arch architect, flatly denied any “fascist” connotation in his award-winning design.  He maintained that the arch form is perfectly natural, or, put another way:  pre-ideological.  He was, and is, technically correct.  Even the swastika turned 45 degrees, for example, is only “fascist” by historical association, defined by the use the Nazis made of this ancient symbol.

We moderns (or latter-day Lilliputians…) are structurally conditioned to see things ideologically:  thus the “swastika” as German Fascist, bad; and so the Arch, White American expansionist, good.  In the same sightline, we are conditioned to view our own militarism through the prismatic lens of “Freedom,” substituting odorless terms like “expansion” for aggression and domination.  In the Nazi case, or the traditional, historical form of fascism, we see pure brutal force in an unqualified sense, absolutely.  On the one hand, the “freedom-loving” mask of “expansion”; on the other, the fascist face behind the mask.

On a less loft-wafting note, leaving various nightmares of History to the side for a moment, I found myself on the Laclede’s Landing Metrolink light-rail station platform the other day, contemplating Saarinen’s Arch in profile through the masonry arches of the Eads Bridge, that other architectural marvel of the St Louis riverfront, completed almost one century (1874) before the Arch.  The view seemed almost painted, the Sky an azure shade of linoleum blue with a wispy scree of clouds, the Arch itself an apotheosis of steel, as if an alien civilization had left it there to bedazzle the New Natives of this overmidland city river town  As views of the Gateway Arch go, whatever fascist elements it may or may not reflect, I totally recommend it.

Further Note

As the gods of Synchronicity would have it, I was considering re-purposing the above essay, written and spoken aloud 7 years ago at a local coffee shop Open Mic forum, a few weeks back when someone suggested, entirely “out of the blue,” that the Arch was designed as a “weather modification device.”  I’ve lived most of my 53 years in and around St Louis, and had never encountered this idea, which nevertheless seemed somewhat plausible on its face, given the freaky-deaky nature of this steely curved behemoth structure.  Conducting a cursory research, I found little to support this speculation beyond a colleague of Saarinen’s who broke his “vow of silence” to say in effect that, yes, “weather modification” was, in fact, a thought in Saarinen’s thinking about the design.  Interestingly enough, perhaps, in this connection, Saarinen worked for the Office of Strategic Services (immediate precursor to the Christian — I mean, “Central” — Intelligence Agency we unfortunately still don’t know enough about today…) during WW2.

Saarinen,himself, was a bit of a titan in the architectural and design world of the middle 20th century.  He appeared on the cover of Time magazine, for example, in 1956, and his line of designer chairs and tables were “Space Age”-prolific enough to be featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 retro-visionary masterpiece 2001: a Space Odyssey, the opening scenes of which, quite coincidentally, I very recently revisited (a tale of two Monoliths, perhaps?).  An amusing side-note to the “Story of the Arch”:  Initially, Eero Saarinen’s father, also an architect who had entered a design in the Jefferson Expansion Memorial competition, thought that he had “won,” but because his Finnish name also begins with an “E,” and the local-yokel St Louis committee couldn’t come up with the ink to spell out the “winner’s” full first name in the letter, Daddy Saarinen was none the wiser for 3 days until the mis-identification got solved (It appears that the local-yokel Committee sent the notification of “win-ification” to the wrong Saarinen, or: “Welcome to St Louis!”).

However all that may be, St Louis maintains a long and low profile in the National Security State business.  One need look no further than the Defense Mapping Agency (or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency –“NGA” — as it’s been re-branded), which pin-points “targets” in the “War on Terror” all across the Globe, including during the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Currently, its south city campus is being re-located a bit north, to the tune of almost $2 billion.  As the agency’s press release puts it, ironically — or iconically — enough:  “The Gateway Arch will be visible from our future north St Louis campus, too.  It will continue to project that bold spirit of Lewis and Clark.  Just as their journey started from here to map our nation’s future, NGA is charting the future of our Agency in St Louis.”  Quite often, St Louis checks in as the “Murder Capital of the USA,” and, given the NGA’s prominent role in our multiple undeclared wars abroad, it appears that we can add many more murders to the “local” list…

The current NGA location, in south St Louis –“with, of course, an excellent view of the Arch!”– has deep roots in America’s storied, but often falsified, militaristical past, extending all the way back to 1827, when an “arsenal” was established on the site of the current campus of the NGA.  This “Arsenal” provided munitions for both the manifestly expansionist “Mexican-American War” of 1845-6, as well as the “Civil War” of the crazy “New Continental” Americans during the early 1860s.

Fast forward a bit, and the “Military Industrial Complex” association with St Louis, Missouri, becomes abundantly clear.  The atomic bomb fires that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, actually began here; and, furthermore, are still burning, as “sub-surface smoldering events,” a few miles Northwest of where I am writing.  Kind of crazy, 80 years later, but this is an EPA-certified fact. Technically, this location “closed to the Public” is known as the West Lake “land-fill,” and contains the waste matter of a substance known as barium sulfate, which was used to refine uranium mined from the Belgian Congo, in Africa, into bomb-grade material.  In 1942, the “spooks” of the ultra-secretive “Manhattan Project” approached the St Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Works company, which began as a pharmaceutical manufacturer in the very late 19th century, with a “problem to be solved.”  Mallinckrodt “solved” the “problem,” and a Nuclear Bomb was born…

Not to be too much of a “civic booster” here, but:  Before the University of Chicago, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or even Los Alamos, New Mexico, St Louis was the crazy origin point of the “Bomb” we all presumably still fear today, as indisputably demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.  For a better telling of the St Louis history in Nuclear Weapons production, I refer the reader to Alison Carrick and local journalist C.D. Stelzer’s 2015 documentary The First Secret City; they tell the tale in far more trenchant detail than I do here.

So, if you happen to be passing through St Louis this apparently possibly “safe” traveling season, and you look out and see this totally amazing structure, the Arch, and wonder — if only for a moment –“What in The Wizard of Oz is that?”, know that its steely silence speaks volumes for a murderous-to-genocidal Past; but also know that the Future the Arch incarnates, perhaps, has not yet been written

Todd Smith lives, writes, and observes the Brave New World Order in St. Louis. He can be reached at Read other articles by Todd.