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Seventh Year Anniversary of Saint Louis Patina: Defining St. Louis Architecture

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What is St. Louis architecture? I have been pondering this in the months leading up to the seventh anniversary of this site. But first, a little reflection. Did I really think that this website would still be around in 2014. I don’t know if I even thought about it. This site largely started out as a humble homage to sites I had found while still living out in Washington, DC. I was back in December 2012; I was shocked to see how much it had changed, but it wasn’t change that I liked. The patina of the old city was being erased for expensive, but cheaply built “luxury condos,” whatever those are. Does anyone build “non-luxury condos?”

A city that gets too expensive drowns out creativity. Interestingly, despite having twice the population of St. Louis’s metropolitan area, Washington has no equivalent of Ecology of Absence, no B.E.L.T, no Built St. Louis, no Vanishing St. Louis, or St. Louis Patina. It almost seems like being a little downtrodden helps breed creativity. Creativity of course is the child of necessity; someone who has everything, including a newly built luxury condo doesn’t need to be creative. It’s certainly not to due to the lack of beautiful buildings in Washington—far from it.

But I digress. What is so great about St. Louis’s architecture, or any city’s architecture? I think it comes down to that adversity; the beautiful cities of the world were built out of necessity, and rarely out of luxury. I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively over the last twenty years, and the great cities I’ve seen have all developed their own personality—so much so that I can recognize these cities from just a generic photo of their streets. They are beautiful because they borrowed from their surrounding, whether it was dark gray limestone and granite in Edinburgh, tufa in Naples, travertine in Rome or red brick in St. Louis. As I always tell my students, most cities had to draw from local quarries and forests, and couldn’t head to Home Depot to buy granite countertops made to order.

Perhaps the easier way to define beautiful architecture is to define what is ugly. Ugly architecture uses cheap materials, saving on cost now at the detriment of quality and longevity later on. As I put it before, architecture has become as disposable as McDonald’s wrappers, and just as forgettable. But that doesn’t mean that architecture can’t be innovative; in fact, a lack of innovation, a dwelling on past styles is just as bad a failed new idea. Perhaps what is most lacking in today’s architecture is the lack of craftsmanship; there is nothing enjoyable about a poorly rendered, and cheaply made Corinthian column. Its beauty comes from the quality of its execution, not that it tries to look like something beautiful.

But finally, what is so beautiful about St. Louis architecture? Perhaps because it was so democratic for so long. Those long rows of stout, beautiful row houses everyone admires probably didn’t even have an architect. Only the most lavish and ambitious buildings in St. Louis did. Instead, there was ingrained in St. Louis builders and craftsmen a sense of beauty that didn’t require a college degree. Chances are your average house in St. Louis was built by highly skilled, but practically illiterate workers. But they understood what made a house beautiful, through the passing on of traditions and skills. I often times imagine that a master façade brick layer, the upper class of their trade, probably imagined the individual details of the house they were working on completely spontaneously. They possessed such a broad pallet of bricks of all different designs and patterns at the fingertips, and could choose according to their mood or the feel of the street upon which they were working.

Can you identify the following cities based off of their architecture?

Rome Trip 989

100_0066 Rome, Urbino, Milan 130 Washington, DC and Baltimore 540 Rome, Urbino, Milan 287 Washington, DC and Baltimore 078 Rome Trip 1683

England Scotland 120

Update: Correct answers, from top to bottom: Rome, London, Urbino, Baltimore, Milan, Washington, Naples. Edinburgh.

11 Comments

  1. Great essay, Chris! It deserves wider distribution.

  2. Congrats on the seventh year, Chris. Your work is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in St. Louis, urban America, or architecture in general–especially as so much of it here is disappearing right before our eyes. It’ll be a sad day when you decide to wrap it up… but here’s to many more posts before that happens.

  3. Congratulations on seven informative years Chris and thank you for sharing your great city with us today… and also with the historians of the future.

  4. Several of those look like Rome to me, but I’ll go with:
    Rome
    NYC
    A hill town in Italy
    D.C.
    Italy again, Milan?
    Baltimore
    Rome
    UK, so maybe London

    • OT a tad, jenn, but your last item, London, would seem to be spot on. Look at the centuries of coal grime built up on those structures!

  5. #1. Feels like Paris to me.
    #2. Is NYC.
    #3. Feels like Italy. I would say Rome, but am unsure about that. Florence, maybe?
    #4. Seems to be Philadelphia.
    #5. No idea. It feels European, for sure.
    #6. Chicago?
    #7. No idea, again.
    #8. London.

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