“Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design,” Jane Jacobs observes near the start of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her landmark 1961 meditation on urban mutability – an observation ably illustrated by an exhibition now at Washington University in St. Louis.
The university’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum opened that exhibition, “Transformative Visions: Washington University’s East End, Then and Now,” on Feb. 2. The exhibition will run until May 21.
As “Transformative Visions” establishes on an introductory plaque, in 1895, the university – a mere 42 years after its founding, as Eliot Seminary – hired the esteemed Massachusetts firm of Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot to study an undeveloped hilltop at St. Louis’ west edge and to present the first plan for what would become the university’s Danforth Campus.
During the next several decades, manifold other architectural firms and architects contributed to the campus’ development, among them Fumihiko Maki, then a young assistant professor of architecture at the university, now an éminence grise in his field. To accompany the exhibition, on April 11, Eric Mumford – Rebecca and John Voyles Professor of Architecture at the university’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and one of three co-curators of “Transformative Visions” – will lecture on the near-nonagenarian Maki, who served as architect not only on the Kemper but also on the university’s Steinberg Hall (Maki’s first commission) and Walker Hall.
“Transformative Visions” at times focuses on the very structure housing it. For roughly a century, the university’s impressive art collection remained on loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum, where it “was then named the Washington University Gallery of Art,” according to one plaque in the exhibition. Linked, in 2004, to the Sam Fox School, the collection was renamed the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and, on Oct. 25, 2006, opened in its current location.
The Kemper’s Garen Gallery – an oneiric space with creamy walls and a ceiling rising 30 or more feet – includes a number of exhibition curiosities, among them:
Two historic typescripts (one dating from 1899) relating to the topic and timeline of “Transformative Visions.”
An early-1900s salvaged wooden interior capital (structurally, the top of a column) the size of a compact refrigerator.
A 1934 bronze-and-marble plaque memorializing Gabriel Ferrand, the architectural professor who, in 1918, “developed the first dedicated east end plan,” according to a press release from the museum.
A 3-minute time-lapse video loop involving latter-day construction at the campus’ east edge – much of the north-to-south area from Forest Park Parkway to Forsyth Boulevard between Skinker Boulevard to the east and Brookings Hall to the west – with a trio of tower cranes seeming to mimic the herky-jerkiness of their avian pseudo-namesakes.
Otherwise, the gallery’s 21 light gray, glass-topped cases display building elevations, sections and plans of various sorts, scale dioramas, photographs and renderings. Amusingly, one of the renderings – showing Thomas and Jennifer Hillman Hall, done by Santa Monica, California’s Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners, with St. Louis’ own Mackey Mitchell Architects – exhibits such pleasing technique that it could be mistaken for a bona fide landscape in conté or colored pencil.
Along the south wall, however, dominating all else in the gallery is a quintet of aerial views of the campus, looming more than 7 feet off the floor, varying in width depending on the vantage and dating from the present, 2006, 1960, 1948 and 1927.
Leslie Markle – the Kemper’s curator for public art, who co-curated this exhibition with Mumford and James Kolker, university architect and associate vice chancellor – reflects briefly on what might constitute the big takeaway for those viewing the sights of “Transformative Visions,” which involved a yearlong collaborative planning process. “I hope that visitors come away from the exhibition with a deeper sense of the history of the campus as a place, as well as some understanding of the dynamic between campus planning, building design and construction,” he says.
When asked which component of the exhibition most impresses him personally, Markle mentions the first architects involved with the campus, in 1895, a firm whose lineage descended directly from the nation’s first landscape architecture business – which was founded by its principals’ father, Frederick Law Olmsted (also the father of American landscape architecture in many assessments).
“The original 19th-century site plan drawings from the Olmsted firm are very impressive, in part because of the reputation and historical significance of the firm,” Markle says, “but also because they show the importance of landscape architectural design to the initial campus planning process.”
Visitors to “Transformative Visions,” incidentally, may appreciate a small irony. The Kemper sits due south of the construction zone mentioned earlier – and the museum itself will close this summer for expansion and renovations, before reopening in the fall of 2019.
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, 314-935-4523, kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu