[This article was originally published by Entropy on 14 March 2018]
Ascending to a height of 630-feet, the iconic Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis towers above the western bank of the Mississippi River. From a half-mile away, visitors stand on the front steps of the Old Courthouse and view the full profile. In order to see the structure in its entirety, a distance of this approximate length is necessary. Designed by Eero Saarinenin 1947 and built between 1961 and 1967, the stainless steel structure is the tallest arch in the world and the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere.
Of course, it’s not until one walks to the base of the monument and looks upward that the enormity of the arch becomes evident. The curved, silver surface vaults into the heavens—backed by white cloud tufts and blue Midwestern sky—rendering miniscule the spectators below. The Gateway Arch’s massive size acts as a provocation for visitors to consider larger, conceptual issues surrounding its origins, creation, and purpose. For instance, how does the monument function as an emblematic pivot between the East and the West? How does the structure embody the spirit of westward expansion? And what are the contemporary implications of a monument dedicated to Manifest Destiny when contextualized within the framework of American imperialism, the genocide of indigenous populations, and the destruction of our nation’s natural resources for the sake of “advancement”? Indeed, the magnitude of the arch necessitates these lines of inquiry, as well as others.
In his essay “Notes on Sculpture II,” Robert Morris (the Missouri-born, Minimalist artist) forwards a similar argument: “The quality of intimacy is attached to an object in a fairly direct proportion as its size diminishes in relation to oneself. The quality of publicness is attached in proportion as the size increases in relation to oneself.” The artist expands upon the effect of size when he writes: “it is necessary…to keep one’s distance from large objects in order to take the whole of any one view into one’s field of vision…It is this necessary greater distance of the object in space from our bodies, in order that it be seen at all, that structures the non-personal or public mode.”
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