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And Now, Gategate

An uneducated vote against grand entrances for Forest Park


Ever since that D-plus in seventh-grade art class, it has been my policy to pipe down in regard to matters of taste and aesthetics.

It might be argued that my remarkable gift for abstract impressionism was simply too rich and complex for a public-school teacher to comprehend, especially during my early tic-tac-toe period, in which I was influenced by such artists as Neuman (Alfred E.) and Howard (Curly).

It also might be argued that I am to artistic taste what Gary Condit is to spin.

But the burning issue du jour in St. Louis concerns public art, specifically whether to cap off Forest Park's stunning rebirth by adorning it with six $1 million entrance gates designed by internationally renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. With Gateway Arch designer Eero Saarinen doing backflips in his grave, the likes of me have been summoned to weigh in with our reactions to Halprin's proposed designs.

This is asking for trouble.

We the architecturally challenged are shown renditions of Halprin's designs that -- to be genteel -- appear to trend somewhat more toward the twisted-metal-indecipherable-space-creature genre than one might initially expect for a urban Midwestern park. Computer renditions on display at the Missouri History Museum perhaps do them more justice than photos such as the one on this page, but suffice it to say the designs are a little jarring to the untrained eye.

Unfairly, this pits the unwashed masses against Halprin, a man -- heretofore unknown to us yokels -- who happens to have enjoyed a legendary career spanning nearly six decades (he was born in 1916) that includes such credits as having designed the FDR Memorial in Washington D.C., Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. The implication-in-waiting: If you don't appreciate the designs of a genius, perhaps you might wipe off your shoes before entering the gates.

Then there's the matter of cost. Most of us have never priced park-entrance gates -- indeed, some haven't even contemplated the need for gates to a park that never opens or closes -- and thus the $1 million-per-gate tab creates a little sticker shock.

The other side of this gold-plated coin, of course, is that Forest Park Forever has done a remarkable job of raising funds to save the park -- more than $90 million in private and public funding and counting -- and if private money pays for the gates, it's not a burning taxpayer issue. Ask anyone in town who knows Halprin as "Larry," and they'll tell you: $1 million per gate is a steal.

The whole setup makes one wish they hadn't asked for "public input." But they did, and the next thing you know, everyone's got an opinion, the Post's "Letters" section is a war zone and we're all starting to sound too much like art hoosiers.

To make matters worse, even provocateur Martin Duggan felt compelled to ask the KETC-TV Donnybrook panel what we (of all people) thought about the gates. It was only a matter of time before we would be taken to the woodshed by the arts community.

In a Post op-ed piece last Thursday titled "Slow Out of the Gate," D.B. Dowd, head of visual communications at Washington University's School of Art, called us out: "The panelists ... labored to outdo each other in their outrage over the design presentation.... This spasm of disapproval is a classic case of popular upset in the face of public design."

Well put. But my favorite part was the one starring me, the art-class reject, in his first art-related role: "If the panelists leapt to the task of denouncing these bronze blights, what really got them going was the fact that Halprin had the temerity to make money on the project. Ray Hartmann, especially, got himself into a lather over the misspent public lucre (privately raised though it be) and proclaimed that he, certainly, could make a gate for less than a million -- a MILLION dollars."

That's me in an art-related commentary. Cool.

Actually, I don't remember saying I could make a gate -- I thought I just muttered something about wanting the mile markers improved for us joggers -- and I definitely didn't mean to imply any temerity on Halprin's part. For all I know, Halprin gates are a bargain at twice the price, and they're definitely not sold in stores.

But I still can't imagine us paying $6 million for gates to Forest Park.

As for lathering, well, ours is a genre of television artistry known as "food-fight journalism." Lathering generally works better than reasoning, especially when one stands on intellectually shaky ground.

To Dowd, Halprin's designs "represent an intelligent, at times compelling, Art Nouveau-inspired solution to the problem of a park entrance." As to skepticism about the gates, he likened it to -- no kidding -- the Eiffel Tower: "Parisians gave Gustav Eiffel's eyesore a hard time, too."

Now, I'll admit, I didn't even know park entrance was a problem. But if these gates turn out to be little Eiffel Towers, I'm dumber than I thought.

I hope I don't get asked about this anymore.