September 02, 2015

By David McGuire, AIA
William Bernoudy Vice President, Architecture and Planning

Last week's response to the entry markers or portals planned for the entrance areas of Forest Park was very benign compared to the response to the elaborately designed ceremonial gates proposed 14 years ago. That organic weaving of metal vines and branches by the late internationally known architect Lawrence Halprin was soundly rejected—as public art can be. Whether you were a fan of the proposed art or not, Halprin's "Gates of Eden" had the sort of scale and connection to nature that our great park deserved.

However, at its best, public art can become part of our shared history and evolving culture—a touchstone to our collective memory. Certainly that is true at the Saint Louis Zoo. This home to 18,000 animals and 600 species is also chock full of sculpture. Of course, much of it reflects our "animals always" focus: a young elephant with its head upraised is actually the spot where millions of our region's residents and tourists have had their photos taken. It is a very authentic bronze depiction of a five-year-old male elephant. Even more beloved is the sculpture of the late and much loved Phil the Gorilla—another popular spot for everything from family photos to selfies. Both sculptures were created by British artist William Timym.

Less representational but a favorite among young visitors is Bill Secunda's beetle standing before the Monsanto Insectarium. Young children crawl all over that abstract beetle. The late Bob Cassilly, not known for his conventional approach to the world, created magnificent sculptures for the Zoo over more than a decade. The manta ray, giant squid and great white shark in the Zoo's Living World rotunda and an enormous hippopotamus in the Emerson Children's Zoo represent his early, realistic animal representations. Later, the wonderful, gracefully elongated sea lions in the south entrance plaza show a more abstract side to his art that seems the concrete animals come to life.

"Daga Boys" on Historic Hill is a 1999 sculpture of water buffalo by T.D. Kelsey ("daga" is an African word for "mud"). And in the Bird Garden, visitors can find a 1930s-era Zuni bird charmer by Walter Hancock.

However, the largest and most imposing sculpture in the Zoo's collection is Animals Always. If you enter Forest Park from Hampton Avenue, you can't miss it. It's 130 feet long, 36 feet tall and weighs 100 tons—all Cor-Ten or weathering steel. The steel is formulated to oxidize a thin, almost chocolate brown coating that stabilizes over time, protecting the steel beneath better than painted steel. The massive piece came to town on 15 flat bed trucks.

The largest sculpture at any public zoo in the United States, Animals Always features over 60 animals peeking out from behind sculpted trees, ferns and other plant life. The sculptor, Albert Paley, conceived the idea of this steel menagerie more than two years before he met St. Louisan Thelma Zalk, who with the Shankman family made this piece of public art possible. Paley worked closely with Zoo staff to represent animals that are featured at the Saint Louis Zoo. Many of the animals, fish and plant life depicted are also endangered, so this piece helps inspire future generations to protect our natural world.

Over the years, its iconic stature has grown; later this month, two new sculptural signs will grace the corners of the Zoo's Expansion Site—the former Forest Park Hospital across Highway 40 from the Zoo's campus. My design for these sculptural signs will pay homage to the Animals Always sculpture and theme in their use of Zoo animals (Grevy's zebra and ring-tailed lemur) and the same weathered steel.

When it was first installed, we had a few people complain about this amazing piece of work—saying it looked too rusty. One child even wanted to come paint it. Often people say that St. Louisans are overly suspicious of any art that challenges the norm. I would disagree. Look at the love for City Garden where a large sculptured head allows visitors to walk inside and view the city from within it. Brown Shoe Company’s whimsical giant shoe was well-liked as is the giant plug in front of the Saint Louis Art Museum. True, there was an uproar about Richard Serra’s downtown sculpture of eight steel slabs but slowly that piece has won some acceptance.

Public art everywhere can prompt extreme reactions. In New York City, Serra’s Tiled Arc was removed from the federal building because so many building workers complained about it. When the untitled sculpture by Pablo Picasso in Daley Plaza in The Loop was first unveiled in 1967, Chicagoans hated it. Mayor Richard Daley was encouraged to remove it, but Daley said at its unveiling: “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” Today, everyone in Chicago celebrates this sculpture, which can be seen in several movies: Blues Brothers, The Fugitive and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Good art improves any site by engaging us. It makes us pay attention to our environment. It can encourage us to question what’s around us. It gives us a rich connection to our history, the natural world and our community. Art can celebrate the qualities that make a place special. It can challenge, delight, educate and illuminate. Public art is part of our shared existence and our evolving culture. And, like admission to your Zoo, it is free to all.