The City Museum of St. Louis is an evolving, functional sculpture that serves as a whimsical playground... a stunning mix of metal, concrete, wood, plaster, glass, and mosaic forms. There are pinch points, head obstructions, and knee busters. Perhaps most amazing is how this museum serves thousands of people in the face of building codes, ADA regs, and bodily injury hazards. There must be a story behind this...
Reflections on City Museum (St. Louis, MO)
The City Museum may be one of the most dazzling examples of functional, industrial art. It is a place where a sculptural artist's dream is converted into reality. It forces engineers into immediate inquiry. Kids are enticed to explore, parents deal with awe and caution. Words or pictures alone cannot describe the scale, the workmanship, and total disregard for convention. City Museum entertains by the thousands and the word is spreading making St. Louis a newfound destination in the Midwest.
It is rare to find work of this kind in the United States or anywhere else. The workmanship exudes raw creativity, careful consideration of space and people, and timeless execution. In the process, it stretches every boundary of conventional thinking. One would assume that this work would be illegal in the face of myriads of codes, ordinances, and regulations. It begs the question, how does a work such as the City Museum become reality?
Nestled in the back streets of inner-city St. Louis, a suspended plane can be seen rising high above the rooftops of aged brick, stone, and terra-cotta buildings. This is your first indication that something interesting may lie beyond the comfort of your street view and serves as an invitation to inquire further. Once you walk around the alley corner, you are greeted by serpent gates of concrete and iron work. Getting closer, you hear the sounds of childish glee and the voices of over-cautious parents. The smells of s'mores, iron, and city blend to please the olfactory senses. After a modest admission price... the kids go wild, parents sweat as their children are drawn into the wonderland. Some parents even rediscover their inner-child to take part in the adventure.
It isn’t until several hours later, while playing in the immediate field of view upon entry, that you realize there is more to this place than just the twisted outdoor sculpture tunnels, whimsical vehicles in the air, fire pits, ball pits, and slick slides and ladders. Moving into the interior, you are introduced to hungry whales, live aquariums, cold caves, and a 10-story organ playing among the clanking footsteps destined for the interior slides and rooftop playground.
Somehow, some way this was created. Forms of metal, concrete, glass, wood, and plaster. There are tunnels designed only for the smallest tike, impassable by inflexible adults. Certain accommodations are made, like knee pads, but it seems most parents let their inner child go, perhaps a freedom many have never felt before except when they were children themselves, free of overbearing, excessively fearing adults. But tripping hazards, blunt points, and hard edges are plentiful.
Where were the inspectors? Code enforcers? The bureaus and agencies taking credit for the massive attraction? Did they build this under the cover of night? Who was paid-off? How did the platoon of artists move in and out of this industrial work space? Where were the lawyers ready to take suit on the next cut or bruise? Surely federal protectors of employees and artists would shut-this place down. Surely the local code enforcers would cry foul over parking, handrails, head hazards, and sprinkler requirements. Surely personal injury lawyers are lined up like an airport taxi queue.
St. Louis native, Bob Cassilly, is the creative genius behind the work apparently driven by nothing more than to create a unique learning environment for his kids. Perhaps only Antoni Gaudi has created anything of this scale and wonderment best exemplified in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. City Museum represents over 15 years of design and expression from Cassilly and a motivated creative team in the former International Shoe Company factory.
According to a staffer, Cassilly had to stop work in the inside because it didn't meet the building codes. He resumed work outside where the codes didn't apply and MonstroCity was created. Eventually work was taken up in the inside to finish the 1st Floor, 2nd Floor, and Enchanted caves. Only a few years later, the rooftop playground is open for enjoyment. Eventually, the powers that permit gave into the notion that this was a special place, perhaps deserving of exception treatment. There are stories of the inspectors 'looking the other way'. At one point, the City even took ownership only to sell it back. No doubt, there are stories within the stories. It is doubtful that certified, architectural drawings were submitted to the Department of Permission. Certainly no Occupational Health and Safety Agency personnel were invited into the worker’s space. The Minister of Playgrounds and Adventure Parks must have turned a blind eye on opening day as well. But you can be assured that Cassilly (or the artist's themselves) made for safe working spaces (many artists had a long working history with Cassilly). He designed with users in mind (Cassilly obviously wouldn't design a structure that was deemed too unsafe to visit). He did it not out of altruism, but for profit (Cassilly was a 48% investor, this is a business designed to make money!). Cassilly had to provide the right experience where people would engage in a voluntary transaction, accepting the risks of association, all while providing appropriate return on investment (personal and financial) to himself and his backers.
Today, the City Museum has lore status, an example where creativity trumps regulation - on a major city scale. I believe it was successful because St. Louis needed resurrection and it could only be found in the private minds and ingenuity of people like Cassilly. Today, the area is as vibrant as any other resurgent city in the USA. But it also begs a question... if St. Louis was on better footing 15 years ago, would it allow this unconventional masterpiece to come to the same fruition? Cassilly recently met his unfortunate death working on a new outdoor masterpiece outside of St. Louis. If we could only imagine this next masterpiece in its final form, we would be in for another treat.
This isn't a writing to deplore all rules and regulations. It is a call for diligence; we need to reflect on the societal costs of creeping codes and ordinances that are so prevalent in our world today. Every regulation bears economic, social, and personal cost. While they are perceived to benefit the greater good, we can't ignore that they come at great expense to creativity, entrepreneurship and pursuits of happiness.