Bob Cassilly’s City Museum at St. Louis is Alice-in-Wonderland, down-the- rabbit-hole surreal, going against the logical patterns and enforced pauses that define the ordered grid of a city
The 10-storey slide, City Museum, St. Louis
Enchanted Caves, City Museum, St. Louis
The sound of children playing is the first thing you hear as you approach the gates, painting the air with the joy of play. But it’s misleading: The grown-ups who belong to them (and the ones who don’t) are at play, too. They traverse cage-like ladders to get to airplanes atop metal structures and meander across walkways and ramps built four stories in the air.
This is City Museum in down- town St. Louis, where anarchy is – sometimes quite literally – in the air.
Here, the rules that govern the city and its inhabitants are stripped away. The layout and structure itself is as if Dalí and Gaudí dropped acid in a salvage yard and miraculously managed to create a structure. There is only one directional sign at the front entrance, and the staffers at the ticket counter will tell you quite firmly that there are no maps.
On my first trip to City Museum as an adult, my explorations were emboldened by a friend who came with me. After sliding down a very steep, very short slide in the floor, we navigated through a landscape of interconnected caves, sometimes –somehow – doubling back on ourselves to retrace our path. We tried again and again and again to deliber- ately choose different routes and lose ourselves, only to wind up in familiar territory.
The structures in the museum ‘move around, dive into each other, appear and disappear and reappear. Having things play against each other was very important [for founder Bob Cassilly] –having it be as if there were no one thing in control, but multiple principles competing against each other in almost a survival of the fittest,’ said a former manager, Matt Philpott in a 7,600-word, posthumous profile in St. Louis Magazine of what is essentially Cassilly’s brain.
The profile continues to say this: ‘Bob liked things alive, organic, breathing, changing. He hated squares because they were too stable; he wanted the energy of curves, no dead ends or hard corners.’
The entire museum goes against the ordered grid of the city, its traffic lights and four-way stops and neat parking spaces that order and control movement into logical patterns and enforced pauses. It is Alice-in-Wonderland, down-the-rabbit-hole surreal with spiral staircases suddenly appearing in the floor, only to lead to a tunnel through which you crawl on your hands and knees, and with slides rejecting their inherently frivolous nature to become instead a viable and logical means of transit.
The rebellion creates an energy that reawakens a certain spirit in you – one that dissuades you from following the route that takes you from A to B and encourages you instead to indulge in a ladder that catches your eye, or to choose to slide down instead of finishing a journey to the top. In these illogical, irrational meanderings, you wind up a fully willing participant in its surrealism.
I went to City Museum a second time for the purposes of this story. I was given a white wristband with red stars at the front desk once I explained why I was there. It indicated that I was there to look around – not to play, the staffer explained. There’s not much of a difference, to be honest: Resigned to the elevator on my way up to the fourth floor, on the way back down I spotted a spiral staircase. I was drawn to it like a magnet and promptly found myself in a tunnel, crawling along in thin leggings and anticipating the bruises on legs that are no longer 8 years old. ‘I’m researching,’ I told myself.
But the potential for play remains – and there is anarchy in that participation as well. In the city, adults are so often the bystanders to play. In this converted warehouse, many join the children among the ramps and bridges and slides in a total collapse of roles – and even if they don’t the endless configuration of routes and means of manoeuvre (read: escape) allow children to rebel against the supervisory gaze of their parents.
This, too, was part of Cassilly’s plan. Although, one of the enforced rules at City Museum is that minors have to be accompanied by an adult at all times, ‘[Cassilly] used that rule as the tension for a lot of his art,’ according to the St. Louis Magazine profile. ‘Holes in the floor led to tunnels that came up out of sight of their entrances, separating adults and kids. Spans connected platforms that could be reached faster by crawling than by walking around. To keep up with their kids, adults had to join them or lose them. That only bothered the adults.’
In this collapse of roles and rationality, surrounded by salvage, I think of the name itself: City Museum, or a museum of the city. The museum reads dystopic to me now as I crawl across, ascend, climb and tread the remains of a city that once was. The ‘museum’ aspect is most literally executed through cases filled with the banal artefacts of past lives: pipe bowls, glass bottles, doll heads (caption: ‘Dolls had cloth bodies that did not survive being buried 100 years’). There is a room of dead insects, bodies pinned to boards.
On the third floor is Beatnik Bob’s, a simulacrum of a carnival midway from 1950s America. Here, in the dim passageway-like space, neon is menacing rather than enticing, the exuberant youth culture of the 1950s a dead dream preserved only in a museum. It seems to be a collection of exotic remains from a brighter, pre-apocalyptic time when the world was rational and ordered. Perhaps much too much so: ‘DARING to be MYSELF,’ one poster on the wall reads. ‘Do you sometimes feel pulled in two directions at once? When should I follow the crow? When should I follow my own thinking?’ Leaning against the wall below it is another print with the Orwellian words ‘Big Brother Is Watching You.’ In a Rust Belt landscape like St. Louis, where the city constantly feels torn between riot and revival, it isn’t so hard to give in to this feeling.
I’m sure I haven’t seen the entirety of City Museum. There is, simply, too much. I’ve read accounts of people staying for five hours and not seeing it all, families who come from out of town and barely leave for two days. But City Museum will always be there, and it will never be the same. A crew works to constantly evolve the space: On one floor (perhaps the fourth, though you can never be sure), a blocked-off area contained salvage material that announced further construction, and an interview request to the museum’s media contact resulted in a denial, citing preparation for the ‘big roof reveal’ and assuring me that it was going to be ‘spectacular this season.’
But the City Museum is already spectacular – beyond its attractions. Its allure is in the remove from the everyday; it flips the city where tension impedes movement on its head, celebrating a freedom of movement that often surren- ders reason to whim and impulse. It subverts the notions of order, of roles, of movement – and that is the true gem of it, the rabbit hole that, for the price of an admission, you can throw yourself down as you throw aside the world.
And, there is also a 10-storey slide.
Images courtesy of City Museum, St. Louis
Interior, City Museum, St. Louis