A Landscape of Possibility

476 The rambling remains and mounds of dirt at St. Louis’ Cementland. CLUI photoCEMENTLAND IS THE MOST REMARKABLE place in the whole of St. Louis, for what it is, and what it may become. It is a former cement plant which is being transformed into a postindustrial landscape of exploration, fear, mystery, experimentation, and fantasy. Located on the northern edge of the city line, near the river, Cementland has several large concrete silo towers and huge shed structures that were left to decay by the cement company that once operated there. The site was purchased several years ago by Bob Cassily, the visionary madman behind the hugely successful and boundary-busting City Museum, in downtown St. Louis. If his museum is any indication of what is to come at Cementland, then watch out, America.

477 The City Museum is in an old shoe factory, now filled and adorned with artifacts from the region, creatively fused, metamorphosed, and arranged. CLUI photoThe City Museum, opened to the public in 1997, contains a network of hand crafted spaces that wrap through, over and into three floors of the ten-story former shoe factory like a three-dimensional random labyrinth. Around each corner is who knows what. At times integrating elements of the factory (like the spiral shoe slide that runs through it) into the spaces, at other times boring holes through it, or slicing rooms into smaller and smaller spaces, it is an architect-less architecture of accretion, excavation, and evolution. Each environment is an expository riff on form and materials, materials that were found and repurposed, clustered and flayed, from industrial remnants, to parts of other buildings, to fully formed period environments. Tight spaces shaped like dinosaur guts, galleries of gargoyles, aquariums, monstrous mosaics, plazas, stalagmites, chutes, slides, caves, chambers, mezzanines. Outside, visitors can walk through an assemblage of elevated gangways, aircraft fuselage, spiral staircases and a stone belltower. Above it all, a cantilievered schoolbus dangles off the edge of the roof of the building, like a diving board. It’s a building made of buildings and remains, a museum of parts, from everyday life, and from the city itself (including some landmarks even), integrated into chaotic collisions, bordering on sublime order, bound by the matrix and vision of its creator, Bob Cassily.

478 Bob Cassily explains the latest vision for Cementland, as depicted by a small scale model, from atop a five story mound of imported dirt. CLUI photoAt Cementland, Cassily is taking these notions out on a densely developed and decayed 56 acre industrial site. For six years, Cassily says, he has been dumping 100 loads of dirt a day, building up earthen ramps that lead to the tops of the silos, half burying some of them in the process. Between structures, he plans on making a suspension bridge composed of old city buses, hooked together. Then there is the flood: he plans on creating wetlands and lakes that flow in and out of the basements of the hulking structures. Or maybe canals that loop through the property. Inside another space, a gallery of working, dying machines, like industrial dinosaurs. The 250 foot tall silo could have a spiral staircase on the outside leading to the top where visitors drop objects onto targets in the pool at the bottom. People could crawl through the tunnels, through the dirt and the ruins. Places where it is pitch black and uncertain. Once completed, or close enough, this industrial playground would be completely open to the public, with an admission charge to support it.

The building of it, though, he is paying for himself, without the help of banks or investors. Cassily, who is in his 50s and is a long time St. Louis resident, has bought and sold real estate at the right times and places in the city over the years, and is now selling condos on the upper floors of the City Museum to raise money for Cementland. Though working without any permits (the city actually issued a stop work order on his dirt dumping six years ago, though it has continued unabated for as many years), Cassily continues his outlaw tactics, but has upped the ante, and is now, ironically, backed by the political capital that the once outlaw City Museum brings (it is a major attraction in the city, with around half a million visitors a year). So it is quite likely that this, or some version of Cementland, will occur, at some point. Or maybe it already has. Cementland is already a landscape of optimism, renegade energy, and that most precious of all realms: possibility.

Cementland is surrounded by a berm, so you can’t see much from the outside, and it is not open to the public. While Cassily would be reluctant to invite the world to come visit the construction site, he would also be the last person to stop you from trying. www.cementland.com