Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ten Changes for a Creative Highway Overpass

Highway engineers have a tough job to do as is, especially when traffic flow and geography don't mix well. Many of us have marveled as we visited bigger cities at the mix of concrete and spaghetti bowl that is used to channel traffic in, out, and through an urban area (if you don't know your cloverleaf from your "spooey," check out this "field guide" to the interstate). In Winston-Salem, Business 40 and US 52 frame our downtown in ways that are not as demanding on creative engineering necessities as in our most crowded cities, but they can give rise to other creative opportunities for highway designers over the next ten to twenty years. Are there ideas others have tried elsewhere that might help us as we creatively re-design our major roadways, to make them stand out in the driving experience of our guests and residents? What follows is my list of ten things you can do with a highway overpass - in addition to its traffic engineering necessities - to help it give our town a distinct sense of place. Please click on any one picture for a larger view.

Albuquerque, New Mexico uses two simple colors in its major overpasses, salmon pink and turquoise. The "Big I" interchange - where I-40 and I-25 meet - is pictured above. The colors become a branding of the area, as they mimic both earth and sky in the desert Southwest and are prominent in local Native American art. The colors are applied as paint in some locations and are integrated into the concrete of these overpasses. Color change does have some practical limits - as Albuquerque efforts to change street signage are showing. But color change can do more than just brand. Designers of the Lynn Cove Viaduct here in North Carolina used pigmented concrete with another goal in mind - to blend their highway bridge into the granite landscape in which it sits.

This Route 28 bridge over the Little Delaware in Bovina, NY was a Federal Highway Administration Excellence in Highway Design merit winner in 2002 because it used the same kind of stone in its construction as did a church next to the bridge. Rather than having the roadway intrude into the traditional architecture of the neighborhood, the designers sought to integrate it into the landscape with the use of textured stone.

In North Carolina, we are most familiar with this technique along our mountain parkways. In the picture here, an overpass on the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountain Parkway is built of the same stone as its surroundings and overgrown by plantings as if it were an outcropping of the mountain on which it sits. Currently Business 40's corridor has several outcroppings of rock visible near the three bridges near Cherry Street. What would bridges styled off of that natural rock look like? How about a brick bridge mirroring the old-fashioned brick styling of the new downtown ballpark at the Peters Creek overpass?

Business 40's rebuild will have to follow roughly the same corridor in which it currently inhabits - no widening. So where are there opportunities for creative landscaping? At the underpass near Corpening Plaza, perhaps? Berkeley professor and former North Carolina resident Walter Hood created Oakland, CA's Splash Pad Park alongside and under the I-580 freeway. Sidewalks crossing the park play off the freeway's pylons, and arching benches and grassy mounds and plantings segment the space into a multi-purpose urban oasis with even a lively farmer's market. It's part of a body of work that has just won Hood the 2009 National Design Award in Landscape Design from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Business 40 itself covers old Bellews Creek Street, and a number of side streets mask water features. Plans for the Piedmont Triad Research Park at US 52 and Business 40 include a rainwater catchment basin that will afford us a significant roadside aesthetic opportunity.

Plans for an I-95 redesign through Pawtucket, RI include serene blue-and-white LED lighting alongside and under a bridge that serves as both a highway overpass and a river crossing. Many bridges are illuminated in colorful ways over water around the world, playing off the reflections below.

Noted highway aesthetic designer Vicki Scuri placed ethereal metal willow lights along the Douglas Avenue bridge in Wichita, KS, inviting you to feel the wind rushing through a town noted for its aviation history. But fewer highway overpasses take advantage of distinctive lighting either of the overpass itself or of the street it carries.

The street lightings above greet users at the light rail station in the midst of Portland, OR's high-tech "Silicon Forest" business district - artist Brian Borello likewise calls these illuminated whimsies "The Silicon Forest." These "trees" generate their own electricity through solar panels which branch out at their tops. Imagine a comparable iconographic and green-friendly lighting on the bridges framing our downtown biotech research park.

Regional Iconography
No surprise that the Lone Star state likes to use the Lone Star symbol on its highway bridges, is it? Texas highways make the regional brand an often-integrated part of their overpasses. Buck Scott's Scott Systems firm used elastomeric-urethane formliners to cast the gold star above into the overpass support. And Lone Stars augment with distinctive color banding the pillars of the "everything-is-bigger-in-Texas" experience that is the I-635/US 75 "High Five" interchange north of Dallas.

Many smaller highway overpasses in the state serve as de facto city signage, embossed with a state outline and a distinct artist's illustration for the locality hosting the bridge. Winston-Salem has two distinct city symbols, I'd argue - a Moravian multi-pointed star and that tin coffee pot of hospitality. Either could find its way around our highways more often and be seen by more than passersby of Baptist Hospital or an Old Salem traffic island.

Although they're on a pedestrian overpass bridge on Interstate 705 in Tacoma, WA, there's no mistaking once you see those large Dave Chihuly glass sculptures foisted skyward that the city's Museum of Glass is at hand.

Yes, you can simply slap a logo on an overpass, as here at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ; but why not creatively show folks "this" is the exit, "this" is the spot you drove to see. Old Salem is not located next to the highway - could sculpted images of frilled Moravian candles bookend the proper exit overpass instead?

The highway overpasses of New Mexico and Arizona are among the most celebrated in the country (yes, hard to believe that's true, for those of us used to concrete slabs). Why? you might ask. Because they tell you something about the place you're traveling through, vistas which might otherwise be sparse. Be it in the symbolism of the Native American designs in this New Mexico bridge above, or the stairstep geometry of its bridge abutment mimicking adobe housing, they fix a place in your memory.

Along a six-mile stretch of Pima Freeway in Scottsdale, AZ, a section known as "The Path Most Traveled," artist Carolyn Braaksma cast concrete reliefs and textures to place symbols of the desert landscape on otherwise unsightly overpass and sound barrier walls. Plantings and pathways along other stretches of the highway soften the disconnect between the land and the inhabitants of motorized vehicles. In 2003 Braaksma completed a commission ("The Green") for a park fountain in Charlotte, NC.

In Seattle, WA architect and "art practitioner" Alex Young placed a salmon run over a highway, jumping painted bronze fish along the walls of an I-90 HOV access ramp and leaping them occasionally even over the guardrails of the overpass. Did salmon once traverse the highway? No (though there are some in a nearby creek). But it is part of the distinct story of the Great Northwest that visitors expect. Everyone knows of Winston-Salem's tobacco heritage, one that has been tough to discuss but which is a distinct part of who we are. Could a Peters Creek bridge by the ballpark, nearly straddling the dividing line between old Winston and old Salem, artistically celebrate the blending of tobacco and textiles in the two towns with its new anchors in the arts and innovation? Could a bridge over US 52, a historic dividing line between our black and white citizens, celebrate struggle and triumph and hope with an imprint of Winston-Salem resident Maya Angelou's words, "Still I Rise"?

Multipurpose Design
This photo of the wilds along the Trans-Canada Highway shows an overpass whose primary function is not auto transport but animal transport. The edges of the overpass are fencing hidden by landscape trees and bushes, coupled with barriers to otherwise crossing the highway, corralling area wildlife to flow from one side of the highway to the other with minimal interruption. I use it as a reminder that highway bridges often break up urban space unnaturally. A bridge that crosses a natural barrier like a river is often praised as a blessing for development and livablity on both sides of the divide. A highway overpass, however, too often cuts off previous human traffic flow between areas except by vehicle. Making overpasses accomodate happily motorized and pedestrian (and bicycle) traffic is a goal our city transportation officials are already examining, including the possibility of a greenspace park as a potential part of any 3rd-4th-5th Street overpass rebuild on US 52.

When in town last fall, bridge architect Fred Gottemoeller (whose design for Greenvile, SC's Reedy River footbridge made it a city icon) pointed to an interesting model for the replacement of multiple bridges with a shared vista, an opportunity we have for the bridges of Business 40. Look at the series of arched overpass bridges on eastbound US 59 entering Houston, TX.

As I've looked at the photos of the place, the nesting effect of the arches in a driver's sight line serve to announce the coming of downtown, something special. Announcement by pattern is nothing new: ancient Babylon announced the Ishtar Gate with an avenue adorned with a gold-on-blue repetitive lion motif.

One need not go archaeological to confirm the practice. Almada, Portugal also marks its city's presence with a pattern of distinctive design in the overpass bridges that serve its citizens. I'm not sure if the elevated central support shown above is an allusion to an arrow or symbol of the city or simply a whim of the bridge designer.

Instead of a repeating and building pattern in the distinct shape of the city's bridges, you might create a repeating and building pattern of symbols or structures along the roadway as you near the city center. Visitors to Los Angeles Airport are greeted by Paul Tzanetopoulos's series of glass pylons along their roadway approach, illuminated in LED colors from Angstrom Lighting at night. If you saw the changing LED light display at the Millennium Center here last fall, you know the enchanting potential for such devices. Here, one might build in intensity a forest of double helix or something as you approached a new 52 and 40 interchange, or repeat some "arts and innovation" symbol around innovation gateways throughout town, from Baptist's research hospital to the Arts District to our local universities.

Architectural Showpiece
A step beyond a pattern dictated primarily by aesthetics, not engineering, is what I'm calling the architectural showpiece - a roadway that funnels you into and through such a distinct design that it would create a detour-inducing "I'd like to drive through that" experience. Frank Gehry designed the amphitheater at Chicago's Millennium Park only after officials agreed also to let him build this over-the-highway connector. The serpentine BP Bridge is, for pedestrians and those driving underneath, a "full-metal Gehry" experience, not just a simple way to cross the road.

Imagine the driving experience going through the Clyde Arc, the Glasgow, Scotland landmark known to locals as "the Squinty Bridge" because of the tilted angle of its asymmetric tied arch. Here's a daytime view. Yes, this is a bridge going over a river, not a highway overpass. But you could create the same kind of driving experience going over the extended elevated highway section of Business 40 in front of Corpening Plaza. It takes advantage of the intimate view of Winston-Salem's living room that is afforded in that stretch of road, and "Squinty" isn't too different from an arch span design proffered by one team of local designers for that spot in last October's Creative Bridge Design exhibition. Likewise, the same driver's vista would be appealing alongside the Piedmont Triad Research Park - not that different from the Santiago Calatrava bridge I Photoshopped into downtown a few years ago.

Authenticity, and "the Gambler" rule
In designing a creative highway overpass, it is possible to use any combination of these creative attributes here listed or others, limited only by an artist's, engineer's, or architect's imagination. I would only add two aesthetic caveats of my own to their use - I'm sure the money folks and others will find more. It seems to me the best regarded works shown here are authentic both to their place and to their purpose. The creative additions in design are celebrations of real things in the location or its spirit. For example, to me, the Hakim Expressway Overpass above in Teheran, Iran has many interesting things in it: but as an outside visual visitor, it also strikes me as being less authentic to its place and more a zealous banquet of stylistic tweaks. Then again, I freely admit that, having seen Babylonian blue bricks from the Ishtar Gate, I feel incongruence when I see Williamsburg brick in the land of ancient Persia.
Lastly, given the number of overpass bridges we will be replacing in a short stretch in Winston-Salem, there probably should be either a measured restraint in the variety from any one overpass experience to the next or at least hints at stylistic consistency throughout. To that end, the Arts Council's working group committee has these last few months already noted that some of the bridges to be replaced lend themselves to extra design opportunities more than others. To me, it brings to mind the judiciousness called for in the old Kenny Rogers' song, "The Gambler" - "you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." Just because you can make every bridge a work of art, a light show, and a fountain - and, yes, Nanhu Bridge above is a nice bridge in Nanning, China - it doesn't mean you have to or ought to.

Many of these images of bridges were posted by Flickr users in public topic forums. Since clicking on an image here in Blogger will only lead to a larger image hosted on this site, I have listed the source link and poster of the original image in the "title" tag visible when you hover your mouse over an image. I have not seen a cataloging done of transportation designs by the kind of aesthetic category I have tried to do here (let me know if you know of one). Yet an inspiration for me and the PA&DC remains Dian Magie's book On the Road Again: Creative Transportation Design, which catalogs examples by function of project rather than by the aesthetic element creatively altered. -JEE

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