This summer, Los Angeles got a new icon: the Sixth Street Viaduct. The kilometre-long bridge is – at the utilitarian level – an artery connecting downtown LA and the neighbourhoods to the east. But it’s more than that. Replacing a beloved structure from 1932, the new bridge is a symbol of an emerging, imperfect future where public amenities gather attention and respect.
“Our aim was for the bridge to have a broad positive impact on the community,” said architect Michael Maltzan, whose firm led the design. “I think we are at a moment where we should try to explore again what infrastructure means in a city.”
My journey across the viaduct began in Boyle Heights, a working-class district just east of downtown LA. On a recent sunny Friday, I met Paul Stoelting, the project architect, on a sidewalk next to a film studio. (Mr. Maltzan was isolating at home with COVID-19.) Before us stood a construction site for a new park that will occupy 12 acres under the bridge, and serve a neighbourhood that has more freeway ramps than public green space.
From there, we walked up a spiral ramp to the bridge’s deck. A cyclist passed us, rolling downhill – a sign of the bridge’s ambition, Mr. Stoelting pointed out, to serve different forms of transportation in this notoriously car-centric city.
Up close, the bridge offered some aesthetic pleasures. The concrete was slightly rough to the touch and varied in colour, like a rock formation. The complex formwork that shaped it had left marks on the surface. And the 20 arches that support the bridge showed Maltzan’s characteristic flair. Ten crescents leaped up and curved back downward in a dynamic rhythm – tall, short, tall – while leaning outward as if to embrace the whole city.
That bigger gesture is, in some ways, the whole point. Back in 2012, the City of Los Angeles launched a design competition for the site: A previous bridge, constructed in 1932, was weakening from a chemical reaction known as “concrete cancer.” But that older bridge was iconic. It was designed by Los Angeles city engineer Merrill Butler, and its twin arches capped with Art Deco towers had been landmarks for generations. It was captured onscreen in TV and film scenes – such as the drag race in Grease, which took place in the concrete-lined Los Angeles River below the bridge.
The new structure picks up on the cultural legacy of the old one. A hundred years ago, the phrase “public works” carried an air of importance. Public officials such as Mr. Butler – who oversaw the construction of half a dozen bridges in the 1920s and 1930s – were inspired by the City Beautiful Movement, which tried to bring order to North America’s messy streetscapes. (Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct, created by the visionary city engineer R.C. Harris, is an example.)
Mr. Butler “believed that any structures the city was building should contribute to an overall sense of betterment and beauty,” Mr. Maltzan said. And this, he added, is an idea that still has value. “I think architecture has the ability to continue to take on that challenge, to make things which are strong aesthetic contributions in the city, and also relate to the spirit of our moment.”
Such ambition has been absent from North American infrastructure in recent decades. The field is dominated by large architecture and engineering firms, including HNTB, which collaborated with Mr. Maltzan’s firm on the US$588-million LA viaduct. In Canada, the equivalents are AECOM and the behemoth architecture firm IBI. Meanwhile, high-design architects typically work on housing and cultural buildings. That’s the case for Michael Maltzan Architecture, which recently completed Qaumajuq, the new centre for Inuit Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
And even when present, ambition doesn’t change the world overnight. Mr. Maltzan and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti have both spoken optimistically about the bridge as a symbol of active transportation, and it does indeed have a comfortable sidewalk and bike lane. However, as local road-safety and cycling advocates have pointed out, only plastic barriers separate cyclists from car traffic. Riders who brave the span are vulnerable to out-of-control vehicles – and since the bridge has already become a hotspot for street racing, this is a real problem. The city’s response has been more law enforcement. An LAPD vehicle growled past Mr. Stoelting and I during our walk.
Still, the bridge has been greeted warmly by many residents, including locals in the predominantly Latino and working-class Boyle Heights. It’s become a place for people to go for a stroll, cruise in their cars or take quinceañera portraits.
That’s evidence of the lack of nearby public space. LA has only 1.3 hectares of park space per 1,000 residents. (Toronto has 2.7.) It also raises real concerns that real estate investment will follow, making Boyle Heights more expensive and displacing existing residents.
It’s also, perhaps, evidence that design can only go so far. One project can’t undo a century of car culture, or construct a whole network of bike lanes, or solve the economic and racial segregation that is painfully present on the streets of Los Angeles.
And yet aspiration is important. The next generation in both Canada and the U.S. will see a boom in infrastructure that will only accelerate as the effects of climate change worsen. This development will include transit and (unfortunately) roads. Great public design will be fundamental.
The Sixth Street Viaduct already “has become a public forum,” Mr. Maltzan said. “It’s allowed people to talk about how we continue to make the city.” That conversation can’t happen quickly enough.
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