Almost every article mentions the demolition of the old Sixth Street Viaduct in 2016 Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In Los Angeles, where every place is a setting, the iconic double arch span played the setting for the Skynet apocalypse. Architect Michael Maltzan, designer with engineering firm HNTB of the new expressive, ribbon-like Sixth Street Viaduct, has a rosier vision – one of equity and accessibility. However, LA’s infrastructure is fraught with unjust acts of eviction and partition, localized disasters not always captured by Hollywood. Can a new bridge rewrite the narrative?
Built in 1932, the original Art Deco bridge has appeared in dozens of footage repo man on Madonna’s “Borderline” video before it was torn down due to structural integrity degradation caused by alkali-silica reactions or “concrete cancer”. Whether on screen or YouTube, each cameo reinforced a notion of the canalised LA River (and the industrial and working-class neighborhoods lining its banks) as a sun-bleached concrete dystopia. But these images are now clichés. Whatever grim reality once grasped and exploited has changed and continues to change. The new $588 million cable-stayed viaduct, which took more than a decade to build, must meet the city’s current needs and take into account what may come next.
“The responsibility of infrastructure is to try to anticipate and provide a city for the times – a city that is constantly evolving,” Maltzan said. “One absolute constant in the equation is that ten years from now the city will be a different city than it is today.”
But the history of LA isn’t chronological, to paraphrase writer Rosecrans Baldwin; it incrementally moves forward and then returns to itself. And architecture is not geomancy. Still, divination is important for the people who will use and live with the bridge. The cast runes include ten pairs of concrete arches (each pitched outward at a 9-degree incline) that hop in style across the LA River, 18 railroad tracks, and the US 101 freeway. The 3,500-foot street connects Boyle Heights — a mostly Latino neighborhood facing affordability and crowding-out crises — with the fully gentrified Arts District and Skid Row beyond.
Arches on the east side monumentally frame the ever-expanding downtown LA skyline. It’s a composition worthy of the city’s tourist office, but on the opposite west bank, the street ramp slides uneventfully into the urban fabric (after all, an Arts Plaza will be hiding like a troll under that end of the bridge). The spectacular arches are visually overshadowed by warehouses converted into tech offices and high-end lofts – and the floating mixed-use high-rise complex: 670 Mesquit by BIG.
In a 2016 farewell to the previous bridge, author Dan Koeppel described how Louis Huot, bridge and structure engineer for the City of Los Angeles engineering firm from 1923 to 1961, considered the requirements of the car: Huot’s design reflected the translation of against automotive technology in urban form. As such, it embodied a shift in time. “It wasn’t just a bridge over a river; it was a bridge between eras and ushered in Los Angeles’ dedication to the automobile,” wrote Koeppel.
During the opening weekend in early July, a parade of lowriders slowly moved across the deck, heralding a new era that looked more like the one before. The sophisticated cars seemed at home on the pavement: their streamlined bodies echoed the concrete forms, and gleaming chrome reflected the celebratory blue-red LEDs illuminating the arches, confirming Maltzan’s claim that the bridge could also double as a double bridge. established a civic space. But for whom?
Maltzan and HNTB’s design prides itself on its multimodality: pedestrian walkways and dedicated cycle lanes (each narrow lane is protected by a thin, dotted line of plastic bollards) flank the roadway. There are five flights of stairs and two ramps; One of the ramps is a 45-foot-tall, 790-foot-long corkscrew that provides access to the ground beneath the 12-acre Sixth Street Park, Arts and River Connectivity Improvement Project (PARC) currently under construction.
But in the two weeks since it opened, events on the bridge have tested the infrastructure’s ability to serve as a place of civic expression: a median haircut, people climbing the arches, pedestrians stopping traffic. A Reddit user posted a video of a car doing mid-span donuts and leaving black skid marks worthy of it Fast & Furious franchise, which prompted others to do the same, resulting in the LAPD closing the bridge several nights in a row. These activities impact architecture and raise questions about the ability of designers and the city to predict how users will engage. There are plans to add speed bumps to slow down the stunt drivers. But rumors of police-state machines — surveillance cameras, chain-link fences and jersey barriers — threaten any impetus for justice. Additionally, certain design elements such as the low profile LED lane lights would be compromised by additional barriers.
However, the closed, nocturnal bridge challenges us to imagine a future where the car is not the dominant user. An optimist might predict that over the next few decades, the meager 10-foot-wide bike lanes could be expanded, leaving the roadway open to humans for transportation that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels. The cynic sees LAPD shutdowns and shutdowns. Utopia versus Dystopia. Success depends less on the road surface and more on how the viaduct behaves like a sinewy fabric that connects parts of the city. Maltzan outlined the plan for a bike ramp to connect to a bike path that will span the entire west bank of the canal—from the valley to the harbor—as part of the LA River master plan. And the city is negotiating with Metro for a light rail station in the Arts District at the base of the viaduct.
As these possibilities gently push Los Angeles urbanism away from the automobile, Angelenos’ willingness to go along with the plan remains uncertain, as if trying to decipher whether the gray on the horizon is smog or a layer of sea — a kind of LA nephomania. How to predict the future, thought Deborah Weintraub, assistant urban engineer and architect at the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering (BOE) ten years ago, as she set out to write the tender for the international design competition for the replacement viaduct. She stressed that the RPF’s ability to anticipate the needs of a developing city rested on language. Remarkably, she replaced the mandatory word “would” in the environmental impact report with “could” in the tender, opening up a wider range of interpretations and possibilities – donuts and haircuts excluded, of course.
Weintraub noted that the BOE team working on the project is mostly female, so perhaps the suggestive “might” implies a feminist reading. The iconography of swoopy geometries is meant to carry over to the city in general and speak at the global media level, but could the bridge also be a place of exchange, of gathering? The hope is that the PARC, which sits mostly on the east side of the river, will be an answer — or at least a $30 million bet on the value of Boyle Heights’ shadowy public space. Designed by Hargraves Jones and at least a few years after completion, PARC’s renderings show a range of activities: dog park, soccer fields, rain garden, gym equipment and so on. The opinions of Boyle Heights residents, particularly a group of women from a nearby low-income housing project, were instrumental in shaping the program.
“‘What is [the bridge] will I look from below when I stand underneath?’ was written in the tender,” said Weintraub. “‘What’s in return in terms of opportunities for church growth and community facilities?’ We thought about that from day one.”
Arguably the best view of the project is from the bicycle and pedestrian ramp that dips beneath the bridge’s main deck. From this perspective, the viaduct is just a shadow and, unlike its surface, a shadow – the oppressive white glow of summer reduced to a peripheral swath of blue. A secular cathedral composed of concrete girders and stout supports balanced on impressive base insulators, the infrastructural appeal is alluring. worthy of filming. But without the completed park, it’s impossible to judge whether this land under the viaduct can deliver the civic agenda so desired – and so needed – by Angelenos. The top of the bridge may light up the skyline, but its early days of civic play and performance are lessons in how civics can transform the landscape below into something more than an impressive list of amenities.
Mimi indicator is a Los Angeles-based critic and curator.