6TH SENSES

There were com­pet­ing vi­sions for the new viaduct span­ning the L.A. River; what’s cer­tain is that it’ll be dif­fer­ent

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Thomas Cur­wen

No one ex­pected the squig­gle.

In a room crowded with weary en­gi­neers, de­sign­ers and ex­ec­u­tives, ar­chi­tect Michael Maltzan had grown frus­trated with the de­bate. For hours, he had been ar­gu­ing to build a bridge that was more than just a link be­tween two dis­parate parts of the city, but no one un­der­stood him.

So he stood up, grabbed a red pen and drew a long loop­ing line on an easel pad.

This, he said, is the shape of the fu­ture: the new 6th Street Viaduct, cross­ing the Los An­ge­les River, con­nect­ing down­town and Boyle Heights.

Months ear­lier, the city had de­cided that the old viaduct — a bridge by any other name — had to go. Los An­ge­les’ most rec­og­nized and most de­crepit piece of in­fra­struc­ture was a haz­ard, vic­tim of an ar­cane chem­i­cal re­ac­tion tak­ing place within the con­crete.

But re­plac­ing an icon is not easy. Its sup­port­ing role in hun­dreds of movies, videos and com­mer­cials has im­printed the struc­ture upon the civic imag­i­na­tion.

A race­way for car chases, a back­drop for crime dra­mas, a blank slate for au­to­mo­tive ads, it is the city’s most sub­tle Rorschach, a sub­lim­i­nal pres­ence on the edge of the ur­ban con-

scious­ness.

To find a de­sign wor­thy of its le­gacy, the city of Los An­ge­les opened a com­pe­ti­tion in the sum­mer of 2012.

The win­ner would se­cure a $25-mil­lion con­tract for one of the most pres­ti­gious con­struc­tion projects in the re­gion. The en­gi­neer­ing firm HNTB wanted in and brought Maltzan in on a con­tract.

His work near the city core in­cludes the great but lamented Corn­field state park (drawn but never funded) and the ad­mired apart­ment megaplex by the river, One Santa Fe.

In­no­va­tive and for­ward­think­ing, Maltzan was a hotshot. Only now, a squig­gle didn’t seem so promis­ing.

Some en­gi­neers in the meet­ing be­lieved that this wavy line, which trans­lated to a suc­ces­sion of arches ris­ing above and be­low the road­way be­tween Santa Fe Av­enue and the 101 Free­way, was out­landish, ex­pen­sive and far too risky a con­cept to win a com­pe­ti­tion.

They had their own idea: a sin­gle, sig­na­ture span over the Los An­ge­les River. The rest would be an el­e­vated road­way, just as it has been with the ex­ist­ing struc­ture. Maltzan pushed back. The new de­sign had to do more than merely cross the river, the rail­road tracks and the ware­houses and streets ly­ing in its shadow, he said. It should in­te­grate the city.

The squig­gle — more than just a bridge, he ar­gued — rep­re­sented a new way to think about Los An­ge­les.

‘One of the prob­lems with in­fra­struc­ture is that it’s gen­er­ally con­sti­tuted as a mono­cul­ture. It only does one thing.’

— Michael Maltzan, ar­chi­tect and designer of the new 6th Street Viaduct

Ad­dress­ing traf­fic

Three years later, Maltzan’s sketch is a $428-mil­lion public works project for the city of Los An­ge­les. It is ex­pected to open in 2019.

De­mo­li­tion be­gins this sum­mer. The city is mak­ing in­ter­sec­tion im­prove­ments to im­prove traf­fic flow in the Arts Dis­trict and in Boyle Heights for the 13,000 daily driv­ers who will no longer be able to take this route.

An es­ti­mated 48,000 cu­bic yards of con­crete, 1,245 tons of struc­tural steel and 4,200 tons of re­bar will be hauled away as con­struc­tion be­gins on the re­place­ment.

Un­til then, the old bridge stands as a nos­tal­gic wreck. Wooden planks span bro­ken balustrades. Graf­fiti tags mark the high iron arches. Pi­geons be­foul the crevices.

Since win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion, Maltzan’s de­sign is no longer con­tro­ver­sial among HNTB en­gi­neers, who have come to ac­cept it as a wel­come de­par­ture for an in­fra­struc­ture project.

Roads, bridges and tun­nels are mostly con­tent to be ig­nored. Use­ful­ness is their claim to fame, and em­bel­lish­ment is of­ten a dis­trac­tion for en­gi­neers who find el­e­gance in their func­tion­al­ity, econ­omy and ef­fi­ciency. Tax­pay­ers, who foot the bill, tend to agree.

Maltzan be­lieves it is time to shift th­ese as­sump­tions.

When the 6th Street Viaduct opened in 1933, it mir­rored the city’s as­pi­ra­tions. The road­way was broad and invit­ing like a run­way, with its prom­ise of a far-off des­ti­na­tion.

Never mind if the des­ti­na­tion was Mon­te­bello or Downey or New­port Beach. The bridge was a means to an end, and the end was to move be­yond it, not to linger but to speed away into some sub­ur­ban fu­ture.

But with time, as that fu­ture grew murky (con­ges­tion, smog), the bridge looked less to the fu­ture than to the past.

Cast as a cin­e­matic back­drop, it pro­vided noirish over­tones for pot-boiled dra­mas.

“Them!,” the 1954 movie fea­tur­ing gi­ant mu­tant ants, might have been its de­but, fol­lowed by such hits as “Grease,” “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Ter­mi­na­tor 2,” as well as mu­sic videos by Madonna and Kanye West and tele­vi­sion episodes of “Lost” and “The Amaz­ing Race.”

Lit­tle did its builders know that the struc­ture’s ce­ment and ag­gre­gate were at war, cre­at­ing a gel that in the pres­ence of wa­ter ex­pands and causes the con­crete to crack. And wa­ter is ev­er­p­re­sent in con­crete.

The 6th Street Viaduct is alone in this mal­ady be­cause it was the only struc­ture — of the eight other bridges built be­fore 1933 — to use im­ported peb­bles and sand.

Preser­va­tion­ists asked for a fix, but none was avail­able. Some sug­gested the re­place­ment be a replica of the old. Oth­ers called for some­thing en­tirely new.

Stak­ing the mid­dle ground, the Los An­ge­les Con­ser­vancy ar­gued that the new bridge should com­ple­ment the oth­ers, that it “should fit in with the col­lec­tion, not stand alone.”

The city’s Bureau of En­gi­neer­ing stud­ied dif­fer­ent types of bridges for the site. Com­mu­nity meet­ings were held, feed­back and opin­ions were gath­ered, and, given the lo­ca­tion and length of the bridge — its sig­na­ture as­pects — City En­gi­neer Gary Moore opened up a com­pe­ti­tion.

Of the nine sub­mis­sions, six were short­listed and three were even­tu­ally given a stipend for devel­op­ment.

The other de­signs, ac­cord­ing to ar­chi­tect David Martin, who rec­om­mended Maltzan to HNTB, were like some Euro­pean bridges. They were beau­ti­ful but generic, like the Mil­lau Viaduct in France, an el­e­gant span in a pas­toral set­ting.

The 6th Street neigh­bor­hood near the L.A. River is hardly pas­toral, and Maltzan’s bridge, Martin said, be­longed to this gritty neigh­bor­hood.

The L.A. Con­ser­vancy doesn’t quite see it that way.

“We would have liked to have seen some­thing more con­tex­tual, some­thing more in keep­ing with the mass­ing, the ma­te­ri­als and the rhythm of the other bridges,” said Adrian Scott Fine, direc­tor of ad­vo­cacy for the or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“From that per­spec­tive, the new bridge is a rad­i­cal de­par­ture,” Fine said. “It in­tro­duces a new dy­namic and lan­guage that doesn’t ex­ist with the oth­ers.”

Stairs snd ramps

Built out of foam board, a model of the bridge crowds the back room of Maltzan’s Sil­ver Lake stu­dio. Sixty-five feet long, it is too big to be as­sem­bled here and lies in two parts.

Ten arches rise and fall on ei­ther side of the road­way. Four of the arches will rise 60 feet. Most will top out at 30 feet. To keep the road­way from feel­ing hemmed in, each arch slants out­ward nine de­grees, like the spikes on a stegosaurus.

Stair­cases and bi­cy­cle ramps al­low pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists to move through­out the bridge to catch views of the city’s sky­line to the west and ex­plore the river be­low.

Four lanes are de­voted to cars. The side­walks vary in width from eight to 14 feet, and the bike lane is 14 feet wide.

Even on a di­min­ished scale, the de­sign sug­gests more than mere util­ity.

“One of the prob­lems with in­fra­struc­ture is that it’s gen­er­ally con­sti­tuted as a mono­cul­ture,” Maltzan said. “It only does one thing.”

The new bridge, he ar­gues, makes the case for in­fra­struc­ture play­ing a va­ri­ety of roles in the life of the city. An am­phithe­ater un­der the west­ern grade and a mu­nic­i­pal park to the east em­pha­size this in­tent.

City Coun­cil­man José Huizar ad­mires Maltzan’s de­sign. As wist­ful as he is for the old bridge (re­count­ing a youth rid­ing his bike across it), he be­lieves the ar­chi­tect has cre­ated a des­ti­na­tion, not just a con­veyance.

“Our new bridge will not only bring peo­ple from Point A to Point B but to Point C — the bridge it­self,” he said while an­nounc­ing the win­ner of the de­sign com­pe­ti­tion.

The vi­sion is sup­ported by struc­tural de­sign, cre­ated in part by Ted Zoli, an HNTB en­gi­neer and a re­cip­i­ent of a MacArthur “Ge­nius Grant.”

Zoli un­der­stood that the area be­neath the bridge — the un­der­croft — could be in­tim­i­dat­ing.

“We wanted to cre­ate a space that wants to be in­hab­ited,” he said. “This could not and would not be achieved by a mon­u­men­tal span over the L.A. River.”

Maltzan’s squig­gle de­sign al­lowed Zoli to sup­port the road with a sys­tem of crossed sus­pen­sion ca­bles within each con­crete arch.

This style al­lows for a thin­ner roadbed than a bridge with a sin­gle tower and a se­ries of ca­bles fan­ning out from it and gives the un­der­croft a more invit­ing dis­po­si­tion, Zoli said.

‘Painful process’

Since win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion, Maltzan’s plan has been de­bated, priced and scaled back. Meet­ing the city’s bud­get of ap­prox­i­mately $200 mil­lion for de­sign and con­struc­tion has been a chal­lenge.

“The un­cer­tainty at in­cep­tion was how to eco­nom­i­cally bring to life the vi­sion that Maltzan had,” said en­gi­neer Michael Jones, an as­so­ciate vice pres­i­dent with HNTB. “This was at times a painful process, but not un­ex­pected as this hap­pens fre­quently on sig­na­ture bridges.”

Maltzan had hoped pedes­tri­ans could climb to the top of six arches. Now they can climb to the top of only two. He had hoped pedes­tri­ans and bi­cy­clists could ac­cess the bridge from 23 lo­ca­tions be­neath the bridge. Now they can ac­cess it from nine points.

Fi­nally, he wanted a bridge un­der the bridge that would place pedes­tri­ans closer to the river. That fea­ture has been re­moved en­tirely.

Though the changes limit the num­ber of en­try points to the bridge and the space be­low it, Maltzan be­lieves the orig­i­nal vi­sion — an in­ter­ac­tive en­vi­ron­ment — will be sus­tained.

“If you don’t hold on to the key el­e­ments in big civic projects, the en­tire vi­sion might not ex­ist one day, but if you get enough of th­ese key el­e­ments de­vel­oped, then the city can graft onto them and com­plete the plan for you,” he said.

From the shad­ows

The neigh­bor­hood that will change most dur­ing con­struc­tion and af­ter­ward lies just east of the river be­fore the bluffs of Boyle Heights.

Some of the derelict prop­er­ties, cold stor­age fa­cil­i­ties and ware­houses ly­ing in the path of con­struc­tion, have been pur­chased by the city. In their place, a soc­cer field and chil­dren’s play­ground are be­ing con­sid­ered if fund­ing is se­cured.

Bring­ing this neigh­bor­hood and its Pico Gar­den hous­ing project out from the shad­ows was one of Maltzan’s goals. In the past, he said, in­fra­struc­ture projects such as free­ways have di­vided neigh­bor­hoods.

“If we can work to break down the di­vi­sions, the siloiza­tion of dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods, then we have an op­por­tu­nity to have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the so­cial func­tion of the city, as well as the iden­tity of the city,” he said.

“As the city con­tin­ues to de­velop, de­vel­op­ing th­ese con­nec­tions be­comes of even great con­se­quence.”

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

LOS AN­GE­LES City En­gi­neer Gary Moore, right, ex­plains fea­tures of the new 6th Street Viaduct to Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city of­fi­cials at an un­veil­ing cer­e­mony near the ex­ist­ing bridge, at rear.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

THE OLD BRIDGE stands as a his­toric wreck. De­mo­li­tion be­gins this sum­mer.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

L.A. CITY EN­GI­NEER Gary Moore, right, Mayor Eric Garcetti and oth­ers look at a model of the new viaduct. Meet­ing the city’s bud­get of ap­prox­i­mately $200 mil­lion for de­sign and con­struc­tion has been a chal­lenge.

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