When freeways meet fine art

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Traffic jams, sketchy underpasses, and towering grey walls. Southern California freeways aren’t exactly known for their physical charm.

But earlier this month, a new kind of freeway overpass was inaugurated over the 210 in Arcadia. Designed by British artist Andrew Leicester, it is all slinky curves and basket weave patterns.

Could this mean a new era for freeway design?

Arcadia Gold Line Bridge
Arcadia Gold Line Bridge (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Habib Balian is the CEO of the Construction Authority, a state entity that builds light rail infrastructure. Back in 2009, he began to do the planning on a 600-foot bridge over the 210, to accommodate the Gold Line, which is expanding east from Pasadena. But he didn’t want to pour another boxy pile of concrete.

“I wanted it to be sculpture,” Balian said. “I didn’t think it had to be the standard plain vanilla Caltrans bridge. That there was an opportunity here early in design to do something that was unique — without just adding embellishments or putting a piece of art attached to it. That you could make the art and the architecture one thing.”

Enter Andrew Leicester, a public artist who has created works of art for transit systems in North Carolina, New York and his home state of Minnesota.

His first proposal to the selection committee didn’t go over very well. It involved giant sculptures of peacocks — Arcadia’s city bird. But they asked him to try again. His winning design pays homage to the history and landscape of the San Gabriel Valley. The underbelly of the bridge is inspired by the rippled forms of the Western Diamondback snake, which is native to the area. The support towers resemble baskets — a nod to the fact that the Two-Ten lies along an old indigenous trade route.

The concrete in the towers has been embedded with sparkling bits of mica and glass. “Late at night, when the sun is setting, due west, it’ll shine directly on these baskets and they will glisten with the red of the setting sun,” Leicester said.

Unlike other 11th hour infrastructure projects — in which a mural or flowerbed is slapped on a freeway wall after it’s built — the art here is not an afterthought. Leicester was involved in the design from the ground up. “That made this a very unique opportunity for artists,” Leicester said. “I decided to apply for this competition because I thought, ‘Wow I want to be there right at the very beginning so one can have a real impact on the form and shape of the bridge.’ Not just come in and do railings or something.”

For Habib Balian, at the Construction Authority, the piece not only serves as a work of art that drivers can experience at 60 miles an hour — it will mark a point of entry into the San Gabriel Valley. “A lot of people travel this freeway, they don’t even know what town they’re on the 210 Freeway because it’s so non-descript when you’re on the freeway itself,” Balian said. “This will be a landmark.”