A Bridge to Nowhere: Is Inspiration Lacking at 6th Street Bridge?

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The news broke recently that brilliant structural engineer Cecil Balmond has left ARUP, the engineering firm he’s been with for 40 years. It is Balmond who made possible such landmarks as the CCTV building and the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. He has also designed  striking bridges, including the Weave Bridge in Pennsylvannia, above, and the Coimbra bridge in Portugal.
Santiago Calatrava’s  “Sundial Bridge.”
Santiago Calatrava’s “Sundial Bridge.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I reference this because we’ve seen a Golden Age in bridge design in the last few years, but you might not know it by looking at current efforts to replace the deteriorating but historic Sixth Street Bridge in downtown Los Angeles. Many in the design and architecture community in LA feel this is an opportunity to pull out the stops and create a really great bridge for our time.

This argument was made in an editorial in the LA Times by Alex Ward, architect and Chair of the Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), and Lewis MacAdams, FOLAR’s president. Read what they have to say, below,and if you feel that LA deserves a bridge to the future, please add your comments.

“The Sixth Street Bridge, opened in 1932, was one of a series of elegant and more permanent structures built to withstand the Los Angeles River’s force and when completed was reportedly the longest concrete bridge in the world. With its distinctive double arches, it was the last great downtown Los Angeles River bridge: the crowning achievement of Merrill Butler, the City’s Engineer For Bridges and Structures.

No L.A. River bridge has more spectacular views of the downtown skyline than the 6th Street Bridge. None says “L.A.” more unmistakably. Terminator 2 and Grease shot scenes at the bridge. Madonna, Kid Rock and Kanye West  have featured it in videos. Dozens of car chases, hundreds of commercials, and thousands of L.A. Marathon competitors have been framed in the bridge’s double steel arches.

No bridge in the City carries more symbolic weight, either.  There is no more direct route between Boyle Heights and the financial district than 6th Street, no bridge that better illustrates the physical proximity and the psychic distance between the working class East Side and the towers of the Figueroa Corridor   than 6th Street. No bridge more accurately symbolizes the forces that bring us together and pull us apart.

But the bridge is sick.  The sand the City quarried from the site eighty years ago to produce the structure’s concrete turns out to have been toxic, triggering an alkali-silicon reaction that is slowly turning the Bridge’s concrete into jelly. The Bridge isn’t unsafe for routine travel yet, but the City’s Bureau of Engineering gives the 6th Street Bridge a 70% chance of  failure in a major seismic event.

Currently, $200 million from the City’s Prop 1 B bond – approximately half what it will take to replace the bridge – has been set aside for the project. A draft E.I.R. has been completed, and a Final E.I.R. is expected soon.  The Bureau of Engineering and its consultants have introduced five design alternatives (see Concept 1, below), most of which attempt to replicate the current bridge’s signature arches. But not one of them comes close to equaling the current bridge’s singular drama. None of the designs has drawn much enthusiasm from the Bureau of Engineering’s neighborhood advisory committee, from the American Institute of Architects, or the Los Angeles Conservancy. None of the designs have stirred anybody’s blood or grabbed anybody’s imagination.

All over the earth, bridges are important symbols of their metropolises. Everyone knows the Rialto Bridge in Venice; the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Golden Gate. Bridges rightfully come to symbolize a city’s aspirations, its hopes and dreams.

Ours is an age of magnificent new bridges. In the past decade a new era of artistry and technical mastery has yielded a new generation of brilliant structures. The next time you’re trolling the internet check out  Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, Christian Menn’s  Bunker Hill Bridge  over the Charles River in Boston, and Santiago Calatrava’s  “Sundial Bridge” that spans the Sacramento River, the newest tourist attraction in Redding California.  Look at L.A.-based Buro Happold’s Mobius Brdge in Bristol, UK.  All are different, all are amazing. The specific style of the replacement bridge is less important than assuring the design be unique, appropriate, and iconic.

Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam
Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

To promote the highest level of design, Los Angeles should hold an international design competition juried by bridge design experts with strong local participation.

This is a once-in-a generation opportunity for Los Angeles. The City must rise to the occasion and build a bridge that is as much a landmark as the bridge it’s replacing, a 21st Century viaduct so striking that it comes to symbolize the City, a bridge that our river can love.”