Ambition Wins at 6th Street Bridge, Writes FOLAR’s Alex Ward

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The City of Los Angeles, with Caltrans, has been looking for a team to design its replacement 6th Street Viaduct. Now they have picked the winner. DnA has followed this…

DnA has followed this competition since its inception, seeing in it the potential for LA to make not only an architecturally significant piece of infrastructure (who doesn’t gasp at a really amazing bridge!), but also a piece of urban design that will help — if the full design dream can be realized — turn industrial wastelands and an underutilized river edge in Boyle Heights and downtown Los Angeles into parks and public space. Alex Ward, Chair of Friends of the LA River, which had campaigned hard for years to raise the level of ambition for the bridge, wrote this reflection on the announcement and the winning design:

On Friday morning, a phalanx of city officials, consultants and community members gathered 100 feet in the air above the Los Angeles River, on the center span of the soon-to-bedemolished 6th Street Bridge, to unveil the design for its replacement.

Mayor Villaraigosa, squinting into the morning sun, announced that the unanimous choice of the City’s Bureau of Engineering, Caltrans and a volunteer design advisory committee was the proposal put forth by the team of architect and engineering giant HNTB, local architects Michael Maltzan Architecture, AC Martin, and landscape architect Hargreaves Associates.

Then, with a dramatic flourish, the Mayor, joined by local councilman Jose Huizar and the City’s chief engineer Gary Lee Moore, pulled back a black cloth to unveil a large model of the winning proposal. What was revealed was a rhythmic progression of 10 paired arches leaping, more-or-less gracefully, across the 3500 foot span from Boyle Heights to downtown, including the relatively short hop over the River itself. For fans mourning the demise of the existing, iconic 1932 doublearched bridge, the multiplication of arches in the replacement scheme may prove some solace, though the design is emphatically contemporary rather than nostalgic.

All three competition entries (AECOM and Parsons Brinckerhoff were the other contestants) are relatively cautious structurally and aesthetically compared with audacious new bridges being built world-wide (see the recent design for a trampoline bridge over the Seine in Paris!; image: ATELIER ZÜNDEL CRISTEA), partly due to the tight budget and physical constraints imposed by the original competition invitation.

But perhaps most significantly, all three designs explore the intriguing potential of the space below the current structure, neglected land between warehouses and over railroad tracks as well as the concrete-lined channel of the River. Each design proposes a chain of outdoor public spaces linking Boyle Heights to downtown and tieing the roadway to the river below via suspended pedestrian and bicycle paths and platforms.

What makes the HNTB design the stand-out is its decision to take advantage of the full length of the bridge and roadway, 3500 feet in all, rather than focusing attention primarily on the short span over the river itself, as the other schemes do. Its series of leaping, outward-leaning, double arches creates a long, dramatic profile, interacting nicely with the outline of the other, historic river bridges on either side as well as the skyline of downtown LA and the mountains in the background. The illuminated night view should be a knock-out, and a new landmark for the city.

Bridge users will also get a powerful spatial – and almost cinematic – experience as they pass between the ten pairs of arches, framing changing snapshots of the surrounding landscape from high in the air. And on the ground, the long, leaping structure overhead, if one can believe the team’s images, will be soaring and daring, rather than heavy and oppressive. The proportions and details need to be studied carefully to make sure this is the final outcome.

Perhaps the greatest significance of this project is its implications for the rebirth of this part of downtown Los Angeles and the ongoing revitalization of the Los Angeles River. The project’s total price tag of $400 million, its size, and its six year time frame (predicted completion date 2018) will inevitably catalyze other activity in a part of the city already seeing an influx of new housing, restaurants and creative businesses into an area still solidly manufacturing-oriented.

The good news is that the winning design’s emphasis on open space, recreation and connection with the River will guarantee urban amenities in this part of evolving Los Angeles that are still woefully lacking in much of the city. As Yuval Bar-Zemer, a local landowner in the adjacent Arts District and a member of the design advisory panel, commented at the unveiling, “we are ready to start planting trees right now.”

Hear more from Alex Ward and other guests about the 6th Street Bridge and the competition process on these past shows, here and here.