Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

July 28, 2022

The Once and Future Bridge

Can the Sixth Street Viaduct predict the future of Los Angeles?


Architecture, Articles, Deborah Weintraub, Michael Maltzan, Urbanism

Nearly every article about the demolition of the old Sixth Street Viaduct in 2016 mentions Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In Los Angeles, where every location is scenery, the iconic, double-arched span played backdrop to the Skynet apocalypse. Architect Michael Maltzan, designer along with engineering firm HNTB, of the new expressive, ribbon-like Sixth Street Viaduct, has a rosier vision—one of equity and accessibility. L.A. infrastructure, however, is linked to unjust acts of clearance and partition, localized catastrophes not always captured by Hollywood. Can a new bridge rewrite the narrative?

Built in 1932, the original art deco bridge appeared in dozens of film shoots, from Repo Man to Madonna’s “Borderline” video before it was torn down because of deteriorating structural integrity caused by alkali-silica reactions, or “concrete cancer.” Whether viewed on the silver screen or on YouTube, each cameo reinforced an idea of the channelized L.A. River (and the industrial and working-class neighborhoods on its banks) as a sun-bleached, concrete dystopia. But those images are now cliché. Whatever gritty reality once captured and capitalized upon has transformed and continues to transform. The new $588 million, cable-stayed viaduct, more than a decade in the making, must address present needs for the city and consider what might come next.

“The responsibility of infrastructure is to try to anticipate and provide for a contemporary city—a city continuing to evolve,” Maltzan said. “One absolute constant in the equation is that the city in ten years will be different city than it is today.”

But L.A. history isn’t chronological, to paraphrase writer Rosecrans Baldwin; it moves incrementally forward and then loops back on itself. And architecture isn’t geomancy. Still, divination matters for the people who will use and live with the bridge. The runes cast include ten pairs of concrete arches (each leans outward with a 9-degree tilt) that stylishly hop over the L.A. River, 18 railroad tracks, and the US 101 freeway. The 3,500-foot-long roadway connects Boyle Heights—a largely Latinx neighborhood facing crises of affordability and displacement—to the wholly gentrified Arts District, with Skid Row beyond.

Arches on the eastern side monumentally frame the ever-growing downtown L.A. skyline. It’s a composition worthy of the city’s tourism bureau, but on the opposite west bank the roadway ramp uneventfully slips into the urban fabric (eventually an Arts Plaza will tuck, troll-like, under this end of the bridge). The spectacular arches are optically dwarfed by warehouses converted to tech offices and high-end lofts—and the pending mixed-use high-rise complex: 670 Mesquit by BIG.

In a 2016 farewell to the previous bridge, author Dan Koeppel described how Louis Huot, Engineer of Bridges and Structures for the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering from 1923 to 1961, took the demands of the car into account: Huot’s design reflected translation of automotive technology into urban form. As such, it embodied a temporal shift. “It wasn’t just a bridge over a river; it was a bridge between eras, ushering in Los Angeles’s dedication to the automobile,” wrote Koeppel.

During opening weekend in early July, a parade of lowriders made their way slowly across the deck, ushering in a new age that looked more like the previous. The tricked-out cars seemed at home on the roadway: Their streamlined bodies mirrored the concrete forms, and gleaming chrome reflected the celebratory blue-and-red LEDs that lit-up the arches, giving purchase to Maltzan’s aspiration that the bridge could double as a civic space. But for whom?

Maltzan and HNTB’s design prides itself on multimodality: pedestrian sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes (each meager lane protected by a flimsy, dotted line of plastic bollards) flank the roadway. Five sets of stairs and two ramps are in place; one of the ramps is a 45-foot-tall, 790-foot-long corkscrew that allows access to the ground below where the 12-acre Sixth Street Park, Arts and River Connectivity Improvements Project (PARC) is currently under construction.

Yet in the two weeks since opening, happenings on the bridge have tested the ability for infrastructure to serve as a place of civic expression: a haircut in the center median, people climbing up the arches, pedestrians stopping traffic. A Reddit user posted a video of a car doing donuts mid-span, leaving behind black skid marks worthy of the Fast & Furious franchise, leading others to do the same, causing the LAPD to shut down the bridge for several nights in a row. These activities impact the architecture and raise questions about the ability for the designers and the city to predict how users will engage. There are plans to add speed bumps to slow the stunt drivers. But rumors of police state apparatuses—security cameras, chain link fencing, and jersey barriers—threaten any impulse for equity. Moreover, certain design elements, such as the low LED roadway lighting, would be compromised by additional barriers.

The closed, nocturnal bridge, however, asks us to imagine a future where the car is not the dominant user. An optimist might forecast that over the next decades the meager 10-foot-wide bike lanes could expand, and roadway would be given over to the people for transport not dependent on fossil fuel. The cynic sees LAPD shutdowns and gridlock. Utopia versus dystopia. Success is less contingent on the roadway than on how the viaduct behaves like a sinewy tissue connecting parts of the city. Maltzan explained the plan for a bike ramp to link up with a bikeway that will stretch down the whole western bank of the channel—from the valley to the port—as part of the L.A. River masterplan. And the City is in discussion with Metro about an Arts District light rail stop at the foot of the viaduct.

While these possibilities gently nudge Los Angeles urbanism away from the automobile, the willingness of Angelenos to go along with the plan remains uncertain, like trying to decipher if the gray on the horizon is smog or a marine layer—a kind of L.A. nephomancy. Just how to predict the future was on the mind of Deborah Weintraub, chief deputy city engineer and architect with Los Angeles’s Bureau of Engineering (BOE), ten years ago when she set out to write the request for proposals for the international design competition for the replacement viaduct. She underscored that the ability for the RPF to anticipate the needs of an evolving city rested on language. Notably, she swapped out the prescriptive word “would” in the Environmental Impact Report for “could” in the RFP, thus opening a wider range of interpretations and possibilities—donuts and haircuts, excluded, obviously.

Weintraub noted that BOE team working on the project is largely female, so perhaps the suggestive “could” implies a feminist reading. The iconography of the swoopy geometries is meant to broadcast to the city at large and speak at the scale of global media, but could the bridge also be place of exchange, of gathering? The hope is that the PARC, mostly located on the eastern side of the river, will be an answer—or at least a $30 million wager about the value of shaded public space in Boyle Heights. Designed by Hargraves Jones and at least a couple of years from completion, PARC’s renderings identify a panoply of activities: dog park, soccer fields, rain garden, fitness equipment, and on. The opinions of Boyle Heights residents, especially a group of women from a nearby low-income housing project, were instrumental in shaping the program.

“‘What is [the bridge] going to look like from the bottom when I’m standing underneath?’ was written into the RFP,” said Weintraub. “‘What does it give back in terms of opportunity for community growth and community amenities?’ We conceived of that from day one.”

Arguably, the best view of the project is from the bike and pedestrian ramp that dips below the bridge’s main deck. From that perspective the viaduct is all underbelly and, unlike its surface, shadow—the oppressive white glare of summer is reduced to a peripheral swath of blue. A secular cathedral made up of concrete girders and beefy supports balanced on impressive base isolators, the infrastructural thrall is seductive. Worthy of film shoots. But without the completed park, it’s impossible to judge if this land under the viaduct can produce 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 citizens might transform the landscape below into something more than an impressive list of amenities.