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Beauty and the bridge

L.A.’s iconic 6th Street Bridge is failing and needs to be replaced; can we come up with something as good?

April 25, 2010|By Lewis MacAdams and Alex Ward

In Life magazine photographer Horace Bristol's 1933 photo, the 6th Street Bridge's graceful, steel, streamline Moderne arches gleam in the sunlight, the perfect symbol of a young metropolis just coming into its own. When it opened in 1932, according to Joe Linton's "Down By the Los Angeles River: Friends of the Los Angeles River's Official Guide," the nearly mile-long link was the longest concrete bridge in the world. It was also the last great downtown Los Angeles River bridge — formally known as a viaduct because it spans not just a river but railroad tracks and roads — and the crowning achievement of the city's engineer for bridges and structures, Merrill Butler, who, over four decades of service, oversaw the construction of at least nine Los Angeles River bridges. It was truly a bridge that a river could love.

No L.A. River bridge has more spectacular views of the downtown skyline than the 6th Street Bridge. None says "L.A." more unmistakably. Scenes in "Terminator 2" and "Grease" were shot 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 Eastside 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 80 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. If you stand underneath it, you can easily see the concrete's deterioration. 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. The bureau dispatched the dean of American bridge historians, Eric DeLony — the same Eric DeLony who just a few years earlier oversaw a study that led to the inclusion of the downtown L.A. River bridges in the Historical American Engineering Record — to survey other U.S. bridges stricken by the same phenomenon. DeLony's report reluctantly recommended that the bridge be replaced, and there's little doubt that it will be. The $400-million dollar question is: With what?

Currently, $200 million from the city's Prop. 1B bond — about half what it will take to replace the bridge — has been set aside for the project. A draft environmental impact report has been completed, and a final report is expected soon. The Bureau of Engineering and its consultants have introduced five design alternatives, 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 from the Los Angeles Conservancy. None of the designs has 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. Look at L.A.-based Buro Happold's Mobius Bridge in Bristol, in Britain. All are different, all are amazing. The specific style of the replacement bridge is less important than assuring that the design be unique, appropriate and iconic.

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

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