Fun with Highways: Iowa

Our four-year civic ritual begins in its official manner today, and we at CatSynth are once again following the presidential primary schedule with our “Fun with Highways” series. Today, all eyes (or at least a great many of them) are focused on Iowa. A lot will be said about Iowa, it’s cultural and geographical stereotypes. But I would like to rethink the image of the state through my own interests, and thus begin with this image of Des Moines, the capital and largest city.

From what I can tell by looking at maps of the city, this was taken looking north from a railway bridge. Des Moines is a small city but seemingly well laid out, taking advantage of its river to visual effect. It does have a somewhat dense and vertical downtown core, and a rather interesting feature, the Des Moines Skywalk.


[By Dsmspence (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The skywalk is a highway of sorts for pedestrians, allowing easy movement around the downtown area through elevated glass-enclosed walkways. As someone who dislikes cold, I’m sure I would appreciate it in January. The skywalk does seem like it would have had a bit of a futuristic quality to it when it was built, though not the dystopian beauty of New York’s High Line. But perhaps I speak to soon. Check out these images of a desolate Des Moines on the blog lonelystreets.com, for some beautiful images of an eerie empty city from the skywalk and elsewhere.

[By Des Moines Guy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

Before leaving the city, we should also acknowledge the Des Moines Art Center, an architecturally interesting complex with pieces designed by Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, with three differet styles of 20th Century Architecture, but all seemingly designed to take advantage of the horizontal expanse, open space and light that have long made the Midwest an inspiring setting for architects.

Just north of both the art center and the downtown core is I-235, the main highway running through the city. We will head east to where I-235 ends at a junction with I-80 and I-35, and then continue east on I-80. I have personally seen the expanses of farmland along this nearly straight stretch of highway, with the occasional road passing overhead on via artificial mounds and the connected with a diamond interchange. We cross US 6, which once stretched across the entire country but now ends in the eastern Sierra in California. We pass by Iowa City and give a shout-out to the infamous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The program has turned out numerous winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among other honors. My own experience with the world of writing is a bit limited, but it seems very different than the world of music.

As we approach the eastern edge of the state, we come to Davenport, which among other things is home to the Figge Museum.


[By Ctjf83 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The museum it itself an interesting building, and has a varied collection. But perhaps most interesting is the collection from the University of Iowa that is being temporarily housed there (after the University’s building was flooded in 2008) and displayed in the exhibition A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock’s Mural and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Although it seems natural to explore the state along and east-west axis, one can also travel south to north. Indeed, Iowa has what could be dubbed a “concept highway” running north-south called the Avenue of the Saints because it connects St Louis, Missouri, to St Paul, Minneapolis. It was only designated as a single route, Iowa State Highway 27, in 2001, and mostly overlaps with other longer established routes. In particular, it overlaps with I-380 from near Iowa City northward, passing through Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in the state.


[By en:User:Interiority (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons]

Downtown Cedar Rapids was submerged in the massive 2008 floods (the same floods that damaged the University of Iowa Art Building and forced the collection to move to the Frigge). Many of its cultural institutions were damaged along with countless homes and businesses. One story of particular interest the Paramount Theater. The theater was severely damaged in the flood and the console of its historic Wurlitzer organ was destroyed. It seems so many stories with theaters named Paramount or Paradise or anything else that evokes the golden age of movie palaces have tragic overtones, but some do come back. From information provided by the city, the plans are for the Paramount to reopen later this year as a cultural center. The concept renderings of the lobby look to include the best modernist elements of Art Deco.

If anyone reading this knows more about what is happening in Cedar Rapids or any of the other cities profiled in this article, please do comment.

Fun with Highways: The Bay Bridge Turns 75

This past Saturday, November 12, marked the 75th anniversary of the opening of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, known conventionally as “The Bay Bridge.” It is a regular part of life for many of us here, one of our main connections to the communities across the bay and a principal landmark during walks in my part of the city. It has been featured in many previous articles here on CatSynth.

The Bay Bridge is a workhorse, spanning over 4 miles and carrying an estimated 270,000 vehicles a day, making it second busiest in the U.S. after the George Washington Bridge in New York. But the western double-span is quite a beautiful structure, both as seen from the hills of San Francisco and from up close.


[Click to enlarge]

[Click to enlarge.]

Don’t let that last photograph fool you. Even though it may look like it was taken 75 years ago, it was actually taken yesterday using the iPhone Hipstamatic app during an early afternoon walk by the bridge.

It was quite an engineering feat when it was built, the longest bridge of its time and built in challenging geography of the bay.

[Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

This video (as seen on the official Bay Bridge info site) captures both the era and the engineering:

Much like the Brooklyn bridge when it was first built, the Bay Bridge towered over the surrounding architecture of the cities it connected. It is anchored in the middle to Yerba Buena island with tunnels connecting the two spans of the bridges. On the the San Francisco side, it is anchored to Rincon Hill, once an upscale neighborhood in the late 1800s that fell into rapid decline and largely destroyed in the 1906 quake. The eastern bridge was built resting on mud rather than bedrock. It was the most expensive bridge built to date.

The idea of a bridge crossing the bay has been around since the 1800s. Indeed, such a bridge was proposed by Emperor Norton in the 1870s (I think this even made it into Gino Robair’s opera I Norton). But unlike his other proclamations, this one seemed like a good idea. After that, there were many proposals, such as this one that in some ways resembles the bridge that was actually built.

The bridge proposed in this drawing connected to Telegraph Hill rather than Rincon Hill, and has suspension bridges on both sides of Yerba Buena island.  The spires also make it look like some of the older suspension bridges on the East River in New York.

When bridge first opened, it carried US Highways 40 and 50 as well as the trains from the Key System in the East Bay. The upper deck had longer ramps leading to Harrison and Bryant Streets at 5th, roughly the same as the rather long ramps at those streets today. On the Oakland side, the bridge had viaducts from Cypress Street (Highway 17) as well as San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Highway (US 40). The bridge now carries Interstate 80 across the bay. The railway is long gone. Gone also are the connections to the old Transbay Terminal and Embarcadero Freeway, both of which have been demolished. The area under the bridge on the San Francisco side, once a gritty industrial waterfront, is now a picturesque boulevard that is great for walking. Through all of the changes, the bridge itself has not changed very much at all…

[Bay Bridge approach, 1940s]

[Bay Bridge and Embarcadero, 1970s and 1980s. Photos from Wikimedia Commons.]

[Present day, Bay Bridge and southern Embarcadero. Photo by CatSynth]

…until now. The eastern truss span, which was badly damaged in the 1989 earthquake, is now being replaced with a new more graceful cable-stayed span. The construction has progressed to the point where the tower is in place and the cables are being hung. It is indeed a bit distracting when traveling the bridge. But I am looking forward to seeing it completed, probably around the 77th anniversary in 2013.

Transbay Terminal overpass demolition

I often walk by the overpasses that connect (or once connected) to the soon-to-be-defunct Transbay Terminal here in San Francisco, including the Fremont Street “bridge to nowhere” and the curving elevated road over Howard Street. Both have been featured in Wordless Wednesday photos on CatSynth the posts Fremont Street Overpass and Shine.

[Click the above images to visit the original posts.]

The bridge to nowhere used to connect the Fremont Street exit off of I-80 to the Transbay Terminal. The Fremont Street ramp, which included the last remaining pieces of the Embarcadero Freeway, was truncated and left this bridge hanging. It was a particular favorite “architectural feature” of mine in the city, and in fact qualified as a “Thomasson” or hyper art structure in that was present and maintained but served no purpose.

The elevated road over Howard Street continued to function as a bus entrance to the terminal.

This past week both structures were demolished, as part of the project to replace the entire Transbay Terminal with a new modern transit center. Thanks to a tip from a close friend, I went to shoot some photos of the demolition in progress.

The Fremont Street bridge is completely orphaned on both sides. Only the single arch remained.

In the second photo, one can see the “Buses Only” ramp that temporarily replaced the bridge. That ramp was completely gone already.

The Howard Street overpass was being dismantled in pieces.

One could see the metal skeleton amidst the remaining concrete sections.

Here is a short video of the Howard Street overpass demolition in progress:

By Monday, the Fremont Street overpass was completely gone. And Howard Street structure will be gone soon as well. It is sad to so them go. For me, they were landmarks, part of the architectural landscape of the neighborhood. However, in a city where people get upset easily about architectural changes and preserving landmarks, these seem to have gone largely unremarked upon. I am glad I got a chance to see the demolition and take photos before they were gone. Indeed, some of the images can be quite beautiful in their own way. There is something about aging and decaying urban infrastructure, even when it is being reduced to a pile of concrete rubble and twisted rebar. But I would have rather seen it preserved – I wonder if San Francisco can ever do anything as creative with its old infrastructure as New York did with the High Line.

I may post more images in the near future.

Sonja Navin and Mike Kimball

I recently visited two openings for artists I met at Open Studios last fall and whose work reflects my interests in highways, architectural images and the urban landscape. The artists take very different approaches, and the shows were in very different parts of the city – but having both openings on the same night was a great opportunity to see them together and simultaneously reflect upon the city itself.

First, I stopped in the relatively quiet West Portal neighborhood for a show at the Greenhouse Cafe featuring Sonja Navin. Navin draws on her architectural background to capture familiar images of the city in her paintings. Perhaps the most “familiar” image was the King Street off-ramp from I-280 in her large painting entitled 280.

[Sonja Navin. 280. Photo courtesy of the artist. (click to enlarge)]

Navin experienced this interchange the way many of us do, i.e., being stuck in traffic, and thus had the opportunity to visualize it in detail. She also had a painting East on N which featured a familiar view along the N-Judah metro line in the Sunset district.

Although her subject matter is often architectural in nature, her painting style features large brush strokes and irregular areas of color rather than the straight lines and precision of architectural drawings. She also had several figurative paintings, and some such as In The Haight combine both character and street elements.

Navin’s exhibition, which also features artist Kacie Erin Smith, will be on display at The Greenhouse Cafe, 329 West Portal Avenue in San Francisco through April 30.


After brief ride over Twin Peaks, I found myself descending into the Mission district for an opening at City Art Gallery, where I was particularly interested to see new works by Mike Kimball.

Like Navin, Kimball’s interpretation of the urban landscape distills it down to basic elements, but his prints and paintings feature very clean lines and simple geometric shapes. One example is his Maritime Plaza, which I immediately recognized (it is a favorite out lunch spot of mine).

[Mike Kimball.  Maritime Plaza.  Image courtesy of the artist.  (click to enlarge.)]

Like the building it represents, the image is framed by the triangules and X-shapes of the seismic bracing. This was one of the first buildings to use this technique, which is now a familiar site on buildings in the Bay Area.

In Division Street, Kimball represents another familiar sight from daily life, the interchange of I-80 and US 101 that sits above Division Street in SOMA. The image is composed of very simple curves and lines and solid colors, from which one can distinguish the elevated structures of the highway and the shadows they cast, as well as details such as the markings (and probably graffiti) on the sides of the trailers.

[Mike Kimball.  Division Street.  Image courtesy of the artist.  (click to enlarge.)]

Trucks and trailers also feature prominently in Kimball’s work. His “Truckograph” series features a similar graphic quality to Division Street. His larger work Meditations on a port looks at the stacks of trailers at the port as an abstract collection of boxes. Kimball bridges the industrial and abstract in this work – close up, one can see the writing and metal texture, but from a distance one simply sees the colored squares.

Kimball’s current exhibition will be on display at City Art Gallery, 828 Valencia Street, through March 28.

Fun with highways: Bay Bridge construction

The Bay Bridge has been closed over the Labor Day weekend for a major engineering feat. As part of the replacement of the eastern span, engineers actually cut out a small section near Yerba Buena Island, and actually wheeled in a new section of bridge. This allows the old doomed bridge to be used while the new one is connected up to the island.

Looking towards Oakland from Yerba Buena island, this is what things looked like before the cut- and-replace operation:

You can see a lot more time-lapsed photos and different angles at the official website for the project. They also posted some photos that better illustrate the move itself at Twitter:

New bridge section awaits its moment of glory on Twitpic Bridge move almost complete! on Twitpic 3,600 tons of steel slowly moving into place on Twitpic
[Click on the images above for full-size versions at TwitPic]

Note that this does not really affect the western half of the bridge near on the San Francisco side, which is what we usually show in our Bay Bridge posts and photos at CatSynth. Except of course that it is closed.

And it looks like the closure could be a little bit longer than excepted. There was a serious crack found in one of the metal supports, so now they are working to repair that before opening. It’s just another reminder of why we want to replace the whole eastern span, hopefully before the next big earthquake. Fortunately, the closure doesn’t affect us at CatSynth all that much.