Fun with Highways: The Golden Gate Bridge at 75

Today we at CatSynth and countless others celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The tallest suspension bridge in the United States, the second longest, and painted in International Orange, it is instantly recognizable. In a sense, the Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s “Empire State Building”. Both are iconic architectural centerpieces that represent their respective cities, and both date back to the 1930s and feature the distinctive Art Deco elements of the era. Both are often present in the background during everyday life of the cities. And (at least for me), they are also places rarely visited except when hosting out-of-town visitors.

But the Golden Gate Bridge is an important practical part of the city. It is a busy transportation carrying US 101 and California Highway 1 north from San Francisco into Marin County and points beyond on the north coast. It is very unusual for a modern roadway in that the opposing lanes are separated only by short poles that are moved to adjust the number of lanes in each direction. It seems a bit quaint, in fact. On the city side, the highway split into a boulevard carrying CA 1 south and Doyle Drive (US 101) until this past month when the latter was demolished. From these points, travelers are dispersed onto the city streets of San Francisco. There is no easy highway or rail connection between my part of the city (near the Bay Bridge) and the Golden Gate Bridge, owing to the city’s hilly geography and quirky political history. As such, I find myself not near the bridge very often except when I need to be. But when I am nearby it is worth stopping to take notice.

This is what we most often see when we look at the bridge, the orange structure partially shrouded or occasionally completely enveloped by another of our famous landmarks, the San Francisco fog. But the interplay of the fog, the bridge structure, and the other natural and human elements of landscape can make for interesting compositions.

With the anniversary upon us, much attention is being paid to the history of the bridge, its engineering as well as the politics and economics surrounding its construction. For me, the most interesting part of the history is the work of Charles Ellis, a senior structural engineer and mathematician. In many ways (including his early academic credentials), he was more mathematician than engineer, and did much of the theoretical work on the design of the bridge with large amounts of detailed mathematics, along the way publishing highly cited works such as “Williot Equations for Statically Indeterminate Structures” in Transactions, American Society of Civil Engineers, 1935. Indeed, he is now recognized as a principal designer of the bridge, but at the time he was not given any credit after being fired by Joseph Strauss, chief engineer of the bridge project. He was only officially given credit in 2007 (as described in this San Francisco Chronicle article).

This film from the time chronicles the building of the bridge, but also exemplifies the mythology that Strauss created around himself.

Nonetheless, the bridge itself opened to huge fanfare, as seen in this Prelinger Archives film:

Another copy of this video can be found here.

The festivities for this year’s 75th anniversary began about a month ago with the demolition of Doyle Drive, the elevated highway connecting to the bridge.


[Photo by toyzrus8 on flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

The old highway had elements such as metallic beams in the International Orange color that connected it to the bridge, and it definitely looked to be of the same vintage. It is being replaced by the new Presidio Parkway that will more gracefully connect to the surrounding parkland but also contain the iconic orange color and architectural elements to connect it to the bridge.

Today’s festivities include a planned fireworks display at the bridge. Perhaps most notably there is an ongoing art exhibit at Fort Point called International Orange in which several prominent artists present works inspired by the bridge. I am hoping to see this exhibit soon (perhaps on a quieter day when I can observe the pieces in detail). I did see a preview recently at one of last weekend’s art fairs where Anandamayi Arnold wore one of her dresses for the exhibit, appropriately colored in International Orange. I am also inspired by the concept of this project and the mathematical work of Ellis described above to try my own hand at a creative piece in honor of this occasion.

Please join us in wishing the Golden Gate Bridge a happy 75th Anniversary!

Fun with Highways: California Highway 114 (?)

I find myself on US 101 at least once a week for work, heading south from San Francisco to Palo Alto. A couple of weeks ago a started noticing a new route marker in a construction zone near East Palo Alto for Highway 114.

Highway 114? I did know there was such a thing. It turns out it is in fact a define short route along Willow Road between 101 and CA 84, leading to the Dumbarton Bridge, as described at cahighways.org.  It is only about one mile long.

I was also not familiar with 109, which runs along University Avenue in East Palo Alto but is unsigned.

So I wonder why 114 suddenly became signed as a detour route during this construction project? Is it perhaps a legal requirement, or maybe it will be signed in the 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: The Alemany Maze

We return to a favorite topic here at CatSynth with a highway interchange that we know quite well.

The Alemany Maze is the large interchange in southern San Francisco between US 101 and Interstate 280. It derives it’s name from Alemany Boulevard, which runs parallel to 280.

In the upper-left corner of the interchange is a large lot that is home to the Alemany Farmers Market, which has been operating at this location since 1947. I wish it wasn’t only on Saturdays (indeed, it would be great if it operated on a weekday evening to pick up fresh ingredients for dinner on the way home from work). Beyond the lot is 5lowershop (pronounced “flower shop”), where I performed two years ago at the headphone festival. I will be performing there again in October.

The section of the I-280 north of the interchange is the last double-decker freeway in the Bay Area.


[photo by /\/\ichael Patric|{] on flickr]

In the years since the infamous collapse of the I-880 Cypress Freeway in the 1989 earthquake, the other double-decker freeways have been torn down, leaving only this far less controversial section of I-280. You can read more in this article.

Whenever I drive to work (sometimes I take BART), I pass through this interchange on I-280. Besides it’s largeness and the annoyance of having to change lanes just to up against the freeways and the ramps.

Indeed, the houses along Boutwell St lie in between 101 and the ramp to 280, which seems like a somewhat surreal place to live. Similarly, I see these and other houses on the top of the hill on Charter Oak Avenue (north of 280) when driving south:

The houses on Charter Oak are actually on a steep hillside, so are somewhat sheltered from the freeway, though they also have a rather direct view of the double-decker section.

All these houses are part of the Bayview District of San Francisco (also known as the Bayview-Hunters Point District), which extends east from 101 to the bay. I can only imagine that these house all pre-dated the construction of I-280, which was built in the late 1960s. More information on the history of I-280 can be found at California Highways.


Primary Highways: Oregon

Our series returns to the west coast, and to a state I know from personal experience. I have traveled through the western part of Oregon multiple times. It is a state that at first glance has much in common with northern California, politically and geographically, but has its own unique characteristics.

Traveling north on I-5, one crosses an arbitrary line the separates the spectacular landscape of far-northern California from the spectacular landscape of southwestern Oregon. The highway weaves through the mountains and valleys of the Cascade Range, including numerous volcanic (or formerly volcanic) peaks.

At the town of Medford, one can continue north, or take a detour east on state highway 62 to Crater Lake. Crater Lake fills a caldera in the Cascade Range, and is the deepest lake the United States. It's circular shape is quite distinctive, as are its internal landmarks, including Wizard Island (the pointy island to one side of the lake), the “Old Man of the Lake“, and several volcanic formations. I had the opportunity to visit Crater Lake many years ago.

More recently, I traveled the other route from Medford, on I-5 north to Portland, while I was on tour last October.

We experienced Portland's famously variable weather. Fortunately, many of the city's attractions are indoors. This includes Powell's Books. I could have spent the whole day in the Pearl Room, which contained the art and architecture offerings, as well as their extensive rare book collection.

Portland also has abundant public art. Across from Powell's is this “brush,” a noted landmark:


[Click to enlarge]

This building brings to mind the city's nickname, Rose City.


[Click to enlarge]

These are only a few of the photos I took while on tour. Please visit the original article for more images, including the intriguing “recursive elephant” sculpture (and the hidden cat).

Portland is someplace I could see living, and indeed the idea crossed my mind during my period of unemployment last year. Ironically, it was en route to Portland that I took the fateful phone call that led to my current job and new life in San Francisco.

We also performed in the coastal town of Astoria, which can be reached by traversing the coast range or traveling along the Columbia River on US 30. This is actually the western end of US 30, which starts at a junction with our friend US 101.


[Click to enlarge]

Astoria was cool and rainy and very green, as one would expect along the northern Pacific coast. The people we met there were also very welcoming to a group of Bay Area musicians playing weird experimental music. Again, you can read more about our visit at the original tour article.

I have never been to the eastern part of Oregon, which is a very different place altogether. I am quite intrigued by the descriptions of part of eastern Oregon as a desert landscape. But it seems like one has to be very motivated to visit, as it is far less populated and less accessible via major highways. The east-west divide also seems to extend to politics, with western Oregon being more liberal in the “northern California” sense, and eastern Oregon being more conservative. I wonder how this divide is going to play, at least in the media, given the patterns of this election…

Basilico and Eliasson at SFMOMA

It has been an incredibly warm summer-like weekend here in San Francisco, and I took advantage to explore both my neighborhood and the surrounding areas on foot. Today those wanderings included another visit to the SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

The featured photography exhibit of Gabriele Basilico was incredibly in turn with my own recent experience in San Francisco, and my interest in highways and industrial landscapes as expressed here on CatSynth. Indeed, it was the perfect exhibition to complement this weekend – it was been incredibly warm and summer-like, and I have been exploring my neighborhood and the surrounding areas on foot. And the title image of the I-80 and US 101 split, shown to the right, is very similar to a photo from Wikipedia that I cut from my recent Super Tuesday article:

The exhibition includes several other photos of San Francisco highways as well as other familiar images from my SOMA neighborhood, and from the towns in Silicon Valley. From the museum’s statement:

This exhibition presents a series of nearly 50 black-and-white and color photographs taken by Basilico at the invitation of SFMOMA during a monthlong residency in the Bay Area last summer…This exhibition will be the first of an ongoing project focused on Silicon Valley, in which artists will document the area on film. Basilico?s objective style and affinity for observing marginalized urban settings in a classical mode promises a compelling counterpoint to future installments in the project.

This of course inspires me to do more of my own work along these lines. I could probably fill Worldess Wednesday for the rest of the year just with photos of the city.

The next exhibition takes us from the amazingly timely to something “out of time.” Indeed, the title of Olafur Eliasson’s “Take Your Time” exhorts us to suspend our sense of time and enter a world purely of color, light and geometry. The tunnel (on SFMOMA’s fifth-floor catwalk) sets the tone for the exhibit, with color planes, plays on light, and complex but analytical geometric figures.

Challenging the passive nature of traditional art-viewing, he engages the observer as an active participant, using tangible elements such as temperature, moisture, aroma, and light to generate physical sensations.

Eliasson’s pieces also include a room entirely of yellow lamps reminiscent of the sodium street lamps used in places like San Jose, a screen of rippling light that responds to viewers’ movements on the floorboards, and a walk-in geometric figure of mirrors. To really get the most out of these works, one has to “suspend time” and explore them in detail, even though they are devoid of what we usually think of as “detail” (and what I usually try to avoid in art and design). Of course, that can be challenging on a crowded Sunday afternoon. But not impossible, if you take your time.

This article is included in the February 13 Carnival of Cities.

Astoria

Just a quick note this afternoon, from Astoria, Oregon. Our second show of the tour (third, if you count 1510 in Oakland) will be here in Astoria tonight, at the Astoria Visual Arts center. And I will also be performing a solo set to open, again with electronics and my folk and toy instruments.

We have posters all over town, and a great write-up in the Coast Weekend, a local paper.

Astoria itself is an interesting little town, at the mouth of Columbia River on the Oregon coast:

The coast highway runs through and north across the river into Washington state.

Here are a few photos from town:

And here is the band at the “Astoria Column”:


Click to enlarge

More on the performance itself after it actually happens. Also, I might go backwards in time to our show and day yesterday in Portland…but in the meantime, Polly has already journaled the first two days of our tour