The LA Bridge Over Troubled Waters

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It’s a sparkling Southern California summer morning and I’m clambering over a “nothing to cross” barrier to begin a winding ascent to a meeting about LA’s newest civic design element: the elegant Sixth Street Viaduct by architect Michael Maltzan. A friendly construction worker wearing a helmet waves me across when I tell him I’m here to see the man who designed the bridge.

While waiting for Maltzan to arrive, I admire the view from the latest addition to the LA skyline, which opened on July 9. To the west is the bustling arts district in downtown LA, while to the east is the working-class Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights. . Beyond are skyscrapers, cars on tangled freeways, and LA’s ubiquitous helicopters.

Maltzan appears in a white canvas sun hat and dark sunglasses. We start by talking not about its design, but about the bridge that stood there until 2016: an iconic Depression-era structure that was torn down after decades of repairs that failed to stop its structural decay.

The original Sixth Street Viaduct was a product of the “City Beautiful” movement of the 1930s, and later dubbed the “most cinematic” bridge in Los Angeles thanks to its appearance in a slew of movies, TV shows, video clips and advertisements. John Travolta sped underneath in the famous drag race scene shot along the concrete-lined LA River in Fat. Madonna danced in her shadow in her ‘Borderline’ video, and she featured in chase sequences in The Last Action Hero and The man from the depot.

The car racing scene from ‘Grease’, in which Danny (John Travolta) drives his hot-rod under the original bridge © LMK Media/Alamy

Given the story, Maltzan — a New York native who’s lived in Los Angeles since the late 1980s — knew he had to come up with something cool. “When we won the design competition, I had a real moment of anxiety,” says the 62-year-old architect. “Replacing an icon was one of the most daunting tasks we faced. This bridge lived in people’s consciousness.

Dubbed the “Ribbon of Light,” the $588 million project features a series of concrete arches that rise and fall along the 3,500-foot (1,066-meter) span, with each arch sloping upwards. 9 degrees outside. “My goal was to give the impression of space that opens up to the sky,” he says. For me, arcs imply movement, rhythm.

Perhaps radically for car-loving LA, Maltzan has included generous walkways and bike lanes, which people use on the morning we meet. Below us, work is underway to create a 12-acre park, and there’s a plan to give Angelinos better access to the LA River (which, it must be said, is more of an LA Trickle at some times of the year).

Many wonder if the LA River even is a river, given that it was tarred and “canalized” following a pair of deadly floods in the 1930s. The city is now trying to allow it to return to a more natural state. “It’s a huge project to restore the river, but it’s being done,” he said.

For Maltzan, the rehabilitation of the bridge, park and river is part of what he hopes will be a greater transformation of LA – from a city choked with traffic and dominated by single-family homes into a greener city with enough accommodation for everyone. But it will require a fundamental overhaul of what life is like in Southern California.

To get there, Angelinos will have to shed their obsessions with owning homes with sprawling lawns and multi-car garages — the building blocks of the mid-century California dream — and embrace public transportation and high-density apartments. .

“The greatest proportion of funky, interesting and radical architecture [in 20th-century] LA was in the single family home,” he says. “But that is changing. The question is, how do you evolve the best parts of life in Southern California for everyone? »

He sees the response around him every day among the young people of his neighborhood, the hipster (and modern architecture) mecca of Silver Lake. “There is no doubt in my mind that much of the change will be driven by a younger generation demanding a different way of living in the city,” he says.


Overlooking downtown LA from the bridge, Maltzan’s optimism is refreshing, especially at a time when many believe the United States is unraveling and taking the rest of the world with it. He acknowledges there are serious problems in California — a severe lack of affordable housing and a homelessness crisis among them — but believes they can be solved.

Since moving to Los Angeles a year ago, I have been struck by the persistence of the idea that California is an incubator for the nation – that public policies, social and political trends and breakthroughs technologies happen here first and are adopted everywhere else sooner or later. After living in Asia for four years, I figured the California moment was starting to pass. But I’ve come to recognize that there’s still an unmistakable energy here, despite legitimate concerns that the state is losing its edge to low-tax, low-regulation states like Texas.

California’s biggest proponent of exceptionalism is the state’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who recently took his message of tough liberalism on the road – prompting speculation he could run for office. the US presidency in 2024 if Joe Biden decides not to seek again. election.

Newsom has already asserted himself on the national stage, declaring himself the leader of the anti-Trump “resistance”. This time, he’s tapping into Democrats’ anger over the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights and the failure to pass meaningful gun control laws. He even ran ads in the battleground state of Florida, whose governor, Ron DeSantis, is considered Donald Trump’s main rival for the 2024 Republican nomination.

The palpable anger of Newsom, 54, was contrasted with Biden’s more measured approach. “Where the hell is my party?” Newsom said earlier this year.

He’s had problems as governor, including an unsuccessful but distracting recall effort last year sparked by his flagrant violation of his own Covid-19 policies. But he’s sitting on a record $100 billion budget surplus, which he plans to use to pass policies that reflect California’s “steadfast values.” He is expected to be re-elected this year.

A hacking political operative could easily jam a Newsom presidential run into the narrative of California reasserting itself as America’s political laboratory. Just as former California Senator Richard Nixon and former Governor Ronald Reagan helped usher in a new era of conservatism, a Newsom candidacy could spark a return to militant liberalism in the face of Republican overreach. That seems overkill, at least for now.

Back in the real world, Maltzan sees the bridge’s completion — and plans to create more civic space around it — as a sign that Los Angeles can still do some ambitious work. “We did something in a city,” he said. “It is extremely important, especially when the country is divided.”

Christopher Grimes is the FT’s Los Angeles bureau chief

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