Just when construction barges appeared on Lake Washington earlier this year for the expansion of State Route 520, WSDOT released renderings showing the final design for its new floating bridge. The renderings revealed the new 520′s most striking feature — the sentinel towers that flank each end of the bridge. According to WSDOT’s design goals set by consultants at VIA Architecture, the sentinels are there to ceremoniously “identify regional gateways between land-based and waterborne structures and signify an arrival onto the world’s longest floating bridge.”
When the renderings were released, Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond described the new bridge design as “very elegant” and many in the local media took the bait. Headline writers at the Seattle Times gushed over its “modern design” and “retro touches.” The sentinel rendering at dusk suggested to the Seattle PI “romantic walks” across the lake. Critical voices in the press were few and far between and mostly limited to the comment sections of local blogs (CHS, STB) and WSDOT’s Flickr pool.
Frankly, there is not much use in engaging the Transportation Secretary or even the general public in an aesthetic debate about elegance. One person’s spire or beacon or obelisk is another person’s push-up-popsicle or light saber or middle finger. Since sentinels are common on Seattle bridges, from South Park to Ballard to Montlake — Fremont even has one that lives under Aurora — precedent gives cover to the Las Vegasification of our new floating bridge. It seems the highway department’s aesthetic direction is beyond the reach of democracy.
But the truly sad thing about the new bridge design is how oblivious it reveals WSDOT to be regarding the natural sentinels already existing at either end of 520. Commuters across the lake have known them for centuries. There they are, right in the middle of the renderings: the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Too bad those concrete tower things just get in the way.
In a previous post, it was argued that WSDOT’s new sentinels violate state law because of their lack of essential purpose. Similarly, the sentinels’ architectural illegitimacy is based in their uselessness, but even more so from interrupting the sensation of crossing the bridge at 60mph. Who doesn’t love cresting the 520 high rises and being swallowed by the lake-to-mountain view? This feeling is the best kind of monument to highway engineering and one that is only diminished by pouring more concrete.
Minimalism is the only aesthetic virtue in the triumph over nature. It also simply shows respect.