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Author Topic: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?  (Read 5911 times)

kernals12

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Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« on: October 24, 2020, 06:45:36 PM »

In the Prewar era, highway engineers were very concerned with aesthetics. They would have overpasses done up in stone or art deco. Then for some reason, they dropped the ball, littering our highways with ugly creations like this , though perhaps things are now getting better . So why can't they design overpasses like they used to?
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2020, 07:19:56 PM »

In the Prewar era, highway engineers were very concerned with aesthetics. They would have overpasses done up in stone or art deco. Then for some reason, they dropped the ball, littering our highways with ugly creations like this , though perhaps things are now getting better . So why can't they design overpasses like they used to?

Probably a combination of efficiency and economics. Nowdays, they can slap a few girders into place and they are almost ready to go,
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2020, 07:34:36 PM »

You can’t build things like massive freeways and the Interstates in a short time frame if aesthetics are a major concern.  Paying massive amounts of attention to aesthetic takes time and often costs money.  Brutalist style/cookie cutter designs really caught on in the late 1950s through to the turn of the Century in almost all facets of American construction.  Now that there is not quite the push to build roads as fast there are more often pleasing design elements brought back in. 
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #3 on: October 24, 2020, 08:00:05 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #4 on: October 24, 2020, 08:04:54 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

More so if design aesthetics are important to someone, why bother with a freeway at all then?  Freeways by their very nature just cut through the terrain and utilitarian.  Highways like CA 1 in Big Sur are the place to go for road and design aesthetics. 
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kernals12

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #5 on: October 24, 2020, 08:32:22 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

Aesthetics got a lot of highway dreams cancelled. In the 80s, The NYDOT wanted to remove 5 signalized intersections on the Saw Mill Parkway between Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers, but faced a wall of resistance from residents who worried the new overpasses would ruin the parkway's character.
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #6 on: October 24, 2020, 08:33:57 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

Aesthetics got a lot of highway dreams cancelled. In the 80s, The NYDOT wanted to remove 5 signalized intersections on the Saw Mill Parkway between Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers, but faced a wall of resistance from residents who worried the new overpasses would ruin the parkway's character.

It’s not likely that any design aesthetic is going to convince someone who doesn’t want a road in their back yard that it’s a good idea.  They call it “not in my backyard” for a reason.
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kernals12

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #7 on: October 24, 2020, 08:34:48 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

More so if design aesthetics are important to someone, why bother with a freeway at all then?  Freeways by their very nature just cut through the terrain and utilitarian.  Highways like CA 1 in Big Sur are the place to go for road and design aesthetics.

Because we need freeways to move people and goods. And I think the Merritt Parkway is very pretty. 
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kernals12

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #8 on: October 24, 2020, 08:42:18 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

Aesthetics got a lot of highway dreams cancelled. In the 80s, The NYDOT wanted to remove 5 signalized intersections on the Saw Mill Parkway between Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers, but faced a wall of resistance from residents who worried the new overpasses would ruin the parkway's character.

It’s not likely that any design aesthetic is going to convince someone who doesn’t want a road in their back yard that it’s a good idea.  They call it “not in my backyard” for a reason.

Here in Wellesley, which is an affluent town whose residents have a lot of political clout, they got locals to accept the construction of MA 9 in the 20s by making it attractive with decorative bridges, stone facade retaining walls, and grassy medians with lots of trees, you notice it vividly when you cross the border into Natick from where, until you get to Worcester, you are greeted with miles and miles of car dealerships, strip malls, and office buildings.
« Last Edit: October 25, 2020, 01:44:10 AM by kernals12 »
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #9 on: October 24, 2020, 08:43:59 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

More so if design aesthetics are important to someone, why bother with a freeway at all then?  Freeways by their very nature just cut through the terrain and utilitarian.  Highways like CA 1 in Big Sur are the place to go for road and design aesthetics.

Because we need freeways to move people and goods. And I think the Merritt Parkway is very pretty.

Okay, but consider you that not only have to sell the public on the need for a limited access road but also people managing a DOTs budget.  Making an argument for expensive additional aesthetic elements for a utilitarian facility just isn’t likely to fly.  Besides, the Merritt Parkway is an ancient facility that nowhere even close to capable of handling what a modern freeway can (especially because of the height requirement).  The design elements on the Merritt Parkway are often among it’s most significant safety hazards.
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Duke87

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #10 on: October 25, 2020, 01:30:38 AM »

So, I think a lot of it comes down to the development of the technology to mass produce things. In a world where just about everything is assembled more or less by hand (as was the case in the prewar era), the amount of extra work necessary to add ornamentation isn't that great and therefore the incremental cost of doing so is low.

But now that we have the ability to build things in more mass produced and mechanized fashion... deviating from standard mass produced design and adding in ornamentation adds time and labor to the project in ways it didn't used to. So it's usually skipped since it's not worth it.


Something else interesting worth noting for context, and which is a great example of "everything is relative"... when the Merritt Parkway was new, there were a fair number of people who complained that its bridges were bland and ugly. Reason being that the Merritt's bridges are mostly bare concrete with the majority of their ornamental details built into the forms used to pour them. To the eyes of some people in the 1930s, this was a very manufactured look that seemed cheap in comparison with the stone-faced overpasses New York was building on their parkways.
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #11 on: October 25, 2020, 12:56:26 PM »

If you have the demand for aesthetics, they will make bridges pretty (see the Colonial Pkwy in VA). Otherwise, why spend extra time and money when putting some I beams on concrete pillars with a slab of concrete for the deck works just fine?

Aesthetics got a lot of highway dreams cancelled. In the 80s, The NYDOT wanted to remove 5 signalized intersections on the Saw Mill Parkway between Dobbs Ferry and Yonkers, but faced a wall of resistance from residents who worried the new overpasses would ruin the parkway's character.

It’s not likely that any design aesthetic is going to convince someone who doesn’t want a road in their back yard that it’s a good idea.  They call it “not in my backyard” for a reason.

Here in Wellesley, which is an affluent town whose residents have a lot of political clout, they got locals to accept the construction of MA 9 in the 20s by making it attractive with decorative bridges, stone facade retaining walls, and grassy medians with lots of trees, you notice it vividly when you cross the border into Natick from where, until you get to Worcester, you are greeted with miles and miles of car dealerships, strip malls, and office buildings.

    Not desiring to nitpick, but Route 9 was likely designed in the 20's.  Likely long ago covered bridge abutments recalled from the seventies/early eighties times on Route 9 pointed to early 30's construction.  A hodge-podge of design.  Some intersections were grade - separated in the original construction, others weren't and some were grade separated later.  Others were half-a$$ed improved.  Likely intersections such as Oak Street in Natick had minuscule cross traffic then.  Many intersections which became busy were located at hill top locations, which would seem easier to grade separate, but they have become completely packed in by over valued properties today.
   As for going over-board on aesthetics, look at the tex-dot entity.  All sorts of architectural embellishments and frills.  Terraces, landscaping, inlays, ornate formwork.  Clearview.  Potentially over ten Billion wasted since the exit of GWB from the Governor's mansion.  Would have concentrated on sound design, maintenance of standards, rational reconstructions, corridor development, and most importantly, function over aesthetics.   
« Last Edit: October 25, 2020, 01:36:12 PM by DJStephens »
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kphoger

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #12 on: October 26, 2020, 10:01:48 AM »

The aesthetic elements on Kellogg—as it passes under various streets here on the east side of Wichita—were rather controversial for costing unnecessary money.  It's very easy to understand foregoing such embellishment for the sake of saving tax payers' money.

(Note the walls here.)
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #13 on: October 26, 2020, 10:44:49 AM »

Unpopular Opinion here, but simple and austere ≠ "ugly".
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #14 on: October 26, 2020, 04:15:51 PM »

Maryland started improving the aesthetics of it's road bridges about 20 years ago.  This overpass dates back to 2002.
https://goo.gl/maps/TNQdBwuHeJhtGhZ8A
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kernals12

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #15 on: October 26, 2020, 05:56:25 PM »

Maryland started improving the aesthetics of it's road bridges about 20 years ago.  This overpass dates back to 2002.
https://goo.gl/maps/TNQdBwuHeJhtGhZ8A

I did say that things seemed to be getting better and I pointed to the brand new overpass they built on MA 2 in Lincoln with a pleasing stone effect. In fact, they seem to be doing that everywhere. When they widened 128 between Wellesley and Randolph, they added this nice effect to the retaining walls at the Kendrick Street exit in Needham
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #16 on: October 27, 2020, 02:28:57 AM »

It's not just highway overpasses, pretty much all kinds of architecture suffer from this. Rather than building a brick grocery store, it's cheaper to pour a bunch of concrete slabs, stick them edge-on into the ground, and slap a metal roof on it.
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #17 on: October 27, 2020, 07:31:27 PM »

It seems like in the last 20 years, though, the "cookie cutter" Bridge designs have been fading away and a new era of "Bridge Personalization" has been the new norm.

When I lived in Ohio and now living in Colorado for nearly 15 years, it seems that most bridge replacements or new interstate bridges being built have had either distinctive parapets, coloring and/or stamping of parts of the concrete walls, or specific designs of the side rails/barriers crossing the roadway, or any combination thereof.

Unless it is a simple crossing of a creek, or a road in a rural area, I don't see much more than a handful of similar styled bridges built in the last 20 years in a single area anymore.

Perhaps the "cookie cutter" style of bridges in the 50s-80s was likely due to the rapid growth of the interstate system and the need to get things built asap.
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #18 on: October 28, 2020, 11:36:01 AM »

Another thing might be that aesthetics cost less now relative to a project's total cost.  In the past the cost of the aesthetics might be a significant additional cost of building a bridge.  But now that bridges cost more it's not such a big deal for the added cost.

Adding $20k to a $100k bridge sounds like a lot of additional cost.  But adding $40k to a $2M bridge is no big deal.  Just pulling numbers out of the air to illustrate the point.
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Max Rockatansky

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #19 on: October 28, 2020, 02:00:53 PM »

Another thing might be that aesthetics cost less now relative to a project's total cost.  In the past the cost of the aesthetics might be a significant additional cost of building a bridge.  But now that bridges cost more it's not such a big deal for the added cost.

Adding $20k to a $100k bridge sounds like a lot of additional cost.  But adding $40k to a $2M bridge is no big deal.  Just pulling numbers out of the air to illustrate the point.

I believe that’s why it was a fairly easy sell on making AZ 51 more aesthetically pleasing.  The original freeway design was very bland but really came to life after desert land landscaping.
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #20 on: October 30, 2020, 03:47:35 PM »

https://www.google.com/maps/@32.5364678,-93.7952292,3a,75y/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1szkE40ldWPJTAvNpVBHWaVQ!2e0

At the new I-220/I-49 interchange in Shreveport, decorative squares with a music theme were added to most of the bridge pillars. Under each square a blue light was installed underneath them to give the bridges a really interesting effect when you drive under them on I-220.
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US71

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #21 on: November 01, 2020, 08:47:28 PM »

Fayetteville, AR has this at Wedington Dr.  Been there since around 1980, but probably not much longer

https://goo.gl/maps/keaSz1wuGZEc8ZBd7
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kernals12

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #22 on: November 02, 2020, 01:04:48 PM »

LA is replacing the iconic 6th Street Viaduct with this




Note how thin the road deck is and how it doesn't have any ugly steel girders. I wonder if they use ultra high performance concrete
« Last Edit: November 02, 2020, 01:07:15 PM by kernals12 »
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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #23 on: November 02, 2020, 02:42:34 PM »

Form follows function.
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US71

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Re: Why did highway overpasses get so ugly?
« Reply #24 on: November 02, 2020, 02:49:43 PM »


Note how thin the road deck is and how it doesn't have any ugly steel girders. I wonder if they use ultra high performance concrete
[/quote

They must, I would think.
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