Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Interstate Sound Barriers Don't Have To Be Eyesores

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. So is I-40 at the Midtown Interchange.

Just take a look at the massive concrete walls being built as sound baffles for the historic neighborhood adjacent to the interstate.

But rather than simply allow concrete to look like concrete, someone at Tennessee Department of Transportation has decided to paint it, and worst of all, to paint it peach (see photo)with two dark accent stripes painted on the wall. It’s reminiscent of that awful public architecture – like the Memphis and Shelby County Construction Codes Enforcement headquarters at Shelby Farms Park – that for some unfathomable reason decides to add a band of color that wraps buildings like a bandage.

When asked about the paint color, the people at the work site are quick to shift the blame to headquarters. They said that as soon as they put up the first test panels for the new paint, they called TDOT’s main office to ask if this was really the right color.

Questions by the workers centered on more than the color. Some also questioned why the state would want the upkeep that results from painted walls and wondered if the painted walls would be a magnet for graffiti.

The answer from TDOT: the paint is not a mistake, and yes, it is the right color.

All in all, it’s such a missed opportunity for TDOT to do something right for Memphis. All it would have taken was a phone call to the Urban Art Commission. Rather than paint concrete, our public art agency could have involved artists with experience in these kinds of projects.

But traffic engineers are the last frontier for public art projects. Architects are responsive, as shown in the impressive public art installed in city schools and police stations. The resistance of traffic engineers is confusing, because as long as TDOT is pouring concrete anyway, why not make it with textures, graphics or sculptures?

No less an expert than the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation says that designs like lizards, cacti, ladybugs, trees, leaves, animal tracks and landscapes can be added to noise barriers to make them more attractive. In fact, an FHWA official said that aesthetics are just as important – maybe even more important – than the noise reduction of a barrier. “Many citizens view an ugly barrier as a waste of time and money.”

There’s no argument here.

In Scottsdale, Arizona, noise barriers are decorated with native desert plants and lizard motifs that create a soothing and appealing environment (see photo). In Mill Creek, Washington, the concrete on the sound barriers has a border of leaves (some with ladybugs) along the top and the concrete on the rest of the wall is made to look like tree bark.

Scottsdale did it by adding a landscape architect and an artist to its design team. The team immediately saw the massive walls as a huge palette to be used for public art that could “embrace the city’s overall ideas and assist in creating an art project that could help weave together a community that was being split by the corridor alignment.”

In Mill Creek, brainstorming sessions led to designs featuring maple and alder leaves, cedar branches, dragonflies, ladybugs and animal tracks, which were seen as reflective of the city’s environmental heritage.

While coping with the unattractive painted sound barriers here would be hard enough, it’s especially difficult when you see what’s being done in other parts of the U.S. These concrete barriers don’t have to be eyesores, but unfortunately, it always seems like we’re the last to demand that public works projects should be well-designed and assets. Every time we see these peach walls, we’ll remember what might have been.

If there are any words that TDOT should live by, it’s these by Margaret Burning, associate curator of public art for the Scottsdale Public Art Program. “On the public level, you have an artistic treatment that is responsive to the scale of the environment. If you are driving 65 miles an hour down the freeway, it envelops you without being distracting. On another level, the treatment serves as a tool to introduce people to Scottsdale, showing that the city cares about the quality of life for its citizens and visitors driving on the freeway itself. You don’t need to know a lot about the place or be an art connoisseur to appreciate the design.”

Hopefully, TDOT will throw away its paint swatches, and next time, it will let its fingers do the walking. The phone number at the UrbanArt Commission is 901-525-0880.


turnerarch said...

But it’s such a lovely shade of peach and the brown stripe (or "hat") really takes me back to the 70's. Maybe that was the concept here: If we make it look like it was built three decades back, people will forget the debacle that has been I-40 through Memphis. They really are appropriate in that they present a physical reality of what freeways actually meant for many of these urban neighborhoods. The “barrier” embodies the isolation and separation that occurred as traditional street grids and urban areas were gutted for “easier access”.

How much freedom do the citizens have in transforming the neighborhood façade of the barriers?

Smart City Consulting said...

Some good news from Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Gerald Nicely, who's brought a breath of fresh air to TDOT. He emails that he agrees completely with the post about sound barriers and that he and his staff are working to improve their appearances.

In response to turnerarch, perhaps the answer is some neighborhood folk art projects for all of these walls.

mike said...

As long as it's the community, and not some self-selecting panel of "art experts" who decide what gets put on them. I'll take true folk art over pompous, deliberately cryptic and antagonistic "high art" any day.