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Friday, June 8, 2007

Viaduct Love

posted by on June 8 at 12:21 PM

After the great age of Roman building, the art of the viaduct and aqueduct lay fallow for many centuries, until the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, when the burgeoning network of canals and railways needed ways to to get around each other. The most wonderful of these structures was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, in Wales, built by the genius Thomas Telford in 1795. This carried the water of the Llangollen or Ellesmere Canal in a cast iron channel over the River Dee. Imagine looking up from a boat on the river in the eighteenth century and seeing the mast of a ship high in the sky above you!


The first great railway viaduct was the Sankey Viaduct, built by George Stephenson in 1830,which carried the first proper railway, The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, over Sankey Brook (part of the Sankey Canal, which was in some ways the first modern canal).


The dreamlike Millau Viaduct in southern France, finished in 2004, and carrying a highway over the valley of the River Tam, is a superlative example of the modern engineer’s freedom from the customary restraints of the earth.


The Lai Chi Kok Viaduct in Hong Kong, currently under construction, is more prosaic but just as technologically challenging.


The viaduct of the Cahill Expressway in Sydney, Australia frames the bustling heart of the most beautiful harbor in the world (center right in photo).


Our own entry in this catalog of pathways through the sky is the beautiful and functional Alaskan Way Viaduct, which elevates hundreds of thousands of cars above the city and the heads of its residents, allowing them to pass freely beneath between the commercial districts and the waterfront.


While some malcontents complain of dark and gloom and noise and dripping dankness, they are insensible to its considerable charms. Concrete, humankind’s most versatile and beautiful material, acquires a sumptuous grey-green patina after bathing in decades of rain, mildew, and exhaust, and glows with a depth that mere stone requires centuries or millennia to acquire.


The bold unadorned structural elements speak of the unpretentious working life of the blue-collar city, speeding aircraft mechanics, waitresses, longshoremen and administrative assistants to their jobs. It also provides anyone with a car the spectacular Puget Sound views that would otherwise belong only to those in expensive downtown condominiums. It also forms a cohesive whole with the seawall that keeps the city from sliding into Elliott Bay on its foundation of slippery mud. Surely this is a triumph not only of the engineering and construction arts, but the urbanized aesthetic beauty of a great regional center?


RSS icon Comments


Ooooohhh, it's on ECB!

Posted by Original Andrew | June 8, 2007 12:29 PM

So much for getting that full-time Slogging job.

Posted by pox | June 8, 2007 12:29 PM


Posted by hurrrk | June 8, 2007 12:30 PM

Charles, stop impersonating Fnarf.

Posted by grg | June 8, 2007 12:31 PM

Cheeky, though I was expecting a lampoon of ECB.

Posted by Gomez | June 8, 2007 12:41 PM


Posted by David Schmader | June 8, 2007 12:41 PM

grg: Charles, stop impersonating Fnarf.


Now, to return to developments that are relevant to the 21st century... Here's an item from the front page of today's New York Times:
City Traffic Pricing Wins U.S. and Spitzerís Favor

Posted by cressona | June 8, 2007 12:42 PM

Not in the least big convincing, Fnarf.

Posted by Dan Savage | June 8, 2007 12:44 PM

I'm totally loving this - taking the shit out of Charles

Pox is right though, been nice knowing ya'

tee hee.

Posted by ho' know | June 8, 2007 12:46 PM

All this post proves is that it's possible to take a pretty picture of an ugly structure.

Posted by EXTC | June 8, 2007 12:47 PM

Dang, you made me miss Vancouver!

Posted by Will in Seattle | June 8, 2007 12:51 PM

Gig 'em, Fnarf. Good on ya!

Posted by ivan | June 8, 2007 12:53 PM

All the money and energy around this issue, and all the waxing poetic about aesthetics. The fact is, you can take value of aesthetics only to a certain point. Utility sometimes trumps beauty. Otherwise we'd be working towards lining Harbor Island with boulevards and trees as well.

I'd be willing to bet that after the millions are spent by the city council to study the surface-transit option, they will come back to the obvious: the viaduct needs to be replaced. AND we need more mass transit.

Posted by Madashell | June 8, 2007 12:59 PM

The distinguishing factor in most of your examples of viaducts is that they are in fact bridges over bodies of water, making them necessary if people are to traverse the body of water. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, as it could be replaced by a conventional surface-level roadway and still serve the same function, is unnecessary. In addition, most of your examples are in fact stone or steel, not concrete.

Posted by ECB | June 8, 2007 1:01 PM

Say it with pride, Fnarf! If you want to walk, walk down the street. Leave the Viaduct up. Cars aren't the problem, it's the emissions. America awaits it's next engineering genius with sweaty brow and trembling wallet.

Fnarf, are you taking your shot at a hundo in the comments?

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | June 8, 2007 1:10 PM

The contrast just shows all the more clearly how truly ugly our viaduct is.

But fuck aesthetics. The viaduct could be the most beautiful piece of civil engineering from the last 50 years and I'd still want to get rid of it. Building more capacity increases demand. Reducing capacity reduces demand. It's really, really simple.

Posted by gfish | June 8, 2007 1:13 PM

The truly wonderful thing about the Viaduct is that its form is not despoiled by landscaping.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | June 8, 2007 1:18 PM

I'm bored.

Posted by Travis | June 8, 2007 1:22 PM

"Building more capacity increases demand. Reducing capacity reduces demand."

I'm with you on the first part. Explain to me again how the second part works? Are we going to tear down all the single family homes in Queen Anne and Magnolia and build high rises to provide room for all folks from Bellevue, Kent, and Edmonds that are going to be flocking into town? Just curious.

Posted by Big Sven | June 8, 2007 1:22 PM

I'm bored.

Posted by Travis | June 8, 2007 1:22 PM

I love it! Viva le viaduct!

Posted by hunh? | June 8, 2007 1:27 PM

I'll never make a hundred, Lloyd, unless I attack the fucking cripples.

Posted by Fnarf | June 8, 2007 1:28 PM

19: Sure, or we'll improve transit and increase density in other parts of the area. Or some of both.

Suburbs as we know them were unthinkable before the massive social engineering project that is the American highway system. We spent 50 years encouraging their growth, and now we need to start encouraging their abandonment. Nothing happens overnight, but our cities are capable of amazing change when presented with the right incentives. The very existence of this problem in the first place shows that.

Posted by gfish | June 8, 2007 1:30 PM

The RTID just approved a Pierce Co. plan that INCLUDES the cross-base highway:

Double-fuck 'em.

Posted by where's waldo? | June 8, 2007 1:36 PM

"It also provides anyone with a car the spectacular Puget Sound views that would otherwise belong only to those in expensive downtown condominiums."

Just remember kids: a new viaduct will have taller, solid-concrete walls on either side to comply with new safety regs. You won't have a view from your car.

Posted by Orphan Road | June 8, 2007 1:46 PM


Edmonds is now a suburb, and is almost as old as Seattle. Ditto lots of other older smaller cities throughout the region.


Spare us the discredited Tim Ceis talking points.

Well put, FNARF, well put. ECB's got nuthin!

Posted by Mr. X | June 8, 2007 2:21 PM

Fnarf, by juxtaposing images of those other beautiful bridges with our own charmless pile of concrete, you've made a pretty strong case for tearing that shit down.

Posted by Sean | June 8, 2007 2:23 PM

Sean, I find the effectiveness of it quite charming indeed.

Posted by Lloyd Clydesdale | June 8, 2007 2:47 PM

ECB Wrote:
"The Alaskan Way Viaduct, as it could be replaced by a conventional surface-level roadway and still serve the same function, is unnecessary."

That is the fundamental problem with
the surface transit proposal. Moving the function of the Viaduct to the surface on Alaska Way is a profoundly
shallow and poor use of the limited land mass in the corridor. This is a land use issue and not road building one. Building a surface highway is
not a cure. Bridge It!

--- Jensen

Posted by Jensen Interceptor | June 8, 2007 3:05 PM

catastrophic earthquake, save us from ourselves.

Posted by maxsolomon | June 8, 2007 3:22 PM

"In fact" ECB, I count only 4 of the 6 viaducts displayed by Fnarf as going over natural bodies of water. One of the remaining was used to convey water, not people, over a stream.

Your usual loose application of facts.

Go Fnarf!

Posted by elrider | June 8, 2007 4:40 PM

Well, it it conveys water it's an aqueduct. I'm not exactly sure Fnarf knows the differences, mostly radical, between the displayed structures either. The function and aesthetic analogy doesn't hold up much, given the viaduct is neither beautifully ornamental nor a real engineering achievement. The Bonneville dam is an engineering achievement, the viaduct is an ugly elevated road.

If Fnarf seriously believes the Seattle viaduct is beautiful, he probably thinks parking lots and 7-11s are beautiful too.

Posted by Jay | June 8, 2007 6:07 PM

Parking lots are just as functional. And some of them are even elevated!

Posted by Jay | June 8, 2007 6:08 PM

note: the aqueduct comment was not directed at Fnarf but at Erica. There should have been a break there.

Posted by Jay | June 8, 2007 6:25 PM


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