It has starred in more car chases than Vin Diesel, more stunt scenes than Tom Cruise and more music videos than Madonna, and yet it never even had to audition for a part. Leaping across the Los Angeles river on its twin steel arcs, held aloft by its majestic art deco concrete pillars, the Sixth Street Bridge has provided a backdrop for shootouts and dance-offs ever since it was built in 1932, appearing in everything from Grease to Terminator 2, and providing a dose of urban glamour in videos by everyone from Kanye West to Kid Rock.
But Hollywood’s go-to crossing is no more. It was torn down in 2016 after being diagnosed with a terminal case of concrete cancer: the sand that was used in the mix turned out to have a lethally high alkali content, reacting with the cement to cause expansion and cracking. By the 2010s, officials calculated the bridge stood a 70% chance of collapsing in a major earthquake within the next 50 years.
“Every time it got wet,” says Michael Maltzan, “it basically turned to jelly. Which isn’t ideal for a bridge over a river.” The architect is standing atop the structure he has designed to take its place: an almost mile-long, $588m new viaduct, the largest infrastructure project the city has ever built. A decade in the making, the bridge is due to open this summer, reconnecting downtown LA with the eastern neighbourhood of Boyle Heights, its wider deck now incorporating cycle lanes and more generous sidewalks, with its concrete arches now safely supported on seismic absorbers – allowing it to move up to 30 inches in any direction.
“But the real challenge,” says Maltzan, “was how to come up with something as iconic as the original.” For the Sixth Street Bridge is not just cherished by showbiz. It was one of the last bridges built across the river by the Bureau of Engineering in the 1920s and 30s under Merrill Butler, who saw the crossings as majestic civic monuments, a linear symphony in the sculptural possibilities of reinforced concrete. From Glendale in the north to Long Beach in the south, they were designed in styles ranging from neoclassical to Spanish colonial, streamline modern and gothic revival, each adorned with benches and balconies where people could rest and enjoy panoramic views. Sixth Street was the grandest of the lot, its lean double arches punctuated at either end with momentous pylons decorated with fluted zigzags.
“I thought the two arches were important to recall,” says Maltzan, whose “ribbon of light” concept – designed with HNTB engineers and Hargreaves Jones landscape architects – won an international competition in 2012. “They were so much part of the civic memory of the city. But the idea of just crossing the river felt too small. Infrastructure has a responsibility to cross over social, economic and cultural divisions – and we wanted the bridge to reflect that.”
Maltzan has taken the twin arcs and multiplied them fivefold across the 3,500ft length, hopping over railway tracks and roads as the viaduct makes its way eastwards. The result is almost surreal: seen from either end, it looks like the traces of two bouncing balls, ping-ponging their way across the valley, the arches rising to different heights according to what they are jumping over.
This being LA, there are several freeways to be crossed before the bridge gets anywhere near the river, which is itself more of a trickle in a concrete gulley. From the east, it straddles the I-5 before hitting the US-101, where the first pair of arches rise 40ft to form what feels like a gateway. Then come five pairs of 30ft arches, passing a low-rise warehouse district, then hitting the first set of railway tracks that flank the river. Here two pairs of arches rise to 60ft, forming a symbolic echo of the original structure.
“We were inspired by the idea that movement in LA is so cinematic,” says Maltzan, who describes his 20 arches as “portals” that frame scenic views of the city, the intention being to make the act of crossing a pleasure in itself, not simply a way of getting you from A to B. “As one of the engineers said, ‘Whatever happened to taking a Sunday drive?’”
Despite the traffic-choked reality, LA’s freeways still hold a special place in the city’s psyche. In the more innocent 1970s, the British critic Reyner Banham rhapsodised that driving here was “a special way of being alive,” putting you in “a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical”. The freeway, he concluded, was where Angelenos “spend the two calmest and most rewarding hours of their daily lives”.
Those two hours may have since doubled, or even tripled, but the car window remains the principal lens through which many experience the city. Drivers may be stuck in snarl-ups, but at least the views – of the towers of downtown to the west, of the San Bernardino mountains to the east – will be elegantly framed by Maltzan’s gymnastic arcs, which somehow have LA in their DNA, recalling the sinuous supports of LAX airport’s space-age Theme Building. Those on bikes, meanwhile, will have the pleasure of spiralling down a corkscrew ramp to a new 12-acre park, that will begin construction beneath the viaduct this summer.
Some residents on the east side, however, have been asking who exactly this park is for, and what impact the bridge will have on the area. “It doesn’t seem like it’s being designed for our community,” says Kenia Alcocer of Union de Vecinos, a neighbourhood group in Boyle Heights. “We welcome green spaces, but it looks like a plan for further gentrification, attracting other people to come here rather than focusing on the needs of locals.”
The bridge is less than a mile long but the two places it connects are worlds apart. To the west lies the arts district, the once-scruffy edge of downtown that is now an exclusive enclave of galleries, restaurants and luxury apartments – all a stone’s throw from the homeless encampments of Skid Row. Moments from where the bridge lands is an outpost of haute couture chain Dover Street Market and a restaurant serving wagyu ribeye steak for $160. Trading on the area’s artsy cache (despite the fact that artists have mostly been priced out) the land below this side of the bridge will feature an “arts plaza”, with a stage and terraced seating for performances.
Boyle Heights, meanwhile, has long been a low-income Latino neighbourhood, a place of mom-and-pop stores, taco stands and the musicians who still congregate around Mariachi Plaza. In recent years, it has found itself on the frontline of the city’s gentrification battles, as hipster real estate expands ever eastwards – to be met with a frosty reception.
“Hope everyone pukes on your artisanal treats,” was one response to a realtor who took clients on a bike tour of the neighbourhood in 2016. “Stay outta my fucking hood,” was another. Some galleries that moved into the Flats, the warehouse district beneath the bridge, have been hounded out. Their premises have been spray-painted and some have received anonymous death threats. But Alcocer fears their retreat was only temporary.
“The new bridge and park will see them come back stronger,” she says, “if we don’t organise and push back.” Grocery stores, laundromats and food wholesale warehouses have been replaced with breweries, coffee shops and cannabis stores, she adds, while forced evictions have been rocketing, with landlords keen to attract the new deeper-pocketed demographic. “We are wanted for our culture,” says Alcocer, “but we ourselves are not wanted. People moving here want the mariachi murals and the street stalls, but not the people. We’re just props to add real estate value.”
The bridge promoters insist the park has been developed with the local community in mind. It will have picnic areas and grilling spaces alongside playgrounds, soccer fields and courts for basketball, volleyball and futsal, a Latin American version of five-a-side football.
“The bridge is not the driver of gentrification,” says Maltzan, “but it’s a double-edged sword. It will inevitably bring more attention to this area, and when a neighbourhood becomes visible, developers always come in.” The city, he says, has a history of building infrastructure that was designed to connect communities but ended up doing the exact opposite, splitting neighbourhoods into silos.
“LA has always portrayed itself as a multicultural city,” he adds, looking back at the expanse of his creation. “But it’s really a city of many separate cultures, which is a very different thing. I hope the bridge plays some part in weaving it together.”