Freeways and the Experience of Architecture


Almost unacknowledged by critics and historians of art and architecture, freeways dramatically manifest a new kind of genuinely aesthetic event. The work of art is being thought of less as a thing or isolated object and more as a process or interaction between object and viewer. No longer is Art necessarily defined as that which is surrounded by a gilt frame or placed on a marble pedestal. Such a conventional notion was already challenged with 19th century assaults on the hierarchy of subject matter.

Over a century ago, Realism sustained an interpretation of art that did not depend upon Idealized subject matter. An extreme development of these implications was seen over half a century ago with the first fully abstract work of art. With the widespread growth and influence of abstract or non-objective art in our time, we now realize that the question of subject matter is no longer an essential element defining the work of art itself. However it may still be relevant for analyzing some particular works, as for example with the importance of figural or commercial subject matter in Pop art. This general development has also profoundly altered our approach to architecture by emphasizing the event of aesthetic perception as the key to defining the work of art (or architecture). This we may speak of architectural--and genuinely aesthetic experiences with regard to many structures, such as bridges or freeways, that before would have been looked upon with disdain conditioned by earlier and more limited conceptions of architecture. The essential characteristic of an architectural "event" is a four-dimensional, space-time quality of the experience.

In order to fully realize the distinctly architectural nature of a work of art we must experience it in time, by literally entering into or passing around and through the object/structure. The time/speed aesthetic elements are radically conditioned by freeways in a more immediate and necessary way than in other conventional contemporary architectural expressions. It is of course virtually impossible to experience the freeway as a work of art or architecture while stationary. Apart from the aesthetic considerations, however, are certain other practical and legal considerations, which encourage perception at speed. This presents us with problems of description and analysis that suggest an aesthetic of freeways closer to that of music and cinema--as media primarily involving time sequences--than to that of conventional approaches to architecture. Hence, photographs of freeways are quite unsatisfactory means for recreating visual qualities of their presence. Still there are ways in which the linear qualities of painting and graphic expression may be seen in freeways--especially in individual structure details--three-dimensional characteristics of sculpture. Such an approach raises again one of the recurrent issues of art criticism involving discrimination between "fine art" and "non-art." But in the development of 20th century visual expression "art" has come to be defined also by the perceiver who becomes as much a "creator" as the conceiver.

Theoretically anything could qualify as a work of art if only we choose to approach it as such. One result of this is a breakdown between the traditional lines separating medium from medium, as well as between art and non-art. It is no longer an easy matter to distinguish between painting and sculpture, as for example in the assemblages of artists from Picasso and Schwitters to the combines of Robert Rauschenberg. Similarly, there are areas of considerable overlap between sculpture and architecture. Structures such as Le Corbusier’s Church of Notre Dame at Ronchamp can be approached validly from the point of view of either medium.

Freeways contribute to our changing modes of perceiving the world. It is possible now to travel from coast to coast with the geographical and topographical distinctions of the landscape both literally and figuratively leveled. The face of the land is changed and made somewhat more uniform by being overlaid with the unfolding miles of double concrete snakes. Before, we would perceive it differently, hence it was different--travelling slowly, climbing and twisting with the road over a range of hills, or streaking straight across the flat expanse of desert road. But now the hills are sliced through, the curves lengthened and bent back to gentleness--the nation can be seen from within a 45 to 65 mph range of speed. Distinctions between the specific qualities of aesthetic perception at given moments become much subtler and slightly different in kind. By achieving a uniformity, the roadway is eliminated as a factor conditioning the particular aesthetic response, while still paradoxically altering the fundamental nature of all such responses. For example, changes in our sense of what constitutes "a day's travel" stem directly from the structure of our freeway system, and the ease of access or exit on a freeway conditions the general pattern or variety of trips and side trips. A less obvious but more pervasive influence of freeway travel can be discovered in the aesthetics of repetition and monotony. This development has been of critical importance for 20th century art--from the musical statements of Erik Satie to rock and roll, or in the painting and films of Andy Warhol.

Explicitly, the freeway experience has significantly altered our attitude toward graphic scale. Huge-sized works were executed in earlier periods (like the Baroque ceiling paintings of Rubens or Tiepolo); but not before the space and speed of modern highways led to billboard advertising did any graphic work present such overwhelming scale (in contrast to mere size). In turn, this is re-translated into the so-called "fine" arts by such painters as James Rosenquist. His works suggest reassembled billboard fragments, while actually they preserve most of the very traditional Baroque attitudes toward painting in the gran manniera. Alan D'Arcangelo elevated the visual impression of America's roads into new symbolic and archetypal expressions of an increasingly impersonal, uniform and machine-conditioned existence. Robert Indiana, has also focused upon these implications of mechanization in drawing inspiration for his art. The stark insistence of the roadside sign "EAT" he transforms into powerful, almost magic sign-like paintings. The strange possibilities of this impersonal mode of expression, however, to equate "DIE" with "EAT," thus perhaps implies more about the real values of our society than we might otherwise care to consider.

Along with the modern changes in art and society (reflected in each other) there have been changes also in road building. A neat problem for the historian of art, architecture or design might be the stylistic evolution of even such a detail as the center divider on freeways. In the Los Angeles area alone he might consider the difference in form and function of the center divider on the Pasadena freeway vis-á-vis that on the Hollywood or on the San Diego freeway. Styles in supporting pillars for overpasses also change--and primarily for aesthetic rather than for practical or structural reasons. Square-plan pillars gave way to the use of round supports, which in turn are being replaced in newer concepts by more inventive and decorative hexagonal or octagonal shapes.

Over a larger period of time and on a more basic level, the development of the modern highway also reflects a pattern that could be characterized by the critical concepts of the art historian. This is not surprising, as more conscious creative effort has been turned toward their design. For complex reasons of efficiency, economy and safety it has become necessary to design and build all roads with the care and deliberation of true craftsmen and artists. Almost inadvertently freeways have come to acquire the inventive and creative qualities of works of art, for with the development of science and engineering, almost any sort of structure that can be conceived can, in fact, be built (although sometimes at greater expense and with less practicality than others). This means that many of the decisions of engineers and designers are aesthetic in their essence however logical their rationale may appear on the surface.

It only seems natural then that freeways should come to be approached as works of art. But such a conception may not be entirely new. Perhaps the Roman engineers also indulged themselves with aesthetic aspirations when designing and erecting structures like the aqueduct at Segovia or the Pont du Gard at Nîmes. Of course there are many ugly bridges and nondescript roadways--just as modern freeways often violate vistas and mar the more romantic image of countryside or cityscape. But freeways are in many ways realizations of the Futurist visions of fifty years ago--and even now they may provide the best indications for us of space-time architectural events such as we will experience 50 years in the future.

Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.
October, 1966