Beautiful Freeways

Jack Esterson


Last year I was driving through Los Angeles with friends. I live in New York City, and don’t own a car, but have always been intrigued by LA car culture, and how it has shaped the city. I never really thought much about their freeway system except for the legendary horror stories of 12 lanes of bumper to bumper standstill traffic, featured so often in movies. But after years of taking New York’s highways, I realized how beautiful they can be in LA.  Why is that? Why so lovely? A freeway lovely?

The grandeur of these poured concrete curving structures seems to celebrate the very idea of mobility, and their utter simplicity and power of form strike me as something Le Corbusier might have designed, or derived from some great temple at Luxor. While New York celebrates commerce though the invention of the skyscraper, beautiful spires marking the city like mediaeval churches, our highways seems to be a complicated tangle of steel, concrete and bad signage. They are a means from point A to B but hardly enjoyable to be on and one can’t wait to get off, and back into the civilized City. They are in opposition to New York, while in LA they are of the city.

I wonder why these freeways in LA appear so lyrical to me. Maybe it’s because the city is so much about the automobile, and when a city inhabits an idea so fully, the design it manifests is inevitably compelling.  Or did enlightened engineers take over at the local transportation department there at some point, or a mandate came from up high about how pure engineering equals beauty, or something? Or was it a larger idea of modernity or the zeitgeist of the 20th century metropolis that took hold when these roads were built? They are so compelling that the architecture firm Coop Himmelblau designed a high school hard by the Hollywood Freeway that looks to me to be homage to the freeway system. It seems that only in LA would that ever happen.