Last summer, I started a project: drawing the Alaskan Way Viaduct in its final years. This highway from the fifties is a loud, ugly, overbearing monstrosity that blocks the waterfront, drowns out conversations, spews tire dust everywhere, dominates the cityscape, and reminds us of a less enlightened age when freeways obliterating the human-scale landscape seemed like a good idea.
Well, here’s the thing: I kind of like it. I mean, I’m still looking forward to the party we’ll have when the viaduct is finally demolished, but by drawing it I’ve gained something like an aesthetic appreciation for the damned thing. Susan Sontag observed that photography favors traditionally “ugly” subjects, conferring on them a kind of beauty. I’d add that a century and a half of looking at photographs has made us all appreciate the ugly a bit more in person, too.
Looking at it so much made me realize that it actually has a design, something I’d not previously been aware of. Someone at some point had to think up those giant blocky arch sections that recede into the distance; they’re not completely accidental. It has a color, too, closer to burnt umber than to grey, which I think is the color that everyone assumes it is.
It has an uneasy but nevertheless affectionate relationship with its surroundings. This little Frankfurter stand sits nestles so cosily in its shadow, while the shiny glassy blue and coffee-colored post-modern office buildings behind it tap their toes impatiently as they wait their turn to finally face the water.
Landscape painting came into its own when rural life was beginning to disappear. Pining for the soon-to-be-lost is sometimes a shortcut to aesthetic appreciation. I can’t say I will be sorry or nostalgic when the viaduct is demolished, nor when the automobile era finally grinds to a smoky, smelly halt at that final traffic light. But for now, I’m taking the time to appreciate the charms of the ugly and embarrassing while it’s still with us. I’ll be back under its deafening canopy next summer, too, with my sketchbook. (If I miss your call that’s probably why.)