Rainbow Drive-By

A pixel-pointillist installation along a Houston freeway by SWA keeps things moving.

 By Zach Mortice 

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The linear art installation SWA designed for Houston’s Highway 59/Interstate 69 bridges came with two important traffic safety stipulations: no words, and no faces (so as not to distract the drivers zipping by).

Natalia Beard, the lead designer, came up with a pixelated vision of bright colors splashing across several 300-foot sections of chain-link fence along the sidewalk of the elevated freeway. The linear imagery (called “Houston Bridges”) tracks the velocity and movement of the freeway. It gives you enough depth to ponder when stuck in traffic. The images came from photos by Houston schoolchildren, digitally turned into jubilant checkerboards of neon color.

This smoke-stained stretch of highway, which connects Houston’s downtown to its primary airport, is slated to be torn down and replaced. But the client, Houston First, a quasi-public civic development agency created by the city, didn’t want to wait to improve visitors’ first impressions of the city and residents’ view of their commute. “Its gateway experience was really poor,” Beard says.

There was not enough room for plantings to soften this length of transit infrastructure, and the temporary nature of the project meant that most typical landscape design solutions were out. And there was little money to spend. The entire project cost only $250,000, and will finish its installation this month. “We had to work with what we had,” Beard says, “so that means the architecture components of the freeway itself. We immediately gravitated to the utilitarian materials that are available.”

Beard chose a modest material already native to the freeways’ ribbons of concrete: corrugated plastic used in street and yard signs. Long, thin strips of the plastic were woven through chain-link cells and cinched with a C-clamp at the top and bottom. It’s bargain placemaking that takes infrastructure from invisible and anonymous to exuberant and beautiful.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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