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Look Out, Bridge: A Medieval Sentinel Shifts to a Disco Beat

By John Kelly
Monday, September 28, 2009

When mariners in antiquity sailed into the harbor at Alexandria in Egypt, they were greeted by an amazing sight: a massive tower topped by the light from a raging signal fire. The beacon--known as the Pharos -- was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Washington is about to get a wonder of its own -- not quite as impressive as the Pharos lighthouse, perhaps, but memorable nonetheless, especially in a city that is a pretty button-down, granite-and-khaki sort of place. Sometime in the next couple of months the 14th Street bridge will pulse with the light of a massive kaleidoscope.

The public art project is the work of Mikyoung Kim, a landscape architect in Brookline, Mass. Her firm won a commission from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to create a "unique artistic enhancement" to the bridge tender's hexagonal house.

That's the stolid, almost-Medieval structure in the middle of the bridge, the control room from which a worker would raise and lower the drawbridge so boats could pass underneath. The bridge hasn't been raised since the 1960s, and if the tower registered to you at all recently, it was probably as a derelict building, its windows cracked, its countenance foreboding. It wasn't exactly the friendliest of sights. Welcome to Washington, it said. This place is falling apart.

Kim's design calls for the installation of what's called dichroic acrylic in the tower's six windows. When hit from inside with the beam of a rotating lighthouse bulb, this translucent material will glitter with a rainbow of colors.

So what does it mean? I asked. "The kaleidoscope takes a spectrum of colors of light and all that spectrum works together to create a kind of unified color-cone vision," she said. "I think that was an appropriate image for a gateway to the District of Columbia."

Even Kim herself isn't sure what the finished product will look like. "With these kinds of installations that we do, you just never know till it's installed what the end product will be. That's always the fun part for us. There are always unexpected gifts that come from these things."

The artist's conceptions I saw reminded me of those little light boxes Radio Shack used to sell: plastic colored lights that throbbed and changed in time to the music. There could be something slightly LSD-ish to Washington's newest landmark.

"The challenge was to create something of interest to drivers as they were driving across," Kim said. "It was to create something that visually you could take in at 20 to 40 mph, which is a very particular challenge. It's not like being in a museum."

Right. And because most museums don't have airplanes landing overtop them, this final design had to go through many layers of approval. Nobody wants a pilot coming into National to mistake the colorful beacon for the airport's runway.

Recently, I donned a hardhat and reflective vest and visited the bridge. As I stood in the work zone I could feel the bridge jiggling underneath me, vibrating like a reed in the wind.

The work there includes more than just fitting the tender's tower with a jumbo kaleidoscope. The main job is resurfacing the bridge. Old asphalt was being stripped off, to be replaced with a special latex-and-concrete material. Below the bridge, workers on a barge were grinding away at the stone cladding around one of the piers.

Peter McDonald, my guide from AECOM, the contractor, led me through the tower door and down some stairs. Soon we were under the bridge. It looked like the lair of a Batman villain: dark, dirty, noisy. The sound of traffic popped and thrummed above us. Huge gears and counterweights -- the mechanism that once tipped the bridge -- were frozen in place after four decades of disuse.

We retraced our steps, then climbed up the tower. Although plywood covered the windows and the interior was littered with hose, a compressor and shop vacs, there was something reminiscent of a castle keep about it. I could imagine the lonely life of the bridge tender: his bag lunch, his dog-eared paperback. The wait for the crackle of the radio telling him a boat was coming.

Solitary. Quiet. Soon there'll be a disco there.

To see an artist's conception of the tower kaleidoscope, go to http://washingtonpost.com/metro. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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