Metropolitan Washington’s persistent urban challenges are frequently in the news. The concerns include ensuring public safety; providing quality public education; increasing the availability of affordable housing; promoting accessibility and quality of transportation; enhancing infrastructure reliability and durability; and caretaking of public parks and open space. Sustaining fiscal and economic health — especially jobs — also is high on the list.
Another urban challenge that tends to be overlooked is the need for beautification of visually unappealing and unsafe public places.
Examples of such places in the District are the dark, poorly lighted, ominous railway underpasses along K, L and M streets NE, and Florida Avenue NE, in the NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood. Driving, biking or walking through these gloomy spaces has long been an unpleasant and somewhat threatening experience.
But thanks to the NoMa Parks Foundation, an affiliate of the NoMa Business Improvement District, a $2 million initiative launched five years ago is at last yielding visually desirable, artistic transformations of these unattractive underpasses. The L Street and M Street underpass transformation is complete, and the K Street underpass planning is underway.
The Florida Avenue underpass plans are deferred pending implementation of improvements identified in the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study, which includes a redesign of the nonsensical intersection of Florida and New York avenues.
The basic underpass transformation strategy involves using light as art and art as light, with light serving as the primary visual medium of contemporary, sculpted artworks within the L Street and M Street underpasses. Yet the aesthetic concepts and compositions of these two completed artworks, only a block apart, are completely different.
The M Street underpass artwork, designed by Thurlow Small Architecture and NIO Architecten, opened in October 2018. Suspended from the overhead steel structure above each M Street sidewalk is a dense array of thin, vertical LED polycarbonate tubes, closely spaced and varying slightly in length. Thousands of tubes glow white, drenching light onto the space. The work is aptly titled “Rain.” Although the tubes are always illuminated, they intensify when a vehicle passes beneath them, creating a wave of light that follows it.
For the L Street underpass, the San Francisco design firm Futureforms created “Lightweave,” six spiraling lattices running above and roughly parallel to L Street’s wide sidewalks. Each of the six lattices, three above each sidewalk, consists of closely spaced, side-by-side curved stainless steel frames supporting polycarbonate LED tubing. Sensors that respond to sound and acoustic vibrations cause the curved tubing to emit colors that shift continually. When a train roars by overhead, the sound turns some of the tubes blue.
Although both underpass artworks operate around the clock, they are best experienced and appreciated at night. If you are in downtown Washington some evening, looking for something new and different to see, go check out these amazing art installations. Both are only a few steps from the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station.
The underpass makeovers are one of the city’s most artistically unique beautification projects. But they also exemplify how beautification can achieve functional as well as aesthetic goals.
The overhead artworks provide much needed illumination and visibility within otherwise dark, forbidding spaces. While the art is pleasing to the eye and stimulates the mind, the geometric compositions and sculpted patterns of light emitted by the art make passing through or occupying the underpasses much safer for pedestrians, bikers and drivers.
Beautifying these underpasses, making them amenities rather than eyesores, radiates beyond the underpasses. This project enhances the character and quality of the District’s evolving NoMa neighborhood, an overarching goal of the NoMa Parks Foundation, which is simultaneously developing several public parks in the area.
Established in 2012, the NoMa Parks Foundation kicked off the complex underpass project with a national design competition in 2014 (disclosure: I served on the competition jury), producing a number of imaginative submissions. After considering many artists and ideas for each underpass, which differ substantially in width and length, the jury made its recommendations to the foundation.
Since then, years of rigorous design work ensued, along with continuous collaboration between the foundation and multiple stakeholders, including Amtrak, Metro, the D.C. Department of Transportation and neighborhood civic groups. Development of this beautification project necessitated extensive coordination and commitment by diverse government and nongovernmental organizations with disparate goals and constraints.
They all can join the foundation in being proud of this unique achievement and sharing in its authorship.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect, a University of Maryland professor emeritus of architecture and a guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).