The Aesthetic Condition of the Urban Freeway

Excellent and well researched essay by Thomas Benton Keifer Gray.

Architecture and the Freeway

“The disruptive nature of the freeway is especially apparent when it is examined in relation to the individual architectural components of the city, which before the freeway had little competition within the built environment. Bruce Webb notes that “The design of the architecture and the spatial experiences along freeway corridors has not kept pace with the design of the freeways themselves, where a highly refined and precise technical-engineering approach has resulted in highways that satisfy a limited range of criteria.” He goes on to note that “architects have, by and large, had little real impact on the design of freeways and have failed as well to develop viable, special solutions for this general class of building-context problems” (Webb 1994). Not only does it create a crisis in terms of the architectural profession, which is seeing itself become marginalized by transportation engineers as the freeway, as opposed to the building, becomes the defining physical structure of the modern city, but it also creates what Webb terms “a great discontinuity” among the elements of that built environment. Webb describes the friction between architecture and the freeway:

The architecture which lines the freeway seems made up of capricious or desperate elements struggling to maintain a connection with the no-nonsense minimalism of the highway. The awkward spaces in between, medicated by a prosthetic architecture of signs, fail to satisfy even the most basic requirements of place-making (Webb 1994).

What is so ironic about this friction between the freeway and architecture is that highways can oftentimes be as beautiful and as evocative as a fine piece of art or architecture. They are massive, authoritative sculptures that are experienced by tens of thousands of people on a day-to-day basis; “Technology at this scale can be beautiful. Powerful” (Webb 1999). If so much thought and care goes into the design of buildings, why can similar thought not be put into freeway design, as well?

Just as important as the freeway’s effect on the city and its dwellers is the freeway’s effect on its users: the motorists themselves. A 1968 publication of the Federal Highway Administration emphasizes the “visual enjoyment” of a highway, recalling a quote from the New Yorker which reads “travel is not solely for the purpose of arriving – there should be pleasure along the way, and a window on the world” (FHWA 1968: 37). Halprin focuses on the experience of motion and the reference of the freeway:

These vast and beautiful works of engineering speak to us in the language of a new scale, a new attitude in which high-speed motion and the qualities of change are not mere abstract conceptions but a vital part of our everyday experiences. Though man is dwarfed by the size of these immense structures, he regains his relationship to them by participating in their use. Freeways involve each of us visually through the strength and urgency of their structure and also through the qualities of motion which they make possible (Halprin 1966: 17).

For Halprin, the failure to achieve a reconciliation of the freeway with its architectural or urbanistic realm is one of failing to see road-building as an artistic endeavor (Halprin 1966: 5). Quite literally, the concept of enhancing the aesthetic value of the freeway is about unifying the technics of transportation with the subjectiveness of art. This is not just about making them fit in better to their urban surroundings but is also about making them more pleasant to experience for everyone.

Indeed, aesthetic sensitivity in highway design is important for the same reasons aesthetic sensitivity in architecture and urban design is important: it provides beauty and comfort, creates a sense of place, evokes an emotion and leaves an impression on those who experience it. This is the underlying assumption of this report.”

For the full report click here.


A good example of the failure of architecture (architects versus transportation engineers?) to utilize the freeway as a site of aesthetic integration and public discourse is the recently built noise barrier walls along highway 20 through Lachine. While no doubt quite functional, this wall is of a design that offers no suggestion beyond being a negation of the space beyond. The eye roams and finds the north side of the freeway open, irregular, a realm of signs and possibilities – it is “somewhere”. But all is not lost. As anyone who has ever rented space in an old factory can attest, sometimes all you need is a bit of colour.

Here is an organization that has ideas for the Turcot Interchange.




4 responses to “The Aesthetic Condition of the Urban Freeway

  1. Interesting article you dug up there, but what can architects really do to make 8 lanes of asphalt and concrete and exhaust fumes more palatable to the human psyche? Nothing.

    A high-capacity conduit for cars is by definition an ugly thing. They’re butt-ugly at ground level (see the T-Can in the West Island), they’re horrible when elevated (see the Met) and they’re even worse when dug below grade (see the Decarie expressway). To my pedestrian/bicyclist mind, the only remotely acceptable approach is to bury them entirely underground (a la Ville-Marie expressway) but even that approach is complicated and expensive as fuck.

    We need to equip our urban planners with crystal balls, or at least brains bigger than walnuts. If they could gaze 20 or 30 years into the future, highways would be laid out in out of the way places, with enough green space allocated around them to negate the inevitable yuck-factor. Either that, or we find a way to kill the god-damned car, once and for all.

  2. Sprawl and the insistence on a central “downtown” is the reason there are freeways cutting from the city centre and fanning out. If we had planned cities with a little more foresight, probably 80% or more of urban residents could get to work using the subway. In Montreal the freeways tend to follow old rail routes which usually means passing through now-former industrial zones on the way out, so the notion of an “aesthetic” was never developed as there was no perceived need, nor was there much in the way of examples of anything but the serpentine concrete strips we know anywhere else that could influence .

    Try to picture electric cars moving along a “green” elevated highway. Think colour as opposed to oppressive concrete gray. Lots of possibilities.

    I ve been asking for years why is that humans can develop nuclear weapons, drugs that prolong life, etc, yet we cannot mass produce affordable electric cars?

  3. It is true that Freeways have accelerated the rate of suburbanization: the middle-class dream of privacy, ownership, mobility, independence and the pastoral. Freeways have made access to suburban areas easier but are too often blamed for urban-suburban malaise. During the 20th century, the freeway was only one of many technological and social improvements to do so. Massed produced auto mobiles, mass produced housing and a growing population who were able to afford them were the key ingredients in perpetuating sprawling suburban development. Freeways are the product not the cause.

    Architecture needs to reclaim these residual spaces along freeways. We need to design for both the speeding vehicle and the pedestrian/cyclist. Freeways can be beautiful and beauty is necessary.

  4. Absolutely! It is funny how everyone loves cars but hates the freeway, as though it were its’ fault! And they tend to be the most underrated engineering marvels we have produced. We build stadiums and go Wow even if they are empty most of the time. Freeways are always working, support gazillions of tonnes of moving weight in their lifetimes, and it s ho hum.

    And they can be beautiful.

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