By Ron van der Veen
Dear Roger Miller, Secretary of the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT),
I am a humble citizen of the State of Washington, who happens to write a column for ARCADE Magazine, a regional world-class design publication. Over the last decade, I have focused several articles on WSDOT projects, namely the 520 Bridge (ARCADE Issue 33.2), and most recently, the demolition of Seattle’s viaduct.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I am certain that your job of safely moving hundreds of thousands of cars around the state each day is incredibly difficult and important. But I have one big bone to pick with you. As much as I have been celebrating the demise of the diabolical viaduct (which, by the way, may be the single most transformative urban intervention that will happen to Seattle in the 21st century), I have been stunned by the banality of the new SR 99 tunnel.
No, Seattle is not Paris, Shanghai, Barcelona, Tokyo, or New York City; world-class infrastructure projects aren’t to be expected. The fact that the city actually mustered the courage needed to take down the viaduct should be satisfaction enough even for my snobbish metropolitan tastes.
With all the urban optimism surging in my veins, I drove through the new tunnel soon after it opened and experienced the equivalent of a one dozen Krispy Kreme donut sugar crash. There are some very interesting aspects of the tunnel that deserve celebration. It is an engineering marvel—9300 feet long, it not only traverses under the existing viaduct, but also downtown Seattle, and reaches a depth of 200’ below sea level. And most Seattleites know about the infamous 58 foot diameter boring machine called Bertha. Of course, Bertha stalled 5 months into the project and caused a two-year delay, but she broke through the ground in April 2017 and the community celebrated. But while pictures of the tunnel under construction before the double decker driving lanes were added are spatially stunning. If I were to describe the new tunnel in exclusively positive terms, I would say it is, well… well lit.
But let me address SR 99 a bit more objectively. It is ugly—very, very ugly. It’s unapologetically and inexcusably ugly. The fact that it is long makes it almost unbearably inhumane. And all of this is what makes it such a quintessential WSDOT transportation project. Like the new 520 bridge, it not only doesn’t address alternative forms of transportation, it refuses to give an inch visually.
Historically, being stuck on the viaduct at least meant a long protracted panoramic view of Puget Sound. I know views in tunnels are impossible, but with just a little imagination, this could have been a stunning driving experience: intricate concrete form patterns and textures, bold graphics, colorful computerized LED lighting, grand gateways as one enters and exists. None of these are cost prohibitive. Other than relentlessly extensive and overly articulated exit signage, there is nothing to see but cold white washed walls, a continuous precast traffic barrier, and cold white lighting that reinforces the alienation and utilitarian soul sucking aesthetic. And nowhere in the tunnel is the circular nature of the space or sophistication of the engineering celebrated.
Before writing this letter to you, Mr. Miller, I gave WSDOT the benefit of the doubt in assuming that maybe there were no contemporary examples of beautiful and creative tunnels to be found. I Googled “beautiful tunnels” and the first image I found was Laerdalstunnelen in Norway, with its magnificent use of lighting to create a majestic and alluring atmosphere. I found the wonderful exhaust/air tunnel tower for the Tokyo Bay Aqualine Tunnel. The lighting spectacle of the Bund Tunnel in Shanghai is dazzling. I implore you to Google, “Entrances to the Mont Blanc Tunnel between Italy and France” for a taste of celebratory gateways.
I know I am writing this letter to you years too late, so it might sound trite and irrelevant. Heck, you are a traffic engineer, so you probably think I am some kind of spend thrift urbanistic nut job that wants a public park on every corner. For the 520 bridge WSDOT had a specific design approach called “Practical Design”* which states: “Practical design is an approach to making project decisions that focuses on the need for the project and looks for cost-effective solutions … The result is smarter, more effective designs that maximize results with limited funding.” That is not the kind of design philosophy that breeds imaginative transportation projects.
In an age of short tweets I understand that this letter has probably challenged your patience like a Mercer Corridor traffic jam, but I leave you with this one last thought. This all has me remembering the song I was humming in the first installment of this ARCADE Magazine Side Yard Viaduct Trilogy: Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.
But maybe the witch didn’t die. Maybe the witch was just buried in a long unrelenting tunnel. If that’s the case, let’s all hope she doesn’t resurrect when WSDOT decides to initiate another massive auto oriented transportation project…
Ron van der Veen
ARCADE Side Yard Columnist
* SR 520 Bridge Replacement and HOV Program-Practical Design: https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR520Bridge/About/practicaldesign.htm
Ron van der Veen, FAIA, is our esteemed Side Yard columnist and a principal at NAC Architecture. Finishing this three-part series on the viaduct, Ron has continued to assure ARCADE that he will try his best to not get us in too much trouble.