Features

Under Overpasses

October 8, 2012

What is it about underpasses that is so appealing to architects and theorists alike? From psychogeography to ‘terrain vague’, Naomi Stead takes a closer look at the underbelly of infrastructure.

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This article appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #126: Architecture and Infrastructure.
All photographs featured are from ‘Northbank, Brisbane’ by Jon Henzell.

The spaces beneath overpasses, bridges and any kind of urban infrastructure are almost universally regarded as dark, dangerous, inhuman and oppressive. That is, except to architects, who find in them a certain highly refined aesthetic pleasure. Why is that? What is the particular atmosphere and spatial flavour of the undersides of overpasses, the underbellies of bridges, the forgotten undercrofts of more ‘legitimate’ spaces, that architects find so alluring?

We might go looking for precursors in architectural and urban history: the Situationist International’s love of the chance encounter in urban space; the surrealists’ glorying in the banal and obsolete places and activities of the city; and the Independent Group’s concentration on the aesthetics of the everyday. All of these precursors are well loved by architects, and all of them share an emphasis on those uncertain and ambiguous spaces of the city, where unexpected things might be found and people encountered. This pleasure in underpasses, road verges, weedy lots and leftover cracks between buildings is thus partly programmatic – anything could happen in such places.

We might also go looking for precursors in architectural theory, which is also enamoured of the leftover, vestigial, unplanned, weedy and abandoned spaces in cities, of which undercrofts are the paradigmatic example. These are unprogrammed, unproductive wild spaces, taken over by subversive or nefarious people or activities, from informal commerce, leisure and art practices to transient dwelling and other forms of transgression, whether mild or extreme.

The Spanish philosopher and architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales captured it well in his concept of terrain vague: “strange places” that “exist outside the city’s effective circuits and productive structures”. In Cynthia Davidson’s Anyplace (1995), de Solà-Morales ponders the “enthusiasm for these vacant spaces – expectant, imprecise, fluctuating – [that] reflects our strangeness in front of the world, in front of our city, before ourselves”. These spaces of ambiguity and possibility find their opposite in Rem Koolhaas’ concept of “junkspace”: the overly orderly, endlessly regulated shopping malls, gleaming surfaces and high-rise megastructures of late-modern capitalism. Thus the obverse of this, like the undersides of overpasses, can be seen as a kind of filthy utopia: grimy, transient spaces of uncertainty and unpredictable encounter, standing as antidote to the clean, homogenous, controlled and productive spaces of contemporary capitalism.

Nobody frames this better than Antony Vidler, with his concept of “dark space”. This is part of the tour de force of the “modern unhomely” laid out in his book The Architectural Uncanny, where he contrasts Enlightenment and modernist doctrines of light and transparency with their other – the dim, the shadowy, the crevice under a pall of gloom.

“Space is assumed to hide,” he writes, “in its darkest recesses and forgotten margins, all the objects of fear and phobia that have returned with such insistency to haunt the imaginations of those who have tried to stake out spaces to protect their health and happiness … space as threat, as harbinger of the unseen, operates as medical and psychical metaphor for all the possible erosions of bourgeois bodily and social well being.”

Vidler’s book is now a classic of architectural theory, its accounts of haunted houses, vagabond architecture and spatial fear (agoraphobia, claustrophobia and others more obscure) entering the canon and the syllabi. And it’s true that the pleasures of underpasses are also charged with terror. There’s something frightening about such spaces: their unpredictability, their sense of anxiety and threat.

And yet: walking beneath Brisbane’s Riverside Expressway on a sunny morning is a glorious experience. The undersides of overpasses have different qualities in different places, and darkness and shadow mean something different here in Australia. Brisbane is famous for its concrete infrastructure, legacy of a series of ‘can do’ city and state governments, preoccupied with circulation and willing to spend millions on flyovers and bypasses, bridges and culverts and tunnels, busways, overpasses, and expressways. An escape from the subtropical sun makes the heavy shade under the city’s concrete infrastructure a cool, dim blessing.

The sense of all that mass hanging there above you, the tonnes of concrete that would crush you in a second, brings a strange sense of stillness and peace. The vectors of cars and trucks spin out overhead, their white noise punctuated with the rush and clunk of their passage over control joints. Under here, small plants and animals make their own places: the mangroves in the mud of the riverbank, the swallows swooping beneath the concrete structure. There is a sense of standing outside the flow, beneath the trajectory not just of the traffic but of the hectic industriousness and productivity of the city as a whole.

But if part of the appeal for architects lies in spatial atmosphere, part of it also lies in texture and materiality. The quality of the concrete work. Its surface marked by careful shuttering, divided by control joints and pocked with weep holes. Its weathering and patina. All contribute to the unusual spatial qualities of a place semi-enclosed with stupendous mass overhead but with nothing at either side. The scale of these spaces is also novel, the oversized columns, sometimes stretching six or eight storeys up, supporting turning and interweaving strips of traffic.

In the underpasses of Brisbane, and of course elsewhere, we might see the kind of “dirty realism” described by Liane Lefaivre. She is credited with importing the term from literary theory into architecture, specifically from a description of the “new American short story” by literary critic Bill Buford, who described it as “devoted to the local details, the nuances, the little disturbances in language and gesture … strange stories: unadorned, unfurnished, low-rent tragedies about [ordinary] people”.

Perhaps it is this connection with narrative – with the people and practices that occur in the everyday spaces beneath overpasses – that holds the key to their atmospheric and psychological power. And this brings us to an urban myth, one concerned with poor, misguided souls sheltering haplessly under overpasses in the face of an impending tornado.

According to this urban myth, shared among people in tornado-prone areas, highway overpasses are one of the safest places to shelter during a violent storm. The belief is based on two actual incidents. The first involved a man in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1979. He was stuck in a traffic jam when a tornado approached, but suffered only minor injuries after leaving his car and lying flat on the ground beneath a bridge. In 1991, in an even more highly publicised incident, a television crew was stuck in the path of an oncoming tornado in Kansas. They survived by huddling under a flyover, bracing themselves against steel girders and presumably holding on like buggery. They also filmed the event and the spectacular footage contributed enormously to the misconception that overpasses are the safest place to be in a twister.

The belief was so powerful that during the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak, three people were killed when sheltering under overpasses, with at least one person having left her home in order to drive several kilometres to do so. All of this is hugely worrying for meteorological disaster management experts in the US, who have set out on various public education campaigns, pointing out again and again that overpasses may in fact be the most dangerous place to be in a storm. But still, stories abound, like the one about the person who moved to a new town and a new, well-built sturdy apartment, yet the first thing they did was drive around the nearby highways to find the closest overpass.

On an existential level, these bizarre occurrences illustrate the power of myth in determining behaviour, and the tragic gullibility of humans. Yet on another level, they are clearly the stories of what has, might and will happen, the possibilities for human drama truly harboured in the underbelly of infrastructure.

  • Sandra Kaji-O'Grady October 10th, 2012 8:55 pm

    what a lovely piece of writing!


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