"Gateway Wings"– Urban Ornamentation for the 21st Century

By Phil Hutinet on November 15, 2013
Model of NY Ave Bridge with Wings – photo by I. Barac.
Model of NY Ave Bridge with Wings – photo by I. Barac.

Published concurrently in print with Capital Community News

Travelers entering Washington, DC via New York Avenue are now welcomed by “Gateway Wings,” a public art piece situated along the newly refurbished New York Avenue bridge that crosses the marshaling yards north of Union Station.  Long neglected, the New York Avenue corridor stood in contrast to other gateways into the nation’s capital that either provide scenic views of the city’s skyline or a polished transition from suburb to city.

While talks of revitalizing neighborhoods along New York Avenue in places such as Ivy city have made the news recently, NOMA’s frenetic construction boom which began in the early 2000s has led to a number of localized infrastructural improvements including the addition of a new metro station on the red line, a new cycling trail (Metropolitan Branch Trail) and the refurbishing of the New York Avenue bridge.

The refurbishing of the New York Avenue bridge led its project manager Ali Shakeri of DDOT to consider doing more than just rebuilding a bridge but to add an aesthetic element as well.  At that point, DDOT partnered with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) who conducted a nationwide search for an artist capable of creating a large-scale public piece for the bridge.

The BloomerStudio crew members on the spaceframe - photo by M. Mead
The BloomerStudio crew members on the spaceframe – photo by M. Mead

In a city like Washington, DC, creating a significant public art piece that can coexist with world-renowned monuments is a daunting task even for the most accomplished artist.  However, in 2011, a multi-disciplinary panel which included the NOMA BID, a developer, the DCCAH, local ANC representatives and an artist, selected Bloomerstudios to work on creating a sculptural gateway to NOMA and the New York Avenue corridor.

To realize a project of this scale, Bloomerstudios, located in New Haven, CT, employs a staff of five full time employees.  For larger projects, such as “Gateway Wings,” additional staff is brought on a contractual basis to meet deadlines.   While the actual wings of the gateway were designed and created in Bloomer’s studio, the large 50 foot mainframe required to hold up the wings was sub-contracted to Welding Works, a firm located in Madison, CT.

Kent Bloomer, the founder of the studios, studied physics and architecture at MIT before completing a BFA and MFA at Yale University.  As a student in the late 1950s he showed work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and felt uneasy about “placing pieces on a pedestal” inside a controlled environment.  So he turned his attention to public art or what he now describes as “Public Ornamentation.”

Prior to designing “Gateway Wings,” Bloomer walked the New York Avenue bridge from end to end to understand the site. His first designs sought to incorporate more classical elements such as columns, a ubiquitous in feature found in many of Washington’s iconic structures that pair well with a line of sight on the bridge that includes the capitol.  However, officials at the NOMA Business Improvement District and DCCAH sought a more modern, contemporary design, reflective of what the DCCAH’s chair Judith Terra calls the “vital and creative community” in Washington, DC.

Bloomer’s final design uses ellipses which he cut in half; each arch is a reissue of the ellipse from which the wings are formed.  Bloomer’s process “activates” a geometric shape, such as an ellipse, by “foliating” the structure.  In this instance, “foliating” refers to “unfolding” the shape as opposed to foliage or leaves.   From a distance, the wings appear as one. However, as travelers approach the bridge, the wings separate, flanking the east and west end of the bridge on opposite sides.

Before foliating the wings, Bloomer and his staff had to address a series of infrastructural and engineering limitations.  After all, the bridge’s main purpose is to carry motorists, pedestrians and cyclists over the marshaling yard.  The final design could neither alter the bridge’s structure nor change the lighting.  To resolve these issues, the marshaling yard below anchors the large metal mainframes rising over the bridge holding the foliated wings in place.  To illuminate “Gateway Wings” at night, Alex Cooper, a lighting specialist from the Smithsonian, created a variable lighting display that will highlight the DC’s newest “public ornament.”

Lionell Thomas, the Executive Director of the DCCAH sees “Gateway Wings” as one of many interagency, city-wide projects that will “raise the quality of life for all District residents and enliven public spaces with large scale, high impact projects.”   Certainly, the introduction of a non-classical sculpture in proximity to neighborhood like NOMA which looks more like Vancouver, BC than Washington, DC makes sense.  However, and more to the point, the erection of “Gateway Wings” marks the resurgence of “ornamentation” in Washington, an architectural trend which all but disappeared in the second half of the twentieth century not only here but across the globe.