If you want to know why the south sound wall on Interstate 94 through southeast Minneapolis now sports a crazy-quilt pattern of camouflage-colored metal panels, the short answer is: a gusset plate.

The long explanation behind the underwhelming arrangement of earth-toned rectangles not only makes for a more satisfying read, it starts to shed light on another perennial question of near philosophical importance: Why does the Minnesota Department of Transportation spend so much money to make our eyes hurt?

First, the back story.

When the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed in 2007 (due to a now notoriously undersized gusset plate) it cut off a primary route into downtown Minneapolis. Until the replacement bridge could be built and put into service 13 months later, the existing freeway system around downtown groaned under the crush of diverted traffic. In response, MnDOT re-striped I-94 between Hwy. 280 and downtown, adding a lane in each direction.

The reduction in congestion was so great that the public pushed MnDOT to make the new eight-lane configuration permanent. Additional traffic increased freeway noise in the East River Road area to the south. In 2009, MnDOT began planning a new sound wall, and by the end of 2010, a 20-foot-high concrete-pier-and-wood wall had been constructed.

Immediately, noise levels dropped off south of the freeway. Soon, Prospect Park residents to the north noticed that the very same noise was being reflected off the new wall, bouncing freeway racket into their previously tranquil lives.

Oops.

The well-educated and well-organized enclave near the University of Minnesota rallied, putting MnDOT engineers back to work. Sound testing was performed. Reports were generated. Sound-absorbing materials were studied. “Action plans” were formulated.

Here’s what didn’t happen. Nobody thought it important to hire a professional designer — an architect, landscape architect or even a public artist — to marry the science of a technical solution with the art of making the built environment more meaningful and beautiful.

Although MnDOT does include capable and qualified professional landscape architects on its staff, and purportedly drew on their expertise for the sound wall project, the engineering-dominated bureaucracy notoriously gives design an awfully short leash. The department’s own vision statement says the landscape architecture unit is to provide “technical expertise,” not design.

This was recognized early by neighborhood advocates (including some architects), who took it upon themselves to generate several alternate artistic solutions. Some included abstract color murals based on the work of famed Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. Others involved the application of narrow fins that create evocative patterns of shadows. Though visually compelling, these efforts were rejected as too costly and the colors out of sync with the “historic” context of the area.

In the end, a collage of 12 standard shades of brown, beige and green was deemed to fit the bill. Anyone who’s driven around Minnesota will have noticed that regardless of context — historic, urban, pastoral, industrial, suburban — MnDOT will always determine that the appropriate colors are brown and beige and green.

Although we are engaged in building a 21st-century transportation system, new construction by MnDOT is increasingly plastered with weird, anachronistic details. Fake stone patterns get embedded into high-tech concrete. Goofy arches get stamped onto otherwise elegantly long and thin bridge overpasses. Victorian street lamps get mounted next to remotely controlled LED freeway sign­age. “Flintstones”-style boulders are deployed as retaining walls, often within the shadows of glass and steel skyscrapers.

This impulse to treat our urban infrastructure as background, or to slather it with old-timey decorations, would be laughed at by previous generations of America.

In our pioneering days, building a much needed bridge or a water tower or rail station was an opportunity for cities to proclaim their greatness through technical and artistic prowess. To do so, they hired designers to invest these highly engineered infrastructure projects with a measure of grace and human relevance.

For example, Irving Morrow, architect of the Golden Gate Bridge, shaped its faceted Art Deco towers and selected its iconic International Orange paint. Gordon Kaufman gave Hoover Dam its heroic Moderne form, a hard-working sculpture of reinforced concrete.

Locally, construction of Prospect Park’s Romanesque Medieval “witch’s hat” water tower proclaimed that southeast Minneapolis was ready for prime time, joining the city’s Kenwood and Washburn water towers as instant neighborhood landmarks.

Today the American taxpayer accepts that necessary things should be cheap and ugly. But this is a minority sentiment within the world and in our own long history.

When so much of our built environment — the roads, bridges, power lines, trash transfer stations, power plants, water and sewer facilities, transit shelters and so on — is desperately needed and hugely expensive, it is baffling that we don’t take a modicum of effort to make sure it enhances our lives aesthetically as well.

 

Phillip Glenn Koski is an architect and writer.