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Traffic Q&A: I-5 wall in Tacoma not coming down, but new section will look different

Construction workers stand on scaffolding July 30 in front of Vicki Scuri’s public art on an Interstate 5 retaining wall in Tacoma. The work, called “The Great Wall,” is now abutted with a more conventional pattern used throughout the I-5 corridor.
Construction workers stand on scaffolding July 30 in front of Vicki Scuri’s public art on an Interstate 5 retaining wall in Tacoma. The work, called “The Great Wall,” is now abutted with a more conventional pattern used throughout the I-5 corridor. Courtesy

Question: I am worried that the wall on Interstate 5 is being torn down.

This is a beautiful piece of artwork that I have looked at since I was 4 years old. I called it my magic wall because it would look like it was moving. And still to this day I look at that same wall and I feel happy.

I am worried that the wall is being damaged. Can you tell me that the wall will be OK?

— Emma M. (age 10), Fircrest

Answer: This is a tough one, Emma.

The Washington state Department of Transportation sends word that your “magic wall” will be just fine, and that its long-running construction on I-5 — the purpose of which is to add high-occupancy lanes to move traffic along through Tacoma — is adding concrete walls that have a pattern, albeit a less artistic one.

“I can tell you that the wall will be OK,” WSDOT spokeswoman Cara Mitchell said.

The new section, she said, will have “more of a random pattern” that will be added in two places: where the existing 3,304-foot stretch of artistic wall ends, and on sections of concrete under your “magic wall” that are newly exposed by the excavation for the wider road.

That’s the state’s version.

Go ask the artist who designed the wall, though, and she says the construction has “sabotaged” her 2007 work, named the Great Wall, and that she might ask to have her name removed from the whole thing.

“I think it looks terrible,” said Vicki Scuri, whose website shows her work on road and infrastructure public art across the country. “It looks like someone who doesn’t know anything about patterns is doing the job.”

Scuri is based in Lake Forest Park and said she was saddened by what she saw when she drove through Tacoma a month ago.

She never received a call about the project; although Tacoma commissioned her in 2007 to build the Great Wall, the city and state did not call to ask her price to come back and contribute to this work.

We asked officials from the state and the city why Scuri or another artist isn’t involved — was it money, aesthetics or some other concern? — but neither agency provided an answer.

What WSDOT is building instead of artwork — and which Tacoma signed off on — is a 1,272-foot-long soil-retaining wall with a “random board pattern.”

That pattern is made by wood being pressed against wet concrete, similar to what you’ll see out the window along other stretches of I-5.

The Great Wall is a copyrighted work of Scuri’s, and the designs didn’t extend onto sections of wall previously underground. With big blank sections of concrete now exposed by the new digging, and the state wanted to add something.

“WSDOT felt this project was a good location to transition back to the conventional pattern used, which is more vertical lines,” Mitchell wrote in an email.

Art comes from the soul of the artist, and beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, so you’ll have to judge for yourself whether your “magic wall” is ruined by the additional texturing.

Scuri isn’t coming back to Tacoma just to more closely inspect what’s been done, but we sent her the photos of the construction that WSDOT has posted to its Flickr account.

Here’s her response: “While it may be their right to destroy the wall patterning to add their HOV lanes, better context-sensitive design solutions could have been achieved through communication and collaboration. It appears that this just slipped right by in the name of progress.”

The I-5 construction is scheduled to continue into 2017, according to WSDOT’s project homepage. Its “Project Benefits” section makes no mention of artistic merit, or of magic.

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