Redmond, WA's Stylish New Gateway Becomes, at Night, a Study in Blue

The simplest definition of a bridge, according to the dictionary on my desk, is “a structure spanning and providing passage over a gap or barrier.” However, a well-designed bridge can be so much more — a showpiece, a gateway, a symbol of a city's ambitions. So it is with the Northeast 90th Street Bridge in Redmond, WA.

Redmond, a mid-sized city located east of Seattle, is probably best known as the site of the Microsoft Corporation. Not surprisingly, given its educated, affluent population, the city's government places high value on amenities and environmental concerns. For example, the local Sammamish River was re-engineered, beginning in the 1930s, so that it followed a straight path; now the river has been returned to its original meandering state, to create a more visually appealing (and environmentally correct) result.

Spanning the river is the new Northeast 90th Street Bridge. To be sure, it is not merely a utilitarian concrete slab. According to Walt Niehoff of LMN Architects, the brief for the bridge was complex: “The city needed a new arterial on 90th Street. But they also wanted to create a gateway project to the River Walk Park, a pedestrian corridor along the river. The mayor, Rosemarie Ives, really pushed for a landmark project.” Ives herself places a high value on aesthetic concerns: “I became mayor 11 years ago; my predecessor had a reputation for ugly bridges. I said, ‘Bridges are a form of public art. There will be no ugly bridges while I am mayor.’”

In fact, the bridge is a notably sleek structure, in which curved arches, which lean inward at 30°, support a cast-in-place box girder. Next to the paved surface, a pedestrian walkway is cantilevered off the side of the bridge. At the same time, the railings of the walkway slant inward. The combination of angles and curves is not only visually pleasing, it also suggests movement, speed, a sense of something happening right now.

LMN was brought into the project by Entranco, the bridge's structural engineer. Working with the task force, Niehoff, the partner-in-charge, and project architect Shirley Chiu did extensive research on bridge types and presented the project's task force with a range of possibilities. Chiu says that the bridge's relatively short span of 220' (66m) was a major design consideration: “We sought an arched bridge structure that would be most appropriate for the span length. We wanted something less intrusive than a cable structure in the relatively low-rise-built context of Redmond that would also have a gateway expression.”

Lighting has been a key component of the bridge's design from its conception. “In Redmond, it gets dark early in the winter, so people use the bridge in the dusk and dark hours,” says Niehoff. “Lighting has had a huge impact in making it user-friendly. Given the number of dark days, why not light the entire bridge so that it has a glow to it?” In addition, lighting keeps the underside of the bridge, which is easily seen from the River Walk Park, from being tarnished by graffiti artists.

Sidney Genette, of Seattle-based Lighting Designs Inc., was brought in to design the lighting of Northeast 90th Street Bridge. Genette, who collaborates frequently with LMN Architects, says he began the project knowing that lampposts were part of the design and that he would be required to provide lighting for the bike trail on the River Walk below. It was his idea to wash the bridge in blue light. “I love blue light after dark because it emulates moonlight,” he says, adding that, as an original founder of the company Special FX Lighting, he has considerable experience with filters and other effects.

Genette used Elliptipar 400W metal-halide lamps, with blue filters from Special FX, to make the bridge a study in blue. “The bridge is a cream-white color, which makes it a perfect backdrop for any color,” he says, adding that built into the bridge's design is “a special access, with keyed manhole covers on the top of the bridge, creating easy access for maintenance and relamping.”

The lampposts on the bridge are Louis Poulsen Lighting fixtures. “They're part of the vocabulary of the city,” says Genette, adding that they have a “Scandinavian feel” which is “a city standard” for Redmond. In addition, the abutment walls below the bridge are covered in bas-relief images. “The artist cast into the concrete a stainless-steel reference line,” says Niehoff. “That steel is the surface of the water; below it are salmon swimming upstream. [The river is a major route for salmon heading toward their spawning ground.] Above the line is a series of herons, geese, and ducks.” Also, says Chiu, the bike trail is heavily used so “we wanted to create an environment that was safe and comfortable for people to hang out underneath the bridge.” Therefore, Genette placed 250W Elliptipar fixtures to light the artwork and the area around it.

The resulting combination of architecture, lighting, and art is notable for the way it fulfills several functions at once; the bridge design is a strong gateway statement, yet it also provides a canvas for the creativity of other artists. The lighting adds to the structure's visual impact and also helps turn the surrounding area into a viable social space. All of this is accomplished without overtly interrupting the natural beauty of the surrounding area.

Ives, who can't say enough about the project, describes the bridge as “an amenity and an experience.” It is, she adds, “a piece of art that's very impressive in terms of its modern design,” and, also, “people can get down to the river's edge. It's an extraordinary experience.”

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