Invisible walls

Everyone knows that Los Angeles is famous for its freeways. And it’s known as the home of the movie industry. But did you know the two sort of grew up together?

Freeway sound barrier wallBack in the 50’s, cars started going faster, so traction started to matter more, and tires started getting wider, and more freeways started getting built. More cars + more rubber meeting more roads = more noise. And as more freeways were built, and they were built right through cities, it started getting a lot noisier for a lot more people. And it got noisier right next to movie studio lots, which made it noisier inside the studios. And the noise started drowning out the actors.

Freeway sound barrier wallSo engineers from Universal International Studios started taking sound measurements alongside those noisy freeways. And the Motion Picture Producers group got together with LA’s Public Works Department to see what they could do about all that noise. (The noise was really bugging Joe Public too, who happened to live in one of those nice little neighborhoods that the freeway was cut right through. But he didn’t have any sound engineers to send out to take measurements and raise a stink about it.)

Freeway sound barrier wallVoila—Los Angeles gave birth to the freeway sound wall! Even though there are other ways to mitigate the noise, like putting the freeway in a ditch basically, or building little hills around them called berms, a concrete sound barrier is one of the most practical and popular ways to deflect the noise. Stuff that grows would be prettier, but not as effective—it’s not dense enough.

Freeway sound barrier wallI think being a sound wall designer would be one of the worst jobs for someone with low self esteem. Basically, your job is to design something no one will ever notice. Not only that, instead of getting to design with a rainbow of colors, multiple dimensions, and bold scale shifts, you design with—concrete. You can choose between smooth and rough; cap or no cap; two dimensions or two dimensions. And colors like beige, cream, tan, taupe, buff, and sand. Oh, and grey. Wake me up when it’s time to go home.

Freeway sound barrier wallThe point is that you don’t want to make the barriers so interesting and creative that people actually get distracted looking at them. There are design elements in them, but they’re pretty subtle. Even spending as much time on freeways as Bruce and I have in the last 40 weeks, they’ve basically been invisible. It’s only been in the last month or two that I’ve begun to notice them. Once I started noticing them, I started fixating on them, and I started taking pictures of them. And then I realized how much they all seem to look alike. My only hope is that this blog isn’t as boring as the subject matter is intended to be.

4 thoughts on “Invisible walls

  1. If some archiologist discovered LA buried under 20 feet of dust and the first part that “appeared” was one of those highway barriers. What do you think he or she would make of it? Without understanding how noisy cars are, how would you make sense of these overly heavy concrete walls on either side of overly heavy long concrete slabs with onramps and offramps and bridges? Perhaps rivers flowed there and the onramps were so that people could get access to the water? Don’t those walls often have water themes?

    • Hi Marc! Have you watched Volcano lately? (I can’t resist Tommy Lee Jones – what a face.) Maybe the lava was being channeled by the sound walls from a previous “civilization” that imploded under the weight of all the suntan oil and breast implants? Of course, a lot of them do have water themes, so maybe the underground city was buried by rising tides due to global warming. Hmm – food for thought.

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