Reading List

List Author

Nate Berg

Los Angeles journalist

The Aesthetic Design of Freeways

A collection of resources exploring the physical design of freeway and highway infrastructure — from the shapes of interchanges to the cinderblock patterns on freeway sound walls. It’s about the way freeways look, the way they appear (or don’t) to the driver and passenger, how they use the land, and how their concrete forms have been sculpted and grafted onto the landscape.

This list has a slight bias towards articles and writings about Los Angeles and Southern California, but many of the takeaway points from these specific resources can be (and have been) applied to other freeways around the world. This list does not really delve into the politics and controversies behind the development of freeways, nor does it explore in any great depth the history of how freeways came to be. And, it’s worth noting that this list does not include the rather technical freeway design manuals used by state departments of transportation, mostly because they’re a little too specific and heavy on the civil engineering. Not that that stuff isn’t important, but this reading list is more interested in what has guided the aesthetic evolution of freeways and how design has (or hasn’t) had an impact on the visual quality of freeway infrastructure and its interface with its surroundings.

  • Online

    To New Horizons

    Jam Handy Pictures for General Motors

    A visual tour of General Motors' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Much of the exhibition focuses on the ways freeways, or "express motorways," will exemplify the American way of life 20 years in the future: the year 1960. (Coverage of the exhibit doesn't really start until about 7:45 into the film.) The exhibit was an immersive and highly visual prediction of the future of freeway mobility and design, and it's hard not to see how it heavily influenced the design of the freeways that were soon to follow.

  • Online

    The Freeway in the City: Principles of Planning and Design

    U.S. Department of Transportation

    A team of influential engineers, architects, landscape architects and planners wrote this report during the construction of the Interstate Highway System as a call to action to rethink the "nonengineering aspects" of highway development. The report recommends a "systems approach to the design of freeways" and makes proposals for large-scale issues like the actual location and planning of freeways, but also for aesthetic concerns, paying close attention to everything from the driver's view of the freeway to the preferred curve of girders beneath overpasses. Two main recommendations are to establish of a system of "regional urban design institutes" to guide the design of freeways and to encourage "a high level of visual quality in every proposed freeway."

  • Esthetic Criteria in Freeway Design

    Highway Research Board Proceedings

    The full report isn't available online, but it's cited in many other reports and writings on the subject of freeway design. It seems to be an important handbook of sorts, covering topics like "highway alignment in relation to visual field," "the ratios of roadbed and sky in the cone of vision," and the architectural form of freeways that may be integrated with "other natural and manmade forms such as terrain and sculpture."

  • Aesthetes and Engineers: The Occupational Ideology of Highway Design

    Technology and Culture

    A historical report that identifies the inevitable emergence of an overlap between the ideologies of freeway engineers and those concerned with the visual and experiential elements of freeways.

  • Online

    California Highways and Public Works (1924-1967)

    The official journal of the Division of Highways within the California state Department of Public Works, later renamed the Department of Transportation. This monthly (or sometimes bi-monthly) publication covers in great detail the design, development and construction of roads and highways throughout the state. The photos and imagery alone are worth checking out.

  • Online

    Freeway Metropolis

    Houston Freeways: A Historical and Visual Journey


    From a comprehensive book on the history and development of Houston's freeway system, this chapter tracks the physical evolution of the system and gives a good overview of various elements, such as its multi-level interchange stacks.

  • Online

    L.A. Freeway: An Appreciative Essay

    University of California Press

    A brief book that explains the historical context of the development of freeways in Los Angeles. Looking at the transportation and urban conditions that led to the creation of the freeways, the politics behind the growth of the system and the experience of using freeways, this book offers a near objective view of freeways and their impact on the city. The book also includes choice quotes about L.A. freeways from Reyner Banham, Joan Didion and Thomas Pynchon, as well as a clean summary of the bureaucratic maneuverings that enabled the system to grow. Though Brodsly doesn't spend a lot of time specifically looking at freeway design, he does focus closely on how freeways in Los Angeles have taken their shape, and how they've affected the way people experience the city.

  • Online

    L.A.'s First Freeways


    Good brief history of the first freeways in Los Angeles showing what the first ones could have looked like (according to the Automobile Club of Southern California) and what they actually turned out to be when the ribbons were cut.

  • Online

    Tony Smith and the Suburban Sublime

    Places Journal

    Article discussing how the supposedly banal landscape of the New Jersey Turnpike inspired the art of minimalist Tony Smith. “The road and much of the landscape was artificial,” he said in an interview with Artforum in 1966, “and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done."

  • Online

    Noisy Highways

    The Atlantic

    A history of the freeway sound wall, and how state highway departments have been slow to concern themselves with the aesthetics of the freeway landscape.

  • Online

    Muting the Freeway


    Related to the above, my own article specifically about the design of freeway sound walls.

  • Online

    Built for Speed

    99% Invisible (Podcast)

    A look at the spatial perception of the freeway at high speeds, which helps to put the vastness of the freeway landscape in perspective. Vanderbilt's 2008 book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us)" is full of similarly interesting information about how freeways look and work, and is also worth reading.

  • Online

    Road Ecology: Wildlife Habitat and Highway Design

    Places Journal

    Exploring the emerging field of "road ecology," and highlighting some examples of how highways in sensitive natural areas are being redesigned to reduce their impact on various species.

  • Online

    Under Spaces (Series)


    A five-part visual review of ways designers have reused or reimagined the spaces around (and underneath) freeways and major interchanges.

  • Online


    Aerial photographs of freeway interchanges from around the world. Andrew's photographs aren't the only ones of this type, but his series offers a nice collection of images that exemplify the scope and elegance of these massive structures.

  • Online

    Modulating Infrastructural Flows to Create Open Space

    Landscape Infrastructures: Case Studies by SWA Group


    A thoughtful proposal to consider circulatory infrastructures like freeways, rivers and railroads as opportunities to create open space. Thinking beyond just tunneling a freeway to free up space above or capping a freeway to add new park space to a city, Robinson suggests ways of "modulating" the flows of freeways and other infrastructures to allow human uses of these spaces under certain conditions. As opposed to conceptions of simply replacing freeways with parks, this is a realist's view of how still-critical infrastructures can begin to be adapted for more varied uses.

  • pdf

    Drawing Natures: US Highway Location, Representational Techniques and the Rise of Ecological Design

    Journal of Design History

    In considering two 1960s highway location studies – one by architect Christopher Alexander and engineer Marvin Manheim and the other by landscape architect and urban planner Ian McHarg – Lystra shows how the design of freeways had begun to be shaped by the emerging concept of ecological design. New data and a growing environmental awareness were beginning to make legible the parameters under which major projects were planned and designed, and the freeway location studies cited here show how those parameters have come to shape the built environment. More to the point of Lystra's article is the fact that these projects happened at a crucial time for design, when new design tools and sources of data were rapidly changing the way these types of planning questions were both posed and answered.

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