An accidental work of art that softens the commute

Shrouded look transforms bridge on Howard Street

Baltimore ... Or Less

August 08, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

The Howard Street Bridge that crosses the Jones Falls Expressway is no Pont Neuf.

Swaddled during a restoration project by a humongous tarp that billows and balloons in the breeze, the bridge does call to mind Pont Neuf Wrapped, a monumental work completed by environmental artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, in 1985.

After a 10-year-struggle with Parisian bureaucracy, Christo and a large crew wrapped the Pont Neuf in shimmering gold fabric that temporarily revealed the 400-year-old bridge in a dazzling new way.

Unlike in Paris, though, Baltimore authorities didn't question Howard Street Bridge Wrapped; they created it.

It may not be as dramatic as its French counterpart, but for those driving south on the JFX, the draped bridge emerges as a mammoth work of accidental art.

Moving with the wind, sometimes escaping its moorings, the tarp gives artistic license to the bridge, built in 1938.

Is it a cloud? A parachute? An oversized pillow case?

At times, the tarp draws close to the bridge, revealing its geometric bones, like a white-on-white abstract painting.

Sitting as it does in the midst of the Maryland Institute College of Art, the work is right at home. Aesthetically, the bridge also holds up well compared with the towering Male / Female sculpture at nearby Penn Station.

You might say the tarp, secured by "anchoring devices" that look like giant black staples, is a work of art that covers a work of art. Underneath that huge swath of canvas, Baltimore department of transportation workers are removing paint in preparation for a new coat of many colors: rust brown, green, blue and a smidgeon of yellow.

When complete, the bridge will complement others similarly decorated throughout the city. All have been transformed since the early 1990s as part of artist Stan Edmister's painted bridges project, conceived as a way of enhancing Baltimore's cityscape.

For now, though, it's the capricious bridge cover that's on display, softening the city's hard edges.

And who knows? It took 10 years for Christo to realize Pont Neuf Wrapped. It may take 10 years for Baltimore to realize Howard Street Bridge Unwrapped.

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