Road to Nowhere
(Self-published, printed and bound by Girlie Press, 2021)
“There’s a city in my mind… And it’s all right, baby it’s all right,” the Talking Heads reassure us in “Road to Nowhere,” a song that David Byrne described as a “joyful look at doom.” Is it still possible to look joyfully at doom these days? I wondered this while spending time with Seattle-based artist Eirik Johnson’s photography book of the same title. The book’s thirty images capture the destruction of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, a two-level elevated highway that ran between the downtown and the Puget Sound waterfront from 1953 to 2019. Printed in an accordion format that mirrors the subject’s elongated form, one side of Road to Nowhere chronicles the artist’s color views of the city from inside the structure, while the reverse showcases the viaduct’s destruction in black and white. As they evoke the love-hate relationship that infrastructure so often inspires, Johnson’s double-layered images illuminate the dueling perspectives that surrounded the Brutalist structure, in both its life and its death.
The Alaskan Way Viaduct was an icon of Seattle of sorts. When it was still standing, I would use it to show off my chosen home to visiting guests, often driving them over the highway’s upper deck at night. The structure offered an unusual perspective as it sliced through the skyline, immersing us in skyscraper lights and their glistening reflections in the water below. Although it was created to address traffic congestion as the city’s port industries grew during the mid-twentieth century, the elevated highway’s appeal to tourists was also a selling point for its construction. As we drove across it, I’d remark, “Hopefully there won’t be an earthquake.” The viaduct had experienced significant structural damage during the Nisqually earthquake of 2001; were another seismic event of its magnitude to occur, the structure would have likely collapsed like San Francisco’s Cypress Street Viaduct did in 1989, when forty-two people were killed. In 2008, it was finally announced that the Alaskan Way Viaduct would be removed and replaced by the tunnel that now runs beneath the city.
Johnson took his first set of photographs using a large format camera, from the vantage of the middle level; instead of the grand sweeping skylines, he captures intimate views directly into the adjacent buildings that radiate against the structure’s heavy concrete support columns. Though Johnson’s book grew out of a commission from Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture to document the viaduct’s removal, the artist had originally approached the city because of his own interests in the structure. Venues like Shelly’s Leg, Seattle’s first gay disco, and the OK Hotel, where bands such as Bikini Kill and Nirvana played, once lived beneath the concrete, as did members of Seattle’s unhoused and transitory communities. In a documentary for Seattle’s PBS, Johnson describes the viaduct as “a place where people could experience hidden things, but it had that kind of dark, slightly seedy quality to it, which befit the Seattle of old.”
Fondness isn’t an emotion often affiliated with infrastructure. And yet, it’s the sensibility that comes through the warm palettes and affecting details of the book’s color photos, like a graffitied heart scrawled beside the words, “Bye Bye.” It’s hard to think of a period of my life when infrastructure was as discussed as much as it has been over the past year. The broader reality that underlies the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed at the end of 2021 is the longtime neglect of the country’s existing public works projects, power grid, and aging roads and bridges, alongside the urgent need for more climate-resilient solutions. While the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s removal predated the legislation, Road to Nowhere feels particularly resonant on this precipice of change.
“A lot of my work focuses on areas that are out of sight, or that are in that transition,” Johnson told me. The artist’s best-known works include Sawdust Mountain (2005-08), a series that used landscape photography to explore communities with industries that are reliant upon natural resources—places of uncertain futures. The association between the rural US and uncertainty has since become an increasingly common, if no less poignant, narrative. Johnson’s Road to Nowhere moves on to engage less-explored questions around the future of the urban landscape. He includes Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) as inspiration for Road to Nowhere, as another conceptual, accordion photograph book—and a visual narrative of another urban icon whose functionality within its city has changed over time.
The reverse side of Road to Nowhere shows a different side of the viaduct’s story. In contrast to the color images that are each neatly contained within white borders, one per page, the black-and-white photographs are printed in full bleed to the pages’ edges and across the folds, immersing us in the physical act of destruction. Jaws rip through the road and wires dangle like torn appendages, hanging from the bones of the concrete beast. Seeing the photographs evokes the day I turned a corner and happened upon a decimated edge of the viaduct, its chunks of broken asphalt dramatically mangled against the downtown’s silvery skyscrapers.
In contrast to Seattle’s other attractions—the Great Wheel and the Space Needle—that don’t take us anywhere and are, in a sense, roads to nowhere, infrastructure like the viaduct is embedded in our lives. In that way, the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s removal held all the violence that Johnson captures in black and white: a chunk of our city was ripped out along with the concrete. As Seattle—and the country—rebuilds our structures, let’s hope the ride doesn’t only bring doom cloaked in shininess. Baby, I hope it’ll be alright.