Q&AZ: Who Designs The Artwork Along Arizona Freeways?

By Julian Hernandez
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2019 - 11:15am
Updated: Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 11:41am

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Art on State Route 143 wall.
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Art on a State Route 143 wall.

As part of our Q&AZ reporting project, listener Stacy Ketcham wanted to know who designs the artwork on Phoenix-area freeways.

Before the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, there wasn’t much to highways other than asphalt and concrete.

When LeRoy Brady, chief landscape architect for the Arizona Department of Transportation, joined ADOT in 1974, he said there wasn't much going on in the aesthetics department. 

“In the urban areas landscaping was not too much of a priority," Brady said. 

The artistic features on the banks along the highways and splashes of color paint on the overpasses that we see today weren't around back then. 

Joseph Salazar joined ADOT nearly 30 years ago, and he too saw a serious lack of identity in the freeway designs. 

“One of the things I noticed early on was a lack of aesthetics for the structures and the walls and landscaping," Salazar said. He cites a section of the I-17 south of Van Buren that typifies the states approach in the past. “There’s zero landscaping, zero aesthetics. The structures weren’t even painted at all.” Instead, lightly textured concrete banks on both sides of the interstate guide drivers along the route.

Around the time Salazar joined ADOT, freeway construction in the Valley was speeding up. In 1985 voters passed Proposition 300 to increase the sales tax by half a percent in order to fund transportation projects. Salazar said he realized he had an opportunity to make highways aesthetically pleasing to those using them and living around them. 

Art on the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport ramp
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Art on the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport ramp from State Route 143.

“Our freeways are no longer gonna be on the outskirts of our community. They’re going to be going through prime residential, commercial and retail areas and in a lot of cases the freeway will literally be in the people’s front yard or back yard,” Salazar said.

“So we first started off very simple, just painting the structures and then doing simple geometric petroglyph type of forms on the bridges,” Salazar said. They couldn't implement big changes that would slow down the rapidly expanding highway system in Phoenix.

They began implementing the use of native vegetation and trees to reflect the communities the highways passed through. Palo verde and mesquite trees native to the Southwest began to replace the ponderosa pines that were used before. 

“Our area looked like it was more like Southern California or something from the east coast,” Salazar said.

The innovation that Salazar is most recognized for is the use of different colored granite to create patterns and designs on the ground and slopes alongside the highways, a practice called landform graphics. Salazar said the practice came about when cost cutting measures were implemented in the 1990s. During that time, the state was working on the interchange between Sky Harbor Boulevard and State Route 143.

"We had hardly any money for trees or irrigation and just enough money for decomposed granite,” Salazar said. He said he began to think of different ways he could use the granite.

A decoration on an eastbound freeway ramp near Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
A decoration on an eastbound freeway ramp near Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

“I had an idea," Salazar said. "Why don’t we take some of this imagery and sculpture it into with the various colors of the decomposed granite and just create this canvas area of art on the ground.” 

As the project was right by the Pueblo Grande Museum, Salazar met with the museum's archaeologists to examine the designs found on Native American artifacts in search of inspiration.

One roundabout features a pattern that Salazar said was typical of the ceramic bowls that he studied in the museum's collection. Because the landscaping project is so large and so close to Sky Harbor, the artwork can be seen by those flying into the airport. Salazar said it's a great way to introduce people to the aesthetics and history of Arizona.

Along with the landscaping changes, Brady said highway noise barriers, overpasses and bridges also transformed. Brady is proud of the fact that ADOT has worked with the communities when choosing the designs that will represent their neighborhoods, especially since the projects are so visible and permanent. “One of the things to remember about highways is that they are the most viewed public works projects there is,” Brady said.

For Brady and Salazar, there’s no reason why our public works projects can’t be beautiful.

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