Crossing Paths

Crossing Paths

Most of the time, in order to cross the road, you have to be on the road. You wait for the traffic signal, look both ways, then, like Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, you hope for the best.

But some roads you don’t have to touch. With skyways—enclosed pedestrian bridges between buildings that are otherwise divided by traffic—you don’t even have to go outside. The city of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, has elevated them to the level of an infrastructure project, with well over 100 buildings connected by the Plus 15 Skyway—so named because each bridge rises about 15 feet above its street. You can come fairly close to crossing downtown Calgary from end to end without putting on your coat.

The closest New Haven comes to that kind of continuous overhead coverage is the Yale New Haven Health complex and the Yale Medical Campus, which use 6 skyways to connect to each other and to medical facilities across 5 streets. These are an instrument of expediency for doctors but also one of mercy for patients, who may be walking assisted to and from their parked cars. The best fulfillment of the latter purpose is the skyway linking the Air Rights parking garage to the Smilow Cancer Hospital. With an airy lobby full of natural light and natural endgrain flooring, the hospital extends itself across the gap to hasten your arrival, placing a guard at the foot of the stairs to the skyway and a directory and welcome signage at the top.

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New Haven Symphony Orchestra presents Carmina Burana

The ability of an institution to move across the gap is shared by the Barnard Environmental Studies Magnet School on Derby Avenue. Over four lanes plus two more turning lanes of state road, a skyway connects the school to the Barnard Nature Center in West River Memorial Park. There, students encounter the sort of classroom facilities they had just left behind, but they also encounter a menagerie of turtles and snakes and a rooftop garden. Just outside is the park itself with its playing field, plantlife and mud. Hands-on and hands-in learning. The skyway turns the actual environment into part of the textbook environment the kids are studying. Getting there amounts to a field trip without the trip.

Suspended between the two classroom spaces, the skyway becomes part of the classroom too. Inside, it’s a nondescript structure of glass and steel, but the windows looking out on Derby Avenue are a canvas, where the kids hone a message and broadcast it in paint to passing traffic. There are countless handprints in blue that let you know the kids own the place, but there are also, as of this writing, a rallying cry (“Let’s build a better Earth!”) on one side and a suggested starting point (“Plastic ban! Yes we can!”) on the other. That the kids at Barnard will be growing up to inhabit the world people of driving age are currently creating suggests that drivers should make a point to look.

It’s the traditional nature of skyways that they remove the traffic from the crosser’s consideration (and vice versa), but they handily reverse this objective when put to expressive use. Inside the Barnard skyway, the painted letters are backwards and you’re too close to each pane of window to see the big picture, but approaching drivers are face to face with it. They become the people the skyway is serving–or at least addressing.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Jump ahead 12 or more school years, and the students at Gateway Community College are doing the same. There–crossing over George Street just east of the Temple Street Garage–the skyway rises to accommodate four stories of students walking back and forth along what the designers of the building–Perkins & Wills–have dubbed an “internal street” that seamlessly joins both sides of the college. The height of the skyway also accommodates the Learning Wall–a massive LED display of coaster-sized pixels–each lighting up a single color at a time. It’s pretty to look at while standing inside the skyway–and you can sense a picture emerging–but only when you’ve left the building and crossed the intersection on George Street do you see the faces—of students and staff in slow video motion—as plain as day. (The installation was designed by a Los Angeles artists’ collective called Electroland.) The actual people walking inside, small and blithely unaware of you, are at the same time big and looking right at you.

City skyways tend to give off a future-is-now vibe, with clean lines and glass panels where video art is not out of place. The term “skyway” is itself futuristic-sounding. But the Yale University Art Gallery’s enclosed bridge over High Street evokes the past, with its turrets, relief figures, and oxidized copper clocks. It was originally built to link what were then the Yale Gallery of Fine Arts and the Yale School of the Fine Arts. It even takes you backward in time, from a building erected in 1926 to a building erected in 1866. (Considering that the newer building was designed in the fashion of medieval Florence, the bridge also takes you forward in time.)

Inside the bridge, however, you find yourself in a clean, contemporary space, not at first aware that you’re standing directly over High Street. The gallery’s grand renovation in 2006 cleverly disguises its occupation of three different buildings, turning the bridge into another room–or, to be precise, two on the 2nd level and one on the 3rd. The windows on the lower level are Gothic and secretive, looking out over one-way traffic that’s always receding. Camille Pissaro’s A Seated Peasant Woman is mounted just inside, but she looks in the opposite direction.

On the upper level, works by Edward Hopper hang where the windows would be, but windows figure prominently in the paintings themselves. Many of Hopper’s subjects sit near them but look inward. I stopped here to contemplate their expressions, then contemplated the notion that, contrary to their more basic purpose, stopping to look is what the best skyways encourage you to do.

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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