WHEN the artist Byron Kim saw workers repainting a small bridge near his studio in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, he was concerned. “I watched them painting it Deep Cool Red,” he said, “and I kept thinking, did we pick the right color?”
Along with having an artist’s eye for particulars, Mr. Kim is one of 11 members of the city’s Public Design Commission (formerly the Art Commission). He and his colleagues review permanent works of art, architecture and landscaping proposed for city property. Picking the color of a city-owned bridge fits squarely in their vast domain.
In New York, that is not a small task. There are 2,027 bridges in the five boroughs. The lion’s share of them, 783, is maintained by the Department of Transportation’s Division of Bridges. As such, they are subject to review by Mr. Kim and the rest of the Design Commission.
Unless the structure is designated as a landmark or exempt from the guidelines, there is a choice of only seven colors: Deep Cool Red, Federal Blue, George Washington Bridge Gray, Aluminum Green, Pulaski Red, Munsell Gray or Dark Green. These are nicknames used by the Department of Transportation and other city agencies for particular colors in the federal standard color system.
“We can’t have every color, or even dozens, because of maintenance,” Mr. Kim said. “The Department of Transportation has to keep so much volume of these colors on hand, it would be almost impossible for them to add even one more.”
When Mr. Kim started in 2003, the approved palette contained only three colors. “We kept having to assign Pulaski Red, Munsell Gray or Dark Green,” he recalled. “It was such a small range that when the D.O.T. gave us the opportunity to ask, we pleaded for some more vibrant colors.”
The color chosen for each bridge is reviewed by the Design Commission case by case, with the goal of establishing consistency along roadways as well as a dignified presence appropriate to the environment.
“Something like a bright yellow would be impractical, not only because it gets dirty, but because it’s too crazy,” Mr. Kim said. “Our charge is to have a color palette that makes sense and use it in a way that’s not too chaotic or boring.”
His favorites are George Washington Bridge Gray and Federal Blue. “They have a strong relationship with the sky,” he said. “That’s important. For me, visually, bridges are more about what’s above and behind than below.”
As for the small bridge crossing on the way to his Carroll Gardens studio, it turns out the Design Commission got it just right. “The school that abuts it was repainted not long after the bridge,” he said. “It happened to go very well — a good choice and some good luck.”
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