Learning From Las Vegas, most Angelinos neither did not notice the steady proliferation of signs along their Southern California landscapes and strips, nor perhaps cared. With the turn of the century, that changed. For the last eight years Los Angeles has been engaged in a war with the outdoor advertising industry. "/>

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Comments (35) Posted 01.19.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Lorraine Wild

A Babylon of Signs


Installation of a digital billboard in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood catalyzed environmental design protests that led to a proposed new sign ordinance in this city.

“There is no reason…why the methods of commercial persuasion and the skyline of signs should not serve the purpose of civic and cultural enhancement. But this is not entirely up to the architect.” — Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown 

When Venturi and Scott Brown wrote these words in 1968, just three years after the passage of the Highway Beautification Act (legislation championed by Lady Bird Johnson that sought to eradicate billboards from the national scene), their sense of ironic political resistance aside, they were clear that designers did not fully control the construction of the visual environment. And while they steadfastly maintained that their inquiry into pop (and junk) landscapes was a design exploration (as opposed to a cultural vendetta), they let a graphic genie out of a bottle. Pop landscapes and strips were elevated from environments of blight that needed to be banned, to objects of serious critical examination and design inspiration. Interestingly, this study of pop landscapes began in Los Angeles when Scott Brown was teaching at UCLA in the mid 1960’s. Las Vegas was then — and remains now — Los Angeles in extremis

For a generation, since Venturi and Scott Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas, most Angelinos neither did not notice the steady proliferation of signs along their Southern California landscapes and strips, nor perhaps cared. With the turn of the century, that changed. For the last eight years Los Angeles has been engaged in a war with the outdoor advertising industry. 


In 2002, reacting to increasing outcries from newly-minted neighborhood councils that increasingly sought to control their local surrounds, the City banned all new “off-site” signage, typically deployed as billboards (existing billboards were “grandfathered:” as long as they are not altered they can remain). But the outdoor advertising industry struck back. They allocated $400,000 of free outdoor advertising to a successful candidate for City Attorney, Rocky Delgadillo. And lo and behold; upon Delgadillo’s election he authorized a sweetheart deal that allowed the industry to convert, with little penalty, almost 900 of Los Angeles’ 10,000 now non-conforming billboards to massive slide-shows of digital displays.

Meanwhile outside of the lawyers offices various Los Angeles City Councilpersons championed exceptions to the billboard ban in exchange for directed revenues for parks and social programs. The City also established special districts that allowed even more signage, and Los Angeles sold off the rights to advertise at bus stops on City property. Political inconsistency engendered environmental design chaos. In a fine example of giving an inch and taking a mile, outdoor advertising industry players sued the City, claiming that Los Angeles’s granting of continuous exceptions limited the industry’s rights to commercial and protected speech. With 25 law suits to defend and counting, outdoor advertisers large and small seem determined to make Los Angeles a test case nationally for an underappreciated benefit of the First Amendment; 100% unencumbered outdoor visual clutter!

Total building supergraphic wraps, of questionable legality, obscure the architecture of tall buildings and the skyline along Wilshire Boulevard west of Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

As the lawsuits pass back and forth, the technology of outdoor advertising evolves, presenting new visual challenges for communities and endless opportunities for commercially bent designers. Giant whole-building vinyl supergraphic wraps, obscure skyscrapers and warehouses. One company with its roots in Los Angeles, SkyTag, claims their supergraphic wraps are so big they can be seen from space. Yet giant wraps and digital billboards that change messages every four to six seconds distract drivers, ramp up danger of vehicular collisions at intersections, obscure views and provide undesired night lighting in the bedrooms of residences hundreds of feet away. In the very near future, LED arrays mounted in the window walls of buildings will turn night skies into pulsing fields of light pollution. The stuff of science fiction less then a decade ago, holographic and “smart” billboards already tailor their messages to passing motorists and pedestrians using blue tooth and wireless technologies interacting with mobile phones and personal digital devices. The cacophony of existing and potential environmental information delivery can be exhilarating, if you are in the right mood; but more frequently it’s exhausting and contributes to green house gas emissions (especially if you think about all that energy being used to power the digital signs). In Los Angeles, which has lost control of its visual environment, more and more people experience the presence of these extra-enabled billboards as an assault, yet another sign of private interests trumping the public good. In this Babylonic Empire of signs what little sense of the natural that is left, is pretty much diminished by the commercialization of every inch of urban space.

Given the reckless abandon of outdoor advertisers to co-opt the visual public realm and bending to popular will, the same City Attorney and City Council that brought Los Angeles to the brink of this newest form of visual blight are now rapidly attempting to reassert their authority over the environmental design of the urban scene. They have instituted an “interim control ordinance” banning the deployment of any new billboards or building wraps. They have instructed the City Planning Department to write a new “bulletproof” sign ordinance. They have promulgated criminal proceedings against contractors and property owners who continue, despite the interim control ordinance, to illegally erect giant billboards, sometimes in the dead of a quiet weekend night (2 a.m. Saturday morning installations always a hallmark of “best practice”). This has all occurred just in the last three months.

This past week the Los Angeles Department of Planning released a draft of the new sign ordinance that will be reviewed by the City Planning Commission before it moves on to adoption or defeat in City Council Chambers in February. If Venturi and Scott Brown unleashed a semiotic framework for examining the landscape that allowed an environmental empire of signs to be legitimized in a critical sense, the signage allowance pendulum seems to have now reversed itself in the place of its origins, Los Angeles. The proposed ordinance will steadfastly maintain the ban on billboards and strengthen its ability to withstand legal challenges by eliminating the definition, and thereby existence, of off-site signs. Digital media will be banned. Signage allowances on individual buildings will be reduced to 25% of what is allowed under current code. The maximum height of signs will be reduced from infinity (!) to 35 feet and no new logos will grace, or depending upon your viewpoint scar, the tops of tall buildings. All this is written within a context of “time, place and manner” restrictions that are thought to be more immune from legal challenges. Sign district exceptions are still allowed: though, weirdly, one of the stated intents for prospective districts is the reduction of visual clutter and the elimination of signs, (anti-sign “theme” parks?), even as signage “creativity” is encouraged in these same districts.

When Venturi and Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas, they accompanied their formal explorations of the strip with a cagey set of tools, including a sense of irony that instigated decades of debate. Yet, they maintained an independence from the actual results of the elevation of the pop landscape. They made sure — it was not quite an inside joke and jokes after all, are a time-honored means of learning — that we understood that they understood, the difference between that which was “authentic” and that which was “informed by.” You decide which you prefer. Obviously, one might still respond to the current Los Angeles signage debacle a la Venturi and Scott Brown: designers can continue to choose to be signage sociologists. But this time, in 2009, as opposed to 2008, we suspect Los Angeles cannot be so removed and pretend that we are not facilitators of the commercialization and degradation of our environment.

The question before environmental designers, graphic designers, urban designers and architects in Los Angeles and the rest of the nation is no longer an academic exercise. Where should signage, indeed information overload, be allowed and where should it be restricted (if at all)? What do we, as designers want the environment to look and feel like? The public in Los Angeles at least is curious as to where designers stand. Will we answer? Do we have anything to say and contribute? Do we have solutions to address the design challenge? 

John Kaliski is an architect in Los Angeles, founder and principal of architecture and urban design firm Urban Studio, and one of the author/editors of Everyday Urbanism, republished by Monacelli Press in 2008. 

Lorraine Wild is a contributing writer for Design Observer.
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Just my two cents;

Maybe framing the conversation as 'communication pollution" helps.
The communication ecology is perhaps the most important from the standpoint of building social capital.

Another thing to keep an eye on. Soon the tech will be mainstream to "customize" digital signs to when you are walking by. it's about geo location enabled by Google to your GPS in cell phones. In the right situation it might be great - education? health?

But in the service of selling stuff. Yikes!

Michael J
01.21.09 at 10:34

It's only the beginning of the inevitable immersive advertising revolution, no? One of the logical ends of Design... (where's Murray Moss's grandiose deluded puffery about Design when you need it?).
Jimmy Little
01.21.09 at 11:34

Many thanks for this really great post! In addition to LfLV, readers might want to look at Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) and the later film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles (1972). Both might suggest additional textures to the "signage debacle," as you describe it. Also, Nigel Whiteley has written a very informative essay on LfLV and A4E. Whiteley points to V and SB's "independence from the actual results," too. See his "Learning from Las Vegas ... and Los Angeles and Reyner Banham," in Relearning from Las Vegas (2009).
Michael J. Golec
01.21.09 at 02:09

I, too, think those lcds are distracting, obnoxious and ugly, but I wonder if that's just the romantic curmudgeon in me that prefers the tradition of obnoxious ugly print. Time would render these glowing adverts to be as quaint and 'of the character of the city' as we regard print billboards, and perhaps just as invisible. I'm thinking of Tokyo. Los Angeles is obviously not Tokyo nor will it ever be, of course; it is its own strange melange of American junk cultures unfiltered and oddly fitted – and, looking at the city through that lens, those stupid lcds, with their garish used-car lot typography and rgb colors kinda make a lot of sense.
Ahrum Hong
01.21.09 at 03:09

Oh no! This means we won't get the Ridley Scott vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner, big screen blimps and all. Drag.

Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.
Gong Szeto
01.21.09 at 11:49

People tend not to vote for dystopia's and the sun still shines most every day here.
John Kaliski
01.22.09 at 12:02

Two quick associations:

1. The Oxo tower in London, which incorporated "OXO" as a geometric decoration to circumvent a ban on large-scale advertising.

2. The giant "US Bank" logo that currently disfigures the crown of the Library Tower in downtown L.A. Unfortunately it will probably be grandfathered in even if the proposed regulations pass.
Neil
01.22.09 at 01:27

I believe the OXO type efforts will probably be handled under the art easement process which is simultaneously moving through the City of LA but not on as fast a track. The US bank logo will be grandfathered but also I believe since Downtown LA has signage guidelines under the Redevelopment Agency that allow building logos, these types of signs in downtown may still be allowed, at least as I read the ordinance.
John Kaliski
01.22.09 at 01:50

I'm not particularly bothered by it. I kind of even like it. Its very... American. Gives that big city feel. Of course I do understand the perspective of a person who has to see it EVERYDAY and there is the fact I am from a small(ish) town, but I also enjoy and am amused by advertisers efforts to come up up with new, albeit obnoxious, ways of capturing attention. Good article.
Devin Sloan
01.22.09 at 03:35

Thanks for updating me on LA billboard policy. Your article raises good issues.
As a visitor and long-ago student, I affectionately look upon the urban billboard of LA as characteristic of the city. Would LA become just another example of cheap sprawl without the presence of outdoor out-size promotion?
The question is how "environment" is construed. As an urban aesthetic, billboards blight it to the extent their messages extend an unwanted cacophony. We can seek to be genteel, and remove them from our "environment." That's a positive, I suppose.
The sign power of the cities of Los Angeles, however, create another environment not limited to geography. The wisps of emissions that these billboards emit is nothing compared to the noxious emanations that shape global culture. These telegenic messages act like a closing automatic garage door onto our species limited future.
“There is no reason…why the methods of commercial persuasion and the skyline of signs should not serve the purpose of civic and cultural enhancement."
But this is entirely up to the architect.”
You're right it's no longer an academic exercise.
John Calvelli
01.22.09 at 10:26

This was a very instructive post!
Seascape Lamps
01.23.09 at 12:23

Thanks for bringing up this issue.

Maybe visitors think our billboards are quaint or that's all that's interesting about this city (!). As a native, I think they're ugly and intrusive. Sure there were always big ads up on Sunset or some commercial centers, but it's gone insane! There's also no art to it whatsoever. You just get a barrage: 4+ of the same bad movie ads overlapping at one intersection. It's like living on a bad web page you can't get away from. There are supergraphics planned on new condo high-rises. Who wants to live in an ad, looking at a dour 40% dot screen instead of a view? I can just imagine new architecture with that horrific before/after weight loss ad draped across it. Fortunately there's often a tipping point with this kind of stuff, and it seems to be building.

As far as an 'answer', there's research showing diminishing returns for ads. With overload comes diffused attention and blindness. Hopefully advertisers will become more focused and artful and not throw whole cities under the train in their pursuit of quick returns.

http://www.latimes.com/classified/realestate/rentals/commercial/la-me-outdoor-signs-backlash20-2009jan20,0,889232.story
http://la.curbed.com/tags/billboards
bene
01.23.09 at 05:16

1) Electronic signs damage the environment far more than their static counterparts.
2) Just as traffic lights are erected after someone is killed by a car at a street corner, lawsuits are inevitable when the traffic accidents begin.
3) Though airwaves are considered public, existing law does not regulate content by requiring any proportion of public service content to appear on these new signs. Perhaps this can be changed.
jetpower
01.23.09 at 06:55

The central question to me involves ownership and use of the visual landscape. Do soft drink companies, movie studios, and other corporate entities have an absolute right to claim a piece of it to launch a continuous assault of ever-larger, brighter, and more technologically intrusive pitches for their products and services? By answering yes, we concede our public spaces to an intensively private purpose; by answering no, we maintain that the visual landscape is a public resource that can and should be protected from an erosion of architectural and scenic vistas, as well as the idea that being in an urban environment implies a civic responsibility to be a consumer first and citizen second.
Dennis Hathaway
01.24.09 at 08:31

Oh no! This means we won't get the Ridley Scott vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner, big screen blimps and all. Drag.

Gong, while this may no longer be the case here in LA (I pray), I assure you it is happening in other places. I attended the SEGD's Dynamic Environments conference this fall (appropriately here in LA) and at least two presenters I heard explicitly showed or mentioned Scott's film as their "inspiration" for their already built or soon-to-be completed projects—no doubt many others left its inspiration unsaid. Perhaps they only got 5 minutes in and didn't got to that whole "dystopia" part or fail to see the symbol connected to its meaning, but it is already upon us.

I've heard similar discussion around the use of technology in Minority Report as the next evolution for interactive designers as Bladerunner is for the environment. Perhaps we just don't care about oppressive governments as long as we get cool gadgets?

It will, of course, come down to use and who has control/access, but so far its seems to be a blight rather than a utopia. Are designers ready to really dive into the bureaucratic/corporate mud and fight? Or do we even have the cultural capital to?
Derrick Schultz
01.25.09 at 07:50

I think the signs are beautiful.
Arty Vongphakdy
01.25.09 at 10:30

I am a fan of these to be honest. But only when they're tastefully done. Many can add beauty.
kelvinwins.com
01.25.09 at 11:55

John Kaliski seems to has entirely misread "Learning from Las Vegas", and learned non of its lessons.

The reason Venturi and Brown (and Steven Izenour, the other one who always gets left out, including by fellow architects like Kaliski) chose Las Vegas as the city to study is that it was the fastest growing city in America, and yet architects seemed not to be involved.

They began their work disdainfully, stuffed with architectural theory that aggregates all the powers over our built environment to architects, and ended up adoring the wild, inventive, crass, practical, exigent, and comic nature of a city barely touched by the then rampant puritanism of Modernism. Utterly persuaded by it, they called it the "architecture of persuasion".

This encounter utterly changed architecture. Among other things spawning "post-modernism", which was an attempt to steal some of Las Vegas' virile and mad-cap sense of play.

Kaliski seems to want control, I don't know him, but I bet you he is a Modernist, since Modernism in architecture was all about the tasteful few controlling the rest of us for our betterment. One huge benefit of advertising is that – unlike architects' monuments to themselves – it changes. Not only changes every week or so, but through the years. Like the signs in Las Vegas, that so affected Scott and Venturi (and the other one), advertising can be funny, clever, provocative.

Why see advertising per se as a blight, and not see architecture as a blight? Why do we take advertising as the part we should control? One memorable phrase from "Learning from" describing the force behind Las Vegas was "the great proletarian cultural locomotive". Its a force much bigger than theory, than taste, than architects, which – as we can see above – enrages them.
Quentin Newark
01.26.09 at 05:14

I don't think billboards are distracting at all - at least the ones that are of good taste and one that actually promote good (health-ads, anti-tobacco ads, etc). They add to the culture of a neighborhood. In Asian countries - billboard ads are everywhere and much more prevalent than the ones in Los Angeles. The residents there never seem to be bothered by them. If we want to continue to creat public-private partnerships in this city, we should promote ads as they generate income for property owners, the MTA, and others who can use the money generated to invest in developing the city's infrastructure. Lastly, I'd rather look at colorful billboard ads than concrete, blight, and trash that often characterize the urban fabric of the city.
Joy K.
01.26.09 at 01:18

Quentin Newark accuses John Kaliski of entirely misreading "Learning from Las Vegas". He also is convinced that Kaliski is a modernist.

I have always thought of Kaliski as a somewhat pragmatic, at least ideologically speaking, if not particularly talented follower, as in after the fact, of the Venturi's. He certainly plumbs the same pipes.

Kaliski in fact has, like the Venturi's, been an advocate of popular and neglected American urban landscapes. However, his book, edited with Margaret Crawford (who teaches at Harvard), and John Chase, http://www.amazon.com/Everyday-Urbanism-John-Chase/dp/1885254814, seems to wring the irony and disdain for the popular that the Venturi's maintain to this day, out of urban design discourse and provide in its place a sweeter sincerity towards observation of the same vernaculars.

With regard to Venturi and Scott Brown, after some long searching on my part, it is apparent that while Izenour did contribute to Learning From Las Vegas. He is not credited with the the earlier "A Significance for A & P Parking Lots or Learning from Las Vegas", which was published in 1968 in Architectural Forum and is quoted in the post.

The Venturi's may have been "utterly persuaded" by Las Vegas, but they were always careful to maintain their distance from it's ethical aspects. For instance, they were careful to note, in the aforementioned article, that they did not question Las Vegas' values. It seems that Kaliski is not so much questioning the right of any architect or designer to formally analyze any phenomenon but the expectation that this analysis can possibly be seen as outside of a discussion of values. This would suggest that he is more of a post-structuralist. In any case this is an old debate and it is enjoyable to see that a second year graduate student in graphic design, who still has hopefully lot's of learning left, is engaged by it.

The Venturi's have always maintained a high perch, seeing their operation as one of passionate translation instead of sincere loving embrace. The Venturi's remain architecture elites. One wonders if this is in and of itself, at least as regards architecture, a type of modernist stance.

At this point I am a bit older myself and while past being stimulated by a Pepsi sign, or even titillated by a gentleman's club broadside or strip, I do wonder why outdoor advertisers do not have to, as Charles Moore might say, pay for the public life. Perhaps it is their right to say whatever they want anytime they want. But it is also the right of a civil society to request that they give back more than public service announcements that they control to their own benefit.

With regard to the populace in Los Angeles, if they decide to ban outdoor advertising, as far as I am concerned that is simply their proletarian right in a democracy. Kaliski and Wild (who by the way should not be ignored by Newark in his musings) are simply asking, post-Venturi and Scott Brown, do architects have values they want to contribute to this public discussion? This seems like a truly radical, indeed contemporary stance to an old and long-time design observer.
Bernard Pez
01.26.09 at 11:51

Yikes! Bernard, you are too kind.
John Kaliski
01.27.09 at 12:03


What is it about architects that they read but don't take in what they read.

In my copy of the book "Learning from Las Vegas" – which is cited by Kaliski in his third paragraph, and again in his second to last, rather than the magazine article of a different name – the seemingly invisible Steven Izenour is an author.

He either is an author of "Learning from Las Vegas" or he isn't. It is disingenuous to suggest, even though his name is on the title page of the book as an author, that he isn't an author of the book. (I feel deeply sorry, Steven, that all these readers of your book erase you.)

Who is the second year student? Me? Pez confesses to being very old, but he must learn how to Google. My student days are long, long past. (Perhaps that is how Izenour constantly gets forgotten, old architects must think he is student, and as such, incapable of mature thought.)

My argument – mixed in with the admiration of advertising, signs, and sign-encrusted buildings found in "Learning from Las Vegas" – is that our "public life" is made up of lots of stuff: adverts, walls, roads, trees, roundabouts, buildings, and the idea that some of that stuff is very important (the bit the architects deal with) and that some of it is a blight (the adverts) is not the only way of thinking about it.

You could think that billboards are no less valid and intrinsic a part of our urban environment than buildings. I do.

I recently flew to Siberia, and after a 16 hour flight, 2 hours in police cell and a 2 hour drive on a road winding through ten feet high snow drifts, the first thing I saw entering Norilsk was David Beckham in sunglasses, filling the whole side of a building.

That ad being there was as significant a part of contemporary Russia as the Stalinist housing block it sat on.

How can the "Venturi's" remain on a "high perch", even after having seen a thriving city that architects have nearly nothing to do with (although since 1972, Koolhaus has been tempted there). They can because this is the lot of architects. Its a position that almost every architect puts his/herself in, this high perch, at least since Gropius put architecture (and architects) at the very apex of all design, and by extension all mankind's fabricated world, in the Bauhaus manifesto.

High priests of a "new faith", no less. On a high perch. Empowered to intuitively understand and protect Kaliski's "public good".

Pez in his musings seems to firmly favour "vernaculars", which I would assume involve signs and ads, although we can't quite tell, since later on in his post he is only titillated by the vernacular down his street.

Vernacular is a age-old architect's semantic trick. Buildings with no named architect, things abroad or safely in the past get called vernacular. Its ok in architecture-world to be in favour of vernacular because there is so much of it, and it can be studied without any relevance to what the architect does now. You might say that the real meaning of the word vernacular is "what happens without proper architects", architects with theory. Vernacular is never now, outside the front door, downtown. Except it is.

If you want to find visual environments that, unlike contemporary LA, have not lost "control", and the "public good" remains firmly in the hands of the few, try Tiananmen Square (too symbolic for ads), or rural Cambodia (too poor for ads), or Mendocino CA (too wealthy for ads). How that "few" get and exert control over the visual environment is never a happy story.

I suggest one of the reasons LA is experiencing ad "clutter" is because it is a bustling, rapidly expanding city, and growth in a market economy is always a messy thing. But one way to see the ads is ultimately as a sign of rude commercial and political health.

(Would Kaliski ever see architecture as "clutter"?)

Venturi, Scott Brown and Mr Invisible allowed themselves to engage and admire "vernacular" and try and learn lessons from it. Lessons about lack of purity, play, popularity, randomness, all of which made for a more complicated and nuanced attitude to architecture. Which, despite some broken-architrave silliness, has greatly enriched its most modern forms.

I think a wide embrace, that sees architecture as but one part of urban culture, wouldn't contemplate banning another part.



Quentin Newark
01.27.09 at 07:41

I just re-read the article at the head of this string and I owe boundless apologies to Lorraine Wild. I inadvertently, clumsily Izenour-ed her.

Quentin Newark
01.27.09 at 12:35

Thanks for the well-written article, and insightful analysis of the billboard issue in LA. There are many issues with the billboards and advertising in the city. The digital billboards are not really worse than the old billboards, but they do have new problems that need to be addressed. They are a serious distraction to drivers, which everyone who lives in LA knows we don't need. The thing about this proposed legislation is what confuses me. Why do they all have to go? I can fully understand why people don't want a huge digital billboard in their neighborhood, but the odds of eliminating them all together are slim. Why not just try to start regulating the changes more strictly. Go with the realistic plan, so that some good might come of this, not just a long drawn out process that yields absolutely no results.
Adam
01.27.09 at 12:41

Tonight I spent several minutes trying to make a left at a busy intersection (Fairfax and Melrose) which happens to have double-barreled electronic billboards, and though I had to see many frames extolling the various enterprises of Ed Hardy, and many, many frames touting the new Pink Panther movie, I certainly saw nothing that would constitute public service, and I can honestly say I do not ever remember seeing a public service ad on an electronic billboard. There are a few interesting billboards around town that are used for things other than ads (for instance, the large billboard on top of Johnnie's that LACMA seems to have rented for announcements, or the billboard on top Undefeated on LaBrea). But as far as "tasteful" goes...well, who's going to legislate that?. I think it's specious to assume that wherever you see a lot of outdoor advertising, that it is an authentic representation of popular culture at its finest. In the case of the electronic billboards, it's inaccurate to refer to them as vernaculars; they represent a very particular corporate culture, operating (in the case of Los Angeles) at a scale beyond local, aggressively delineating an ongoing privatization of public space, and justifying it all as "freedom of speech."
lorraine wild
01.28.09 at 02:42

The way you describe those billboards they sound awful, crass, unavoidable.

I don't drive, and I don't drive in LA. We have a new thing here on some stations on the tube (underground train system). Its a bank of electronic screens that all show the same ad as you ascend on the endless escalators. (Like that stairway to heaven in "A matter of life and death", only without the music.)

They are mind-numbing. Ads for fizzy drinks and musicals and insurance.

But then its prime real-estate. The busiest stations in the centre of the metropolis. Like that one turning at Fairfax & Melrose.

I walk a lot. Often I find myself in utterly bewildering areas, especially in America, where there is no pavement, only ugly walls or the back of buildings with aircon boxes, under snaggled overpasses, garage forecourts. (I was once run over by a car in Las Vegas, the driver confessed to not looking because "we never get pedestrians here". I was also picked up by Police in White Plains for walking in the road when there was no pavement.) This is the bits that architects and planners never consider, never walk themselves. The un-city. So much of it is like that. No billboard would ever be put there.

But taken overall, walking and travelling by bus and train, the world over, I think ad-intrusion is pretty low. (I never idle at an intersection.)

What do we ban or seek to control to make better cities? Just those few ads?
Quentin Newark
01.28.09 at 05:45

In the case of the electronic billboards, it's inaccurate to refer to them as vernaculars; they represent a very particular corporate culture, operating (in the case of Los Angeles) at a scale beyond local, aggressively delineating an ongoing privatization of public space, and justifying it all as "freedom of speech."

I guess I'm just not sure how this is fundamentally different from plain old print billboards or from large florescent-backlit corporate signage (The Samsung sign on Wilshire and La Brea, any number of Auto Zones and KFCs). These also constitute an "ongoing privatization of public space," and if what you want is to draw a line in the sand, why not go the full monty and follow the Sao Paolo model?

When I see those disgusting Ed Hardy ads, my reaction is not to tear down the billboard but to adjust my filter.
Ahrum Hong
01.28.09 at 08:09

It's hard to hate the shiny gold Pepsi wraps. Obnoxious? Yes. Distracting to drivers? I nearly rear-ended somebody. But at least these massive scale advertisements aspire more to the glamorous and new. Last time I visited my parents Houston, the grandfathered billboards that were by the house I grew up in, now much closer feeling because of the newly expanded 20 lane I-10, boldy displayed "713-5HERNIA" in giant, blocky Helvetica. Behind that? "713-RUHAIRY."
Chelsea
01.29.09 at 12:18

I did err in calling Mr. Newark a second year graduate student. Yet he clearly has the google skills of a freshman. The article that is cited in the post is, Venturi, Robert, and Denise Scott Brown. “A Significance for A&P Parking Lots, or Learning from Las Vegas.” Architectural Forum, March 1968. This was written four years before the publication of Learning From Las Vegas.

Learning From Las Vegas, the book, was co-authored with Mr. Izenour who unfortunately died some years ago. For the book, the article was revised with Mr. Izenour. Mr. Izenour was a close and very important collaborator and partner of the Venturi's. However, while this may seem like a small point to the footnote challenged Mr. Newark, Mr. Izenour was also one of their students at Yale after the article cited was written.

Clearly, and I agree with Mr. Newark on this, not all signs are blight and some buildings are. Not withstanding his seemingly depressing trip to Siberia which produced a brainstorm about Beckham, his idea of the Venturi's is frozen in time. For a good article on the difficulty of their practice and ideas, its uncomfortable and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to move between high and low, see Deborah Fausch's brilliant essay "Ugly and Ordinary: the Representation of the Everyday" in Everyday Architecture edited by Steven Harris and Deborah Berke.

I also think to maintain that Gropius was the first architect to put himself on a high perch from his desk at the Weimar Bauhaus is laughable.

Also, while I am indeed interested in vernaculars, please note that I never used the term in my response to Newark's ramblings. Vernacular too is a structuralist construct. At this point the vernacular of 1968 Las Vegas has long disappeared, replaced by a city and spectacles very much formulated by designers and architects. And that is the point of the post, isn't it? How much are designers willing to pimp themselves in their contribution to sign blighted landscapes in Los Angeles, indeed anywhere. The post asks if designer's are willing to take a stand in a public debate with real world consequences. The public in Los Angeles is choosing sides. This is different then being dictated to from above as is the case in Beijing. Further, there are plenty of examples of growth in North American market economies that are not messy and are democratic. I would cite Vancouver to name one.

While the Venturi's and indeed Izenour did look at existing landscapes and learn lessons from them, they did it behind a screen of irony and contradiction that was ultimately distancing and distracting to many of the publics that they tried to work with. And while their work, and especially Denise Scott Brown's urban design work, can not always be so neatly pigeon-holed, there has been a problem with this irony of theirs that many more talented observers than me have noted. Kaliski and Wild do not seem to be caught in Newark's more contemporary version of the same trap. They display no sense of Venturian irony in their post and while this may make them seem humorless, I prefer to see them as challenging us to have an actual opinion as opposed to just collecting the next pay check. Though in these times that may not be such a bad thing after all (ah, my sense of irony spills forth).

The issue that is raised in the post is whether architect's and designers will choose to participate as citizens in larger public debates that involve design. Or will they choose to stand above them. This is a point that seems lost to Mr. Newark even though he claims to seek an opening up of the sanctum of design. His problem, he thinks it can only be done from within design by designers. His reluctance to truly embrace design through a filter of democracy seems even older school than my retirement from these debates to pursue water color and plein air oils.
Bernard Pez
01.30.09 at 02:51

Mr Pez, thank you for confirming that Steven Izenour was joint author of "Learning from Las Vegas", the book cited twice in the original post. (As one of the Venturis' leading students, he probably did much of the work in the book, which is why he has joint authorship.)

Vernacular is not a term devised by your dreaded enemies, the Structuralists, but was in use in architectural circles long before they became infected by Theory. Frank Lloyd Wright referred to vernacular architecture, and MoMA mounted an exhibition of vernacular building in the 1960s called "Architecture Without Architects". This title exactly fits my point.

You seem reluctant to acknowledge the Venturi's as protagonists of post-modernism in architecture, but every history of architecture disagrees with you. (It does not much matter whether or not their architecture is good, just that their ideas were, and are, influential.)

My main point, in all my comments above, is that advertising is as valid as the architecture that it stands next to. I find it odd to want to control the aesthetics and technology and the purposes of advertising, and not do the same for architecture.

Advertising, much of which is banal and ugly, at least has the virtue of rapid change. An Ed Hardy ad is up and then gone, whereas the banal and ugly building next to it, with no pavement in front of it for me to walk on, stands there ugly for decades.

As for who should debate these things; your mental gymnastics that seek to place me in the nineteenth century with a fustian jacket and a palette are nowhere near. In fact, just silly. I think everyone has a right to comment and lobby, since its everyone's visual environment. I just think that we ought to include everything in the environment rather than just one part.

There is a holistic campaign here Google in England to simplify streets, which includes far more than ads; scooping in paving, parking, traffic signs, guardrails, and so on. And in Holland Google , they have made roads considerably safer by removing almost all the highway signs.

Unfortunately the quasi-governmental organisation that is cleaning up England's streets is the same one that prevented Daniel Libeskind from building the magnificient Spiral Google and rejuvenating the venerable V&A Museum. They see their main job as holding back change, keeping Britain in aspic, a kind of theme-park country.

You, in America, publicly voted on which scheme should fill Ground Zero, although I think the result was fudged. But this seems a model full of potential – without designers having any kind of privileged position – for choosing large architectural projects that affect millions of people, and determining public space.

This is the kind of wider view – wider than just seeing ads as the most significant blight – that can change our environment for the better for all of us.
Quentin Newark
01.30.09 at 06:23

In São Paulo/Brazil billboards were banned, now adds can only be displayed on busses, bus stops and subways.
At first I didn't think much about it, billboards never were a problem for me. But once they were gone the city started looking much better, one could see a building in stead of a giant billboard. It felt less polutted. It was a change for the better.
manu
01.30.09 at 01:19

I will never convince Mr. Newark who dips and shimmies about my points and goes off in ever new directions to avoid my thrusts and parries. The logic twists and is anti-historical.

1) The Venturi's set out the basis for Learning from Las Vegas in many articles long before they knew Steven Izenour. I have documented this. Newark is just blowing his considerable pipes. 2) Vernacular as a term was used by many through time, but in the 1960's, and even with the MOMA show mentioned, Architecture without Architect's, the term was a reflection of a strong interest in types that was peculiar to a semiotic and structural logic that was developing and prevalent at the time. 3) Of course the Venturi's were important to the establishment of Post-modernism, I never denied this and this is not my point. My point is that one of the seeds of their brand of critical post-modern thought, the use of irony (again, an irony defined by their reading of New Criticism) ultimately created a reaction against their ideas which continues to the present day. I cited my sources; Newark is just stating opinion not backed up by anything more than hazy history and murky memory.

The point of the post as I read it was not to make a value judgment about architecture versus advertising though that is an interesting aside. I thought the point was that publics are seeking to control advertising in democratic situations and asking where architects and designers stand. Newark obviously stand for design laissez-faire and that is his right. But I sense from my perch in the sticks that the public in Los Angeles sees this as a weak position that consigns designers to irrelevance with regard to this discussion. From my vantage point the public in Los Angeles and elsewhere is perfectly happy to control architecture and do it all the time. This worries architects and designers and aesthetes like Mr. Newark.

Finally, I never stand for the banal and ugly. I am glad Newark can tolerate it but, what an exhausting position that must be. I do think indeed think of Newark and his position as black-tattered frock-coated19th-century flaneurism. Its fine for him to comment on everything, I respect his right to, but is he willing to take responsibility for anything other than libertine carelessness.

Newark provides examples regarding street and traffic design. But these are all about information, not advertising, and work based upon guiding the driver, or slowing the driver down, in ways that minimize distraction and maximize concentration on the road. Digital advertising billboards do the opposite and are in no way equivalent to traffic design. Advertising is also not the same thing as the iconic but durable forms proposed by Liebskind in England or any other location. Public participation by designers as citizens in these debates is the point of the post. Mr. Newark simply does not agree with this as a position that a designer should have. He should clearly state this rather than rely on ideas as a cover for ideas he is not in sure command of.

The fuss over advertising within the public realm in Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and many other places is symbolic of a larger desire by public's to control their visual environment. I do not think most designers have digested all of this. They are still defining the terms much the way Newark does, in terms that are above rather than within the debate.
Bernard Pez
01.30.09 at 03:57

An interesting case study to reference in relationship to the Los Angeles city ordinance is Quebec's laws on outdoor signage, which for a time allowed only French language to appear on outdoor signage. The United Nations Human Rights Committee ultimately ruled that those laws broke an international covenant on human rights. While there are obvious differences between the two cases, both have to do with the distribution of language and messaging in public space.

I was in Flushing in the borough of Queens last week. On this American Main Street, the proliferation of signage does in fact reflect American culture at its finest: a place so accepting of diversity that one is hard-pressed to find a single sign in English. Is it tasteful? Probably not, especially if you think the world should be a clean, tidy place where everything is uniform and nothing is distracting.
Manuel
02.01.09 at 07:56

Whether or not billboards is distracting depends on where they are and whether or not they're blinking vigorously behind your rear-view mirror on a highway. Whatever happened to design in context?

Toronto has a billboard problem: They are meant to generate revenue but most of them don't because they are illegal (bigger than allowed, video where there's none allowed, permits that have expired, no fees paid, you name it).

Fascinating research: http://illegalsigns.ca/

There's an interesting Toronto-based group called Beautiful City, Billboard Fee who has an interest in legalizing what is going on and directing the fees towards public arts projects for youth.

Here is their site: http://bcbf.them.ca/
Michèle Champagne
02.08.09 at 12:29

With the current dilemma ad agencies are facing with less television viewing, its no wonder that there has been a current boom of advertising in the greater Los Angeles area.

People are no longer at home transfixed to their television sets, and if you live in LA, youre probably in your car (stuck in traffic). What better way to target the 35+ demographic and their expendable income.

I'm not saying the increase in billboards (mainly the digital ones) are a good thing, but some do seem to serve as a new form of metropolitan design that some urbanites can appreciate.
Mishka
03.09.09 at 02:14


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lorraine Wild is a designer and educator in Los Angeles. She established her own design practice, Green Dragon Office, in 1996 to focus on collaborations with architects, curators and publishers.
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