Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stimulating Ecologies of Design

President Obama signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
on February 18, 2009 with Vice President Joe Biden looking over his shoulder.

I have been pondering the ‘‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009’, known also as the Stimulus Package, Recovery Act, or ARRA. At the national level, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) expressed strong support for this legislation and I know of no organized opposition on the part of architects or the broader design community to the concepts that underlie ARRA. Still, many architects I know question the bill that was signed into law. They quietly express concerns about the prospects for architecture, architecture work, and design culture, especially if a second round of stimulus, based upon the same assumptions as the first round, is proposed.

For me, questioning the scope, if not the intent of the stimulus began when in early 2009 I attended “Grassroots”, AIA’s annual lobbying day in Washington DC. At this gathering AIA positions are introduced to component leaders by national staff. Then, architects go meet elected officials and their staffs, present “our” ideas, and lobby for action.

This year the timing was perfect. As a chapter president, I, along with hundreds of other architects, advocated passage of ARRA just days before its passage. We visited our congress members and were given the opportunity to sit in the House and Senate chambers and see these bodies debate a nearly completed bill. I felt privileged to see and participate in the making of history.

ARRA delivers almost a trillion dollars of spending. It is divided into broad themes including increased spending on transportation, support for education, improvement of educational facilities, mortgage relief, housing production, greening of buildings, energy sustainability, and energy independence. Looking closely at the range of programs proffered, there are dollars injected into almost every Federal department and program. President Obama claims millions of jobs will be preserved or created.

All this, one would hope, would be helpful to out-of-work architects and designers. But I do not get the sense from most of the architects I speak to that they are feeling more secure, sense that their prospects are improving, or that the Recovery Act, as passed, has much in it for them. Anecdotes and quick review of public documents thus form the basis for a critical narrative. Indeed, this narrative started being constructed in Washington DC last February.

There was a distinct sense conveyed to us by Congressional staff, regardless of political affiliation, that the Stimulus Package was a cobbled together potpourri of unfunded programs. They further stated that it would to be passed outside of the context of local wishes. In one Congressional office we were shown an early version of the City of Los Angeles’ recovery list which was described to us as unfocused, silly, and unhelpful.

As architecture is typically specific to a particular locale, the critique of the Los Angeles input, indeed the nearly uniform rejection by Congress of the suggestions made by Mayors from across the country, did not inspire confidence on my part that there would be much emphasis in the Stimulus Package on design and planning. Instead, ARRA’s emphasis on support for “shovel-ready” projects, it’s concentration on repair of roads, bridges and water systems (surely needed but hardly visionary), and most important it’s minimal funding of locally based advanced planning and design suggested that design would have virtually no role in this component of the recovery.

Later, Los Angeles’ wish list was revised and made shovel-friendly. Thus the lion’ share of announced stimulus spending in Los Angeles for physical improvements, close to 45% of the total, is going towards the construction of high occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV). No doubt jobs are created but one has to wonder if these types of projects prepare Los Angeles for a 21rst Century economy and lifestyles or are yet another attempt to re-engineer the consequences of 20th Century urbanism.

My nascent doubts of late winter were brought into heightened focus this past spring. Thanks to the initiative of Harry Wolf, FAIA, a conversation was held at LA/AIA where the Stimulus Package was discussed. There was much conversation about the difference between ARRA and the legacy of the Great Depression, which realized landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and so many other designed treasures. Most felt that the activities promised by ARRA would provide little long-term leverage of present resources and leave a minimal cultural legacy.

On the one hand this critique is unfair, ARRA does include money for the introduction of high-speed rail, the building of a new Federal Courthouse, and numerous community development projects such as non-profit medical clinics. Still, nurturing an integrative built, cultural, and economic legacy for the country, a goal of depression era efforts, seems to be at best a weak motivation for the Recovery Act.

The reality is that the Recovery Act is short on exploring longer-term planning and design opportunities. From a parochial point of view it ensures only a small amount of work for architects and designers. I am not surprised that at the time of this writing that the AIA has just sent out a press release stating that “…the path toward recovery in design activity has stalled”. Yet, AIA’s position with regard to stimulus and recovery is largely unchanged and as yet unchallenged.

How can it be that the largest spending program in generations is in its conceptualization so distant from the values and aspirations of architects and creatives so as to only minimally include them in its implementation? The answers to this are manifold. I want to suggest three, and further suggest that it is only by addressing each of these that organizations such as AIA can begin to create the politics required to more successfully shape subsequent stimulus legislation that may very well be required as this economic recovery evolves.

The first reason I feel bills like the Recovery Act are less than satisfactory is based upon my experience lobbying for its passage. The experience in Washington DC illuminated a clear reality. Our society is much more comfortable debating and manipulating programs that result in projects, regardless of their efficacy, as opposed to projects that require programmatic support.

Our society has moved increasingly towards privileging expertise in the management and manipulation of services (especially financial services). This privileging of service systems, rather than platforms that produce things, creates a milieu where economic policy increasingly becomes grounded in programs that do not insist on any form of physically tangible outcome. Only by insisting that design outcomes are as important as program outcomes - that one cannot exist without the other - can architects and designers hope to influence future legislation in a way that leads to design work.

My sense is that organizations like AIA need to be more willing to go against the grain, insist upon the design vision thing, and be less comfortable working within systems of legislative, management, and business logic that prioritize the expansion and fine tuning of programs where the outcomes are predominantly temporal and abstract.

The second reason design is not as important a factor as it should be in the shaping of national policies is that we are only in the infancy of learning how to effectively communicate design values. If architects and designers, and most especially design organizations like AIA, are going to insist upon the value of design outcomes, then these values need to be communicated to the public and the public’s leaders in such a way, and with clear language, so as to better capture their imaginations before legislation is crafted.

I think that AIA has begun to do this in its emphasis on sustainability, support for the 2030 initiative that establishes carbon neutrality as an objective for all new buildings in twenty years, and insistence that community-based planning be incorporated into transit design initiatives. These types of advocacy ring true to the public and create a framework for new policies that not only benefit architects in terms of project opportunities, but society at large with outcomes that incorporate values that are in addition to those of the economic bottom line.

Finally, and ironically given my strong belief in the primacy of projects over programs, one small but concrete way to begin to heighten the importance of design values in shaping national priorities and legislation is to work towards the adoption of a national design policy. In this regard AIA could learn from and more vigorously support the efforts of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative (see below). This particular endeavor, formed in 2008 to influence the programs of the present Federal administration, is grounded more in communications design than environmental design. However, this group has produced a ten-point policy statement that begins to suggest means to embed design values within politics and government so as to recognize and nurture the contribution that design already makes to the national economy and the Country’s future. My main concern with this initiative is that it is attempting to create from scratch what should be a collaborative effort by all the professional design organizations; AIA, ASLA, APA, IDSA, AIGA, etc. and their hundreds of thousands of members.

Each design organization and each designer, even the country, will suffer the consequences of future legislation that repeats the diminution of design values that is unfortunately inherent in ARRA. I am suggesting that designers and design organizations need to collectively organize before we publically support a second round of stimulus legislation. If done correctly, advocacy for projects, clear communication of the importance of design values, and formation and implementation of a collective national design policy may both in part and as a whole be the quickest way to influence legislators and leaders that demand new logics and ways of doing business, but at present have too few tools to realize their aspirations for a better-designed post-stimulative world.

The U.S. National Design Policy Initiative is found at

Their list of ten policy proposals include:

1. Formalize an American Design Council to partner with the U.S. Government.

2. Set guidelines for legibility, literacy, and accessibility for all government communications.

3. Target 2030 for carbon neutral buildings.

4. Create an Assistant Secretary for Design and Innovation position within the Department of Commerce to promote design.

5. Expand national grants to support interdisciplinary community design assistance programs based on human-centered design principles.

6. Commission a report to measure and document design’s contribution to the U.S. economy.

7. Revive the Presidential Design Awards to be held every year and use triple bottom-line criteria (economic, social, and environmental benefit) for evaluation.

8. Establish national grants for basic design research.

9. Modify the patent process to reflect the types of intellectual property created by designers.

10. Encourage direct government investment in design innovation.

This article will appear in the September/October issue of Form - Pioneering Design.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Sound of It

"Jews on Vinyl" at the San Francisco Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind

In early spring my wife, daughter and I spent a long weekend in San Francisco enjoying the sites, taking long urban walks, and eating great meals. I could spend an eternity talking about the urban design differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I feel the dichotomies of two great places have been picked apart many times, are full of clich├ęs, and most important, besides the point. These two cities are very different and trying at this mature point to nudge either to become more like the other is an exercise in futility and frustration.
For me, both San Francisco and Los Angeles have their genius and genius loci.

Perhaps, I am just tired of debates that try to force the imprint of one place into the framework of another. Perhaps, I am bored by the constant abstractions of urban design, which at their projective best abstract place visions into goals, sketchy possibilities, and guidelines. There is little satisfaction with no guarantee of implementation. Or perhaps, I have come yet again to conclude that it takes an architectural idea or place in the city to realize the singular urban moment that is simultaneously richly experienced, deftly designed, and surprisingly encountered. We had one of these architectural encounters in San Francisco.

One of the must-see new buildings in the Bay Area is the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the building opened to the public this past spring. This is the fourth building designed by Libeskind that I have experienced in person, the others being the Jewish Museum Berlin (1993), the Fredrick C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, (2006), and the adjacent Museum Residences (2007). It is refreshing to see his buildings off the pages of glossy magazines and beyond the bombast of architectural chatter.

One discovers in person that the San Francisco structure, like each of the others, is dependent for its success and related closely to an existing building or setting – a fact that sometimes gets lost when one reads about his buildings - presented as objects - in the press.
The new San Francisco museum structure is located opposite Yerba Buena gardens and on the edge of an otherwise sterile cultural district of now ten year old and more buildings and fountains that all seem unsettled in relationship to their surrounds and each other, a result no doubt of their origin in older concepts of urban renewal. In contrast, the Libeskind design has the benefit of not quite embracing but encompassing, indeed slicing through the context of the historic 1907 Jesse Street Power Substation designed by Willis Polk.

The tension created by the juxtaposition of two such different approaches to architecture, one beaux-arts and the other, well let us say post, post-modern, creates a visual vitality of old and new, square and slanted, shiny dark blue metal and red brick that is compelling. The otherwise wind swept surrounds of mostly unmemorable buildings and plazas have a new center, an attractor, indeed a destination.

Once inside the positive tension engendered by collision continues. Liebeskind states that the organization of the building is inspired by a Hebrew phrase, "L'Chaim" or “to life” and the displacement of two Hebrew letters, the alphabetic chet” and “yud” that combined mean life. I cannot see quite how this works in fact and generally get uncomfortable when these types of analogies need to be pointed out. Nevertheless, an architect has to get his inspirations and motivations from somewhere and then deploy them.

Here, as one enters the building, the organizing principles, whatever their origin, combine to shear the old with the twisted sensibility of the new. Looking up, one sees light-filled gaps between the architectural dynamics that spill cool blue into unexpected corners. Between old and new a sense of volumetric in-betweeness is realized that is palpable yet never disorienting. The great engine hall of the former power station is transformed into the space of a museum. The galleries and circulation of the museum twist and turn and slant and overlap and provide new energy to the more staid volumetric figure of the engine hall. Yin and yang, both need the other to have a present and future purpose.

While all of this is impressive, the moment that got my highest attention occurred not outside where I admired the combination of decorated brick box with off-kilter metal-skinned volume, nor in the entry hall, where I applaud a much more aggressive approach to historic preservation than is the norm in this country. Rather, what struck my nerve was a simple exhibition in a deceptively simple yet complex space on the second floor of the museum that we were lucky enough to encounter the day we visited. At the south end of the building and at the top of the stairs that lead away from the engine hall, this space is entered through a glass door that separates it from the circulation paths and galleries of the rest of the building. Here is a volume of distinctly unneutral white space that in plan and section is rhomboidal, never orthogonal, and pierced by small trapezoidal windows the allow for small beams of penetrating light that play about the walls and floors and surfaces to the side, below, and above. While it may be a multipurpose room in name, it is really best seen as a space where one becomes highly conscious of your self-presence. One can feel, to use a term that is so out of fashion, one’s haptic self.

We experienced in this space not an exhibit in the traditional sense, but a sound installation, “Jews on Vinyl”. The installation incorporated a simple 1960’s living room setting of couch, easy chairs, and coffee table set over an area rug. The placid living room, in contrast to the trapezoidal space invited one to sit and enjoy a potpourri of ethnic musical celebration recorded from the 1940’s to the 1970’s by artists both famous and unknown. One placed oneself on the couch to experience the space and instead was transported in time by the raucous jokes of Totie Fields of Ed Sullivan fame, or the Korean-American Jon Yune’s interpretation of Hebrew hits, or the African-American Johnny Mathis singing “Eli, Eli' 'Kol Nidre”, each bouncing against and being reflected by the walls of the space. Some of the songs were familiar but most were not. Still the combination of sound, domestic setting, and prismatic oragamic volume combined to create a total not quite surreal experience of site sound and sense that was heightening.

I think if I had just seen the space without the sound, or heard the sound without the space, or certainly felt the fabric of the furniture in the absence of the sound and the space, that none would have added up to a greater whole. Indeed this was a designed experience where the curators, Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, brought together a spectrum of atmospheres and played them deftly in contrast to the torqued volume of the museum room. This multipurpose room is probably an impossible space to hang a painting but is a great place to sing a song, or hear the architecture. Which all led to a simple, if not always obvious conclusion. Sometimes it is the sound of it, as much as the look of it, or material of it that counts.

Back outside, in the plaza in front of the museum, on the sidewalks walking back to the hotel, even in my own house once back from our weekend sojourn, I kept hearing the sounds of rooms, buildings, streets and even the city. I remembered what many architectural experiences sounded like or smelled like, or even (true) tasted like. Did Libeskind design the sound of it? I do not think so, but then again, all good architecture has a literal vibe and I am confident that like every good architect he hears it and well as sees it.

Sometimes in the rush of projects and schedules and especially in the design of urban systems and places, sound, touch, and taste get forgotten. The Libeskind designed room tucked away behind a glass door on the second floor of a museum building in San Francisco reminded me that more than often, when the design, or even more importantly the urban design is done, the sound of it - indeed the life of it - as much as the look of it is what counts.

This essay was written for the July/August 2009 issue of Form - Pioneering Design

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why Signs? Why Now?

I am the president in 2009 of the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles Chapter (LA/AIA). AIA/LA has been increasingly involved in the Los Angeles signage wars. You might wonder why, when the economy is collapsing and architects are loosing their jobs, this particular issue consumes so much time and energy. The simple answer is that AIA/LA started down this road before the present economic circumstance.

Last spring, in an e-mail to AIA/LA’s Political Outreach Committee, one of our members challenged the committee to get engaged in a growing public controversy. Communities were upset at the proliferation of extralegal signage. Billboards and wall wraps with no permits or approvals were sprouting throughout Los Angeles. At the same time sign control advocates were most upset at the introduction of digital billboards looming over residential neighborhoods.

Almost 900 of these winking bright boards are anticipated, the result of a legal row between the City and outdoor advertisers. The latter claimed their rights had been abridged. The City had granted too many sign exceptions. Rather than continue to fight and maybe lose, the City settled and agreed to a set number of screens. A colleague goaded us. If AIA/LA could not take a stand on bright lights shining in people’s bedrooms and sign chaos, what did AIA/LA stand for?

In response to this challenge, the Political Outreach Committee developed what we thought was a nuanced response. AIA/LA suggested an interim control ordinance to give community groups, City staff, and decision-makers a breather. Allow time for enforceable signage regulations to be crafted, debated, and implemented. Subsequently, this position was adopted by the AIA/LA Board and became a part of our legislative agenda presented to City Council members and the Mayor’s office.

I never imagined that this position would resonate. I assumed Los Angeles leaders would interpret this as a message to initiate the drawn out process of revising the sign code. Instead, interim control was embraced. The Planning Commission adopted the idea last November. In December an interim control ordinance was approved by City Council. In January and February the Planning Department released drafts of revised signage regulations. During this time AIA/LA held two public forums exploring first, the place of signs in the urban landscape and second, the design impact of draft regulations.

Because of our support for the interim control ordinance and creation of public sign forums, AIA/LA is perceived as constructively engaged; architect’s opinions matter. Thus I began to get phone calls. Some encouraged AIA/LA to draw a line in the sand and stand with those who want a complete ban on new advertising signs. Others assume that AIA/LA has already taken such a stance.

A few architects called and said stick it to the signifiers. One architect conveyed calls from developers fearful of loosing sign rights, thanks to AIA/LA. One of my clients button holed me and suggested I was destroying the building economy. He then stated that he was only in part joking.

The LA signage debate pits sign abolitionists versus sign advocates and represents a design conundrum. Architects know that signs can contribute to urban vibrancy, whether on the sidewalks of Ginza or the Sunset Strip. Increasingly signs represent an integral and necessary contribution to a design’s bottom line. In this entertainment world capital, signs also promote a unique local industry that invents dreams and images for global consumption. Los Angeles signs, deployed on the exterior walls of movie studios or piercing the night sky, represent the work of our city.

Conversely, it is not unnoticed that Los Angeles is often times ugly. Unmitigated and immersive signage can and does contribute to environmental crassness and blight. Clearly, the opportunities of one point of view represent the constraints of the other. Given this range of opinions, where should AIA/LA stand?

A balance needs to be struck. Surely there are places in Los Angeles where exuberant signage is expected and appropriate. Just as obviously there are locales, such as residential neighborhoods, where most signs, particularly digital signs, are inappropriate. And then there are the places in-between, such as the plethora of commercial and emerging mixed-use boulevards. There is not a uniform design solution possible for these transects but I sense that the general direction that the Planning Department has indicated in their draft signage proposal makes common sense for these streets as well as the city as a whole.

Planning has outlined reductions in the overall allowance for signs compared to what now exists. They have also sought to create consistent definitions of signage that allow for easier enforcement. There are also provisions for signage districts within regional centers that allow means to realize exceptions to the new constraints. The devil of course is in the details of the sign types. These details need to be designed and vigorously debated if any type of balance is to be realized.

Los Angeles architects should have a public opinion on the details because if we don’t our silence is interpreted, at best, as an absence of professional ideas for signage stewardship within our backyard of expertise. At worst, silence suggests to many a lack of professional citizenship or perhaps undue professional acquiescence to client desires.

Why signs? Signage resonates. It forms spaces and places. Signage is symbolic of an urban design and architecture frontier; the qualities of the city’s future are at stake. People are interested in architect’s opinions. Not having a public opinion regarding signage now diminishes the profession’s credibility on too many other issues and thus unnecessarily diminishes the role of architects in shaping our city’s present and future form.

A version of this post will appear in the March/April issue of Form Magazine - Pioneering Design.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

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 from “A Significance for A & P Parking Lots or Learning from Las Vegas”

When Robert Venturi and Denise 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 either 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.

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.

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!

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; we designers can continue to choose to be signage sociologists. But this time, in 2009, as opposed to 2008, I suspect we in Los Angeles cannot be so removed and pretend 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?

This piece, co-written with Lorraine Wild, was first posted at Design Observer.