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.

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