Are Billboard Opponents Overwrought? Do Supergraphic Signs Make L.A. a More Interesting Place? An Architect Answers the L.A. Times’ Architectural Critic
The following is a response by Stuart Magruder to a March 26 article in the L.A. Times titled “L.A.’s Great Signage Debate” by architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne. Magruder is a principal of the L.A. architectural firm Studio Nova A Architects, Inc., and a member of the board of directors of the L.A. chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
How disappointing it was to read Christopher Hawthorne’s misguided appreciation of supergraphic billboard advertising. From the start, the article is on shaky ground as he spends the first two paragraphs decrying the public’s vocal disgust with the unbridled spread of billboards. This from the paper’s architecture critic? Someone whose job it is to make the public pay attention to the built environment?
Mr. Hawthorne goes on to claim the battle over billboards is really a “proxy fight” over whether or not the City of Los Angeles has become ungovernable. Maybe Mr. Hawthorne’s career as an architectural journalist has soured him on the idea that the general public cares about how we construct the built environment? In the outcry over billboards, I see a different force at work. I see citizens tired of the visual noise created by billboard advertising. I see a public not as willing to sell out the visual bandwidth of the city as our elected leaders have been.
The more insidious mistake that Mr. Hawthorne makes is his assessment of what is and what is not advertising. He rolls into one category the “thrillingly tall billboards…on the Sunset Strip” with the Hollywood sign, the LAX sign, the address numbers on the Caltrans building, and several others. Unfortunately, only the fist example – the billboards on Sunset Strip – is advertising; the rest are place signs, not advertising. The difference between billboards and place signs is crucial. The first and most obvious difference: place signs are about the place they adorn. They refer to themselves or to the building that they are on. The best ones, such as the Hollywood sign (which started its life as a billboard for “Hollywoodland” but now designates the place both physically and culturally), are landmarks, helping us get around the city and understand where we are. Billboard advertising is just the opposite. It is placeless; it disorients. There is no connection to what is advertised and where the billboard is located. Billboards make us lose our way in the city as the same product is advertised all over.
The second difference, one less obvious visually but more important viscerally, is that billboard advertising, like all advertising, is exhortative. It tells you to do something. Buy this soda, see this movie, own this car. Advertising is never quiet. It is always loud. Buildings, on the other hand, can be quiet. In fact most buildings are quiet. Most form what is often called the fabric of the city. In the main they don’t stand out but blend in with their surrounding buildings. They are the background against which the human drama that is life in a metropolis unfolds. They are also the fabric that allows “loud” buildings to exist. They are what enables great buildings such as the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Morphosis designed Caltrans Building to shine. Billboards disrupt that relationship, turning the fabric of the city into a shout-fest. Angelenos sense this and understand the difference between the Hollywood sign and a billboard supergraphic obliterating the side of a building.
And what of billboard supergraphics? My first encounter with these outsized advertisements was on the windowless façade of a Westwood building several years ago. Initially, the image was of a graphic pertaining to freedom that I can’t remember specifically. After a period of a few weeks or months, the space become a traditional ad, exhorting all those traveling east on Wilshire Boulevard to see the newest movie or buy some product. The company behind that stunt, Skytag Inc., is the same company that has recently put up dozens of similar patriotic-themed images – this time mostly of Lady Liberty. The strategy is to lull the public into complacency by appealing to our patriotism and then switch to an appeal to our wallets. A rather literal wolf in sheep’s clothing. How unfortunate that on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Mr. Hawthorne chose to show the patriotic version rather than the commercial version. How unprofessional that he did not even bother to explain the, by now, obvious bait-and-switch marketing strategy of Skytag Inc. I expect more of the Los Angeles Times.
Is advertising evil? Heavens no. Advertising is a vital source of – biased – information. It performs a vital commercial and democratic function. But it is a force with the ability to overwhelm our urban environment. Just as we are all experiencing the devastating effect of allowing the market complete freedom in the financial sector, we must not allow the outdoor advertising industry complete freedom to plaster billboards wherever it sees fit. We the people must govern how and where we allow billboards into the fabric of the city. The Los Angeles Planning Commission just passed revisions to the billboard ordinance. Now it is up to the City Council to approve these revisions. While the revisions are not perfect, they strike a good balance between areas that should be quieter and areas that should be louder, designated as “sign districts” (think Hollywood and Highland or the area around the Staples Center). Of course all of this will be moot if the City of Los Angeles does not enforce these new regulations. Hopefully we the people of Los Angeles will care enough about how our city looks that we will keep the pressure on our elected leaders and protect our urban fabric.
Stuart Magruder, AIA, LEED
Studio Nova A Architects, Inc.