This is a response to John Kaliski and Lorraine Wild's essay, A Babylon of Signs, published by Design Observer on January 21, 2009.
When the Hollywood sign was erected in 1923 (actually, it was then the “Hollywoodland” sign), it was decried as a crass attempt by Harry Chandler to market his newly-built real estate development of the same name. Polite citizens of Los Angeles were appalled by its presence, by its 4,000 blinking lights (“HOLLY” would light up; then “WOOD”; then “LAND”), and by its interference with their views of the surrounding hills. It has, of course, since become totemic of a city and an industry; perhaps even of a culture. Ironically, today’s polite Angelinos complain about new billboards interfering with their views of the Hollywood sign.
By 1880, the area that we now know as Times Square already was beginning to be derided as a blight on a city with great architectural aspirations. Its unregulated melange of posters and billboards was an affront to polite norms — classical European norms — of what a “great” city should look like. Twenty-five years later, when the signs had grown larger and electric lights were added to the mix, derision became apoplexy: the newly renamed Times Square was reviled as emblematic of the unbridled commercial exploitation of public spaces. Gershwin and Mondrian soon came to recognize the pure energy of what Times Square had become. And, by now, the rest of us have, too; when, in the 1980s, a “new” Times Square without a façade of electronic advertising was proposed, the hue and cry (including from respected architects and designers) killed the proposal swiftly.
These are but a couple of obvious examples of . . . something. But of what? The first answer, of course, is that received aesthetic norms change dramatically, and in ways that are impossible to predict. But that truism leads to other, more politically-charged design issues of a type that are much more difficult even to discuss. When peeled to their core, the fundamental question, I think, becomes “Who decides?”
There are two possible answers (and, as usual, a continuum of possibilities in between). At one extreme, landowners may do as they please with their property — including building whatever they like, erecting billboards (or digital billboards), renting out space on buildings for advertising . . . anything. At the other extreme, all decisions are subject to review by some group — a neighborhood council, or a city counsel, or a design review board; the owner’s prerogative is deemed subordinated to the will of the community, based on the notion that she has chosen to live in a community (and also based on some sound economic theories regarding free-riding and transaction costs).
John Kaliski & Lorraine Wild’s thoughtful post posits the reasons why such a group should think about restricting some types of advertising signage in Los Angeles. And, if one buys the predicate, they makes a good case. The predicate troubles me, however. The Hollywood sign and Times Square probably never would have happened if decisions about them had been put to city councils or architectural review boards. I’m guessing that Neutra, Shindler and Lautner would have been allowed to build nothing if their clients’ neighborhoods had been covered by historic preservation zones (thus allowing their neighbors a say in what was built). Groups tend to be deeply conservative — or reactionary — simply because they are groups. They tend strongly to favor current fashions in architecture and planning; it is the only way they can reach consensus, which, by their nature, they must. In the process, they prohibit the revolting and the revolutionary (it’s often hard to know which is which without the benefit of a time machine). And so, in my neighborhood (recently covered by a historic preservation ordinance), they routinely approve lavish “Tuscan” villas and faux Tudor mansions, while turning their noses up at “modern” things — some of which might be awful and some quite extraordinary; time will tell.
By now, you get the point, or at least the question: How much discretion do we really want to vest in groups, which are likely to prohibit both the sublime and the ridiculous? In Los Angeles, I think the answer ought to be: “Just a little.” There are good, quasi-objective economic reasons to prohibit a landowner in a residential neighborhood from building a ten-story office building. Requiring people to trim their trees, and to build homes that will withstand earthquakes, makes sense. But in matters aesthetic . . . well, I’ve chosen to live in what’s left of the Wild West, as opposed to Haussmann’s Paris or Celebration, Florida. I hate strip shopping centers and their signage as much as the next guy. But if they are the price I must pay for the next Hollywood sign, or for the bizarrely beautiful little addition I built onto my house (which my neighbors undoubtedly would have forbidden if they had had the power to do so) — I can live with them. Criticize. Debate. Shame people, where appropriate. But let’s pause before continuing down the road of making design decisions by committee (even by a well-meaning and educated committee). Because we all know how well that works.