Lawrence Barth | Dialogues

A Response to "A Babylon of Signs"

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.

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [18]

Iconic as it might be, it is still an eyesore.
Jennifer Donovan

Hurrah! Death to the average, the banal, the generic. If you're MOR you deserve to be run over.
Miss Beaver

Great though provoking post.

I served on the Planning Board for the city of Lansing, Michigan for more than 5 years. What I learned is just how difficult it is address issues that principally revolve around taste.

When it came to reworking the city's sign ordinance it quickly became a matter of dimensions, materials and safety considerations--those aspects that are quantifiable. No one wanted to wrestle with questions of aesthetics and taste. Which is of course exactly what makes the difference between good signs and bad.

Michael Smith

I'm of the opinion that buildings and communities go through small and seismic changes over the course of time. Advertisements exist everywhere, on everything, and are becoming virtually impossible to escape -- even in conversation.

I worked for a period of time at the Whitney Museum long enough to see the "community" backlash against the Renzo Piano addition to the existing museum structure. Members of the community allied themselves with the historic preservation groups of the area to counter the new addition crying against the tearing down of historic brownstones on the block. Opinions on the addition ranged from progressive to conservative.

At around the same time historic institutions such as Keith Haring's Pop Stop and CBGB's teetered on the edge of extinction and were finally shut down. Where were the historic preservation groups when this finally happened? Is it power and privilege that determine the course and shape of our environment, as well as what is considered of historical value and what is not?
Heather Davis

Very nice response piece. It perfectly articulates the gut response I had when I read the original article.
Ahrum Hong

A few things come to mind while reading through this (much of this also discussed at the SEGD Dynamic Environments conference in LA last fall)

1. Is Times Square still Times Square if there is a Times Square in every city in the US? Many developers are trying to bring that environment—explicitly—to cities like Dallas or Kansas City. In many ways, these issues are not just local issues, but will become national and global issues as city's try to brand their tourist experiences. Will we see the day when Times Square sues to keep LA Live from infringing on its experience? How do we work with things on that scale, something exponentially larger than the neighborhood to city analogy?

2. The Hollywood sign and the Times Square area have interesting differences. The Hollywood sign has come to define some sort of historic symbolism in a city that constantly moves from trend to trend. Times Square is something of the opposite, i.e. a constantly changing area in a city that never sleeps but has a much more time-honored history and a much more stable progression. In LA would another mass of ever-changing digital ads really stand out in a city of the same thing?

3. There's a whole 'nother issue that seems to be the Elephant in the room for me. The move from analog signs to digital signs isn't just a move in form, its a shift in thinking that will affect more than just if the signs are bright at night or not. Its not like previous debates about zoning or sizes, but will also be about personal information and privacy. Already people are experimenting/using signage with wireless technologies to gather and display dynamic content. In the right hands, it can be both thought-provoking and informative. In the wrong hands, it could be invasive and downright scary. Whoever is in charge of this—individuals, conservative boards, or an open community platform—is not just regulating where, when, and what, but also what is being taken from its viewers. Even if I as a neighbor thought a Lautner house was an eyesore and ugly (and potentially hurting me financially by making my own residence harder to sell), it never once came into my own home and took stuff. As these technologies become social, I question if we can really expect individuals to make the best choices for the group.
Derrick Schultz

This is a perfect repost to the original Babylon post.

The original Babylon post seems to present the idea that signs and advertising should be seen as a "blight" or "clutter", whereas everything else in our visual environment such as roads, buildings, fencing escape as though they are somehow more important, valid, permanent or unquestionable. Kaliski and Wild seem to favour the idea of controlling or banning ads.

Above, Barth perfectly frames the question that arises: who should do the banning? And much of what we now see as valuable would disappear, or would never have happened, if signs and ads were strictly policed by some sort of committee.

Much has been made in comments on the other post of Sao Paulo's mayor banning all advertising in his city. One link to Flickr showed a suite of pictures of the empty and stunningly beautiful sculptural billboards.

The designer I work with is from Sao Paulo, and she said the mayor who enacted the ban, Paulo Maluf, is no hero. He is so corrupt, and known to be corrupt, that his official campaign slogan in the run for mayor was "rouba, mas faz" ("he steals but he gets things done"). You can use his name as a verb in Brazil; malufar means to steal public money. It seems as though the ban, which is dissolving under the new mayor, was more to do with kick-backs (from any advertising in the future) than the "public good".

We certainly need to be careful, and to know more detail, before thinking that this city provides any kind of attractive model to be followed.

In England, each local area has a planning "authority", which has a committee that meets in private to approve or disapprove new buildings and new advertising sites. It seems to me that the planners inhibit more than they facilitate, its exactly as Barth says, a group of mediocre people tend to be conservative, rather than plumb for boldness.

Many extraordinary pieces of proposed architecture in London have been turned down, including buildings by the world's most highly regarded architects; Libeskind's structurally extraordinary Spiral, and Foster's super-hi-tech design for a super-high skyscraper. I think London is much the poorer for it.

And yet the planners seem happy to approve advertising almost willy-nilly. (Is this linked to the ad revenue that each local council receives?) Instead of the liberal situation in LA, where you get Gehry and Claes Oldenburg and electronic billboards, freedom in both architectural and advertising spheres, we get the billboards but with blackened and crumbling Victoriana.

I recently spent a month in Tokyo, and marvelled at their planning laws. Most of the shopping street of Omotesando is festooned with signs and billboards, as is much of Tokyo, but in one segment I sat in a coffee shop and gazed at a rebuilt wooden temple (burned down in 1945) with a design dating back 500 years, a mint-coloured tiled and chrome-signed 1920s restaurant, a concrete brutalist Noh theatre, and Herzog & de Meuron's Prada building which might have landed from outer space.

Visual noise and crassness in one part of Tokyo is part of the same freedom that can lead to such startling and precious juxtapositions.

I think if you start restricting things with any degree of fierceness, you might (as in England) restrict the wrong things.

By the way, is "Babylon" still a negative term?

Quentin Newark

The people who are in charge of making decisions about cities and urban development should be people who have no financial or vested interest in the city's development. There definitely needs to be a strict control on bill boards and advertising, or they just tend to take over the entire city without anyone realizing.

In India cities are growing out of control, and there is no sensible control of development.

I think its easy to take pot shots at themed communities like Celebration, Florida, or the Tudor styled neighborhoods, but I don't think that Kaliski or Wild propose that.

It sounds they favor penning concise ordinances that set restrictions on location and scale, which restrict formal considerations rather than content. As it sounds like these restrictions already exist, they propose that ordinances be enforced and regulated so that private interest groups with more money aren't able to bully through legislature.
Eric MacLeod

Lawrence Barth, our neighbor five blocks to the north, suggests an apt corrallary to our earlier piece, "A Babylon of Signs". If Larry asks, "Who decides?", it should be recalled that Lorraine and I asked, "What do we, as designers want the environment to look and feel like?" These two qustions, at least in my mind, are inexorably intertwined.

Lawrence, as well as others, have raised some interesting examples of places that have iconic environmental signs (Times Square and Hollywood), no signs (Sao Paulo) and lots of signs (Tokyo). I do not pretend to know exactly what is going on outside of the United States but I do have familiarity with the regulatory frameworks of public decision making in this country. Three examples suffice.

Interestingly, most of the North American examples raised in the various posts are shaped by lots of regulation and while the intital exuberance of much signage may have been organic, as time passes in urban situations, spontaneity is not the case, even in places that look most spontaneous. For instance, lots of people raise Times Square as a good example of visual vibrancy and creativity and indeed it has been exciting to see it come to new life in recent years. At the same time one must point out that today's Times Square signage is compulsory, proposed by designers and planners and stakeholders, implemented by lawyers and politicians, and realized by developers, some of who initially argued that complying with this signage requirement infringed upon their rights as property owners.

The same intervening hand of public committee work can be noted with the case of the Hollywood sign. At one point in the late 1960s the Hollywood sign was in terrible shape and nearly taken down. Again, people got together and through organization had it declared a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Landmark (#111). The rest is iconic history. Was this a conservative act or a liberal act? I'm not sure that trying to frame the discussion in terms of these polarities is really that useful. What is of interest is that people got together and collectively made a decision to use the power of government to maintain the look and feel of their environment. In this case at least it ensured the survival of a now beloved landmark.

The third example is literally close to home. Lawrence, Lorraine and I all benefit (or at least I assume we do because we choose to live here) from proximity to the Park Mile along Wilshire Boulevard as it passes through our 'hood. While this area could certainly be more of a park and less of a vehicular throughway, one aspect of it that is remarkable and gives it design value is its distinct visual contrast with every other stretch of Wilshire Boulevard from Downtown Los Angeles to the sea. Part of this contrast is that this stretch is the only length of Wilshire that prohibits off-site signs and billboards. This contrast with larger surrounds is in large part due to the fact that it is regulated by the first specific plan that was ever passed in Los Angeles, a specific plan that was initiated and supported by neighbors who had an aesthetic as well as a land use idea that has been gradually implemented over the course of almost thirty years.

I personally agree with Larry that a light hand in matters that involve civic aesthetics is probably better than a heavy fist. At the same time I think that all around us are examples of how publics are insisting on directly shaping the look of their environments. I am comfortable with this type of civic involvement by lots of citizens even though when taken to an extreme good things may be constrained. Yet, that is always the price of public discourse and naturally that is a price many designers are uncomfortable with.

The point of our post was not to extol the virtues and vices of either side of the signage debate though clearly both Lorraine and I find the commercialization of public space and rampant disregard of existing law that regulates such space troubling. Rather the point was to encourage designers to be citizens, to utilize their design expertise to contribute to and shape public debates, and to realize that their skill in visualizing the world can make a difference in public conversations about the look and feel of the environment. Perhaps, tongue in cheek, I would argue that in matters public, taste always matters.
John Kaliski

A term like 'urban environment' is a funny thing. The creature it describes exists, undeniably, and has its own sci-fi type of ecology, but it has little - except in the case of the most consciously developed 'green' urban spaces - to do with the environment and ecology of the planet.

My point in bringing this up is to say that every aspect of an urban environment has been arbitrarily designed and created, in large part, for commercial reasons. Tastes and aesthetics change, as Barth points out, and what is crass today can become iconic, just as today's genius feat of architecture is tomorrow's eyesore. So what is most 'deserving' of filling the landscapes of public space? That seems to be the real question here, and the answer, I believe, is purely personal.

Is advertising design less 'deserving' of a place in the skyline than a piece of architecture? Does a billboard have less 'right' to light the sky at night than a freeway or a strip joint? For that matter, does a newspaper discarded on the sidewalk have less right to occupy that space than the concrete below it?

Strip away the design of nature, pull up trees, level hillsides, reroute waterways, and create an urban ecology. That's what people have been doing since we got tired of our ancestor's nomadic existence. But don't argue that there's a way that things 'ought' to be in an entirely designed environment. A building is not a tree, and there is nothing, either sacred or profane, about hanging a sign from it.
Anne Stewart

I certainly appreciate where Ann Stewart is coming from - it just sounds like a different planet to me. There is no place for collective improvement, consensus building, memory of things done well, things done poorly, or history on Ann's planet. On her planet a Pepsi add is equivalent to a cathedral. I would want to visit but am glad I do not live there.
Bernard Pez

You certainly wouldn't want to live on the planet that had cathedrals and no Pepsi ad, Bernard, it would mean totalitarianism.

Instead of different values and different buildings and emblems living alongside one another, sometimes in attractive, sometimes in ugly juxtaposition, your planet would have one ruthlessly policed mode of thought. (Belief in a superior heavenly father.) Read your mediaeval history, it was a terrible time to be alive.

Long live the Pepsi sign and all it means.
Quentin Newark

Ann uses carefully designed language and very impeccable comma usage and faultless grammar to explain thoughts and emotions in contrast to me, but I haven't gotten too, too raw. Even an animal knows where to go to die in the forest or where not to leave the waste products …

dezine sines that i she shur not indede am on will is agree part of semi-sacred

LONG LIVE CHAOS, it's the only way anything gets done.

According to these posts, Mr. Barth lives in an exclusive neighborhood of lsingle-family homes on tree-filled streets. As the resident of a nearby neighborhood, I am quite confident that he cannot see any supergraphics or billboards (electronic or otherwise) from his home. As a partner in a top-tier law firm, he can choose (and has chosen) to live where he is completely isolated from the visual chaos he says he celebrates. He doesn't live in the "Wild West" of advertising chaos; he merely passes through it on his way to work. Most of the people in Los Angeles cannot afford to live in wealthy enclaves, and debates about the propriety of sign regulation are not academic. Over the past few months, we have found ourselves looking out our living room and bedroom windows at supergraphics and electronic billboards. While I share the concern that collective decisions about aesthetics lead to lowest-common-denominator architecture and design, he ignores the fact that most people can't buy their way into beautiful neighborhoods, but must struggle with finding the appropriate regulatory balance.
Jeff Jacobberger

Quentin Newark, for centuries England has been a pretty conservative place. It doesn't mean the English are 'mediocre.' London is a horizontal city, and lots of people strongly dislike the skyscrapers that were built over the last few decades, partly because they symbolise the overweening arrogance of the financial sector and partly because flaunting status like that is not considered polite. 'Super-high skyscrapers' are really not that welcome. As for the proposed V&A extension, I think most people thought it was taking the piss, just as you surely are in saying that a world without modern advertising is a totalitarian one. There is a case for paying great attention to the tastes of the majority, whether or not you follow it in the end.

As for the Hollywood sign, it wouldn't be 'iconic' if it wasn't the quickest way to identify a place that has become culturally significant. Times Square is a really ugly 'square' and needs lots of flashiness just to divert the attention.
James Watkins

I work with a Toronto-based group. We're called OpenCity Projects. We are a diverse group of designers, brand strategists, writers and filmmakers who work in public space with community involvement and high levels of collaboration.

As a group, we fight against conservatives and reactionaries. We tend to favor a wide variety of fashions in architecture, planning and design. It is the only way we can reach consensus, which by our very nature - being "open" - we must. Yes, we support "democratic" design but we also abhor views that lead to a mediocre mush that pleases everyone and denies any personal expression or private development. We seek out as many views as possible to make decisions. And views that are feasible, direct, creative and allow for diversity usually rule.

In our ideal neighbourhood (with an appropriate level of historical respect), we favor change when needed, whether its revolutionary or evolutionary. We value "modern" things, "postmodern" things, "art deco" things, you name it... In terms of signs, we have no bias towards any particular meda, colour palette, typeface, artist, designer, architect, company, religion, product or service. Everything has unique idea, time and place, everything must be relevant in its own specific context.

Its too bad Barthe has such a limited view of what "groups" can be. What was the purpose of juxtaposing groups vs. individuals (property owners, architects, designers) in the context of this article? His opinion about groups doesn't seem to support (very well) his argument that aesthetics and taste are always changing, which I think is quite valid in and of itself.
Michèle Champagne

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