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L.A.'s Great Signage Debate

Billboards and supergraphics -- if properly conceived and regulated -- can add life and spirit to the cityscape.

March 26, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

It's remarkable, the issues that generate political controversy in this city. The school district puts new classroom buildings right up against major freeways, even after a devastating USC study linking highway pollution to stunted lung growth in children, and no one bats an eye. Gang violence flares in northeast L.A., and the anxiety gripping certain blocks barely registers in the rest of the city.

But wrap a building on Westwood Boulevard in a gigantic Pepsi logo, or turn a billboard on Wilshire into a digital sign? Suddenly the chattering classes are in an uproar.

In recent weeks, fueled by anger about what public officials have allowed opportunistic billboard companies to get away with, the Great Signage Debate has become L.A.'s version of the AIG bonus scandal, with political posturing to match. Fresh drama is likely to unfold this morning, when the Planning Commission meets in Van Nuys to try to break its recent deadlock, pass a new sign ordinance and send it along to the City Council.

Clearly, the city has made a hash of billboard oversight. City Hall lawyers signed off on a 2006 legal settlement allowing more than 800 billboards to be turned into digital signs, and separately has been mostly powerless to slow the growth of supergraphics, those gigantic wraparound advertisements that are capable of mummifying entire pieces of architecture. As parts of the battle play out in court, complicated by free-speech questions, billboard companies have rushed to put up as many new signs as they can. The result is a legal and political mess, to be sure.

But is it an urban mess as well? Is Dennis Hathaway, tireless leader of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, right when he claims, as he wrote in a Times op-ed last year, that billboards are "degrading aesthetically as well as socially"? Does former Planning Commission President Jane Usher have reason to argue, as she did last week, that "the city of Los Angeles is suffering from a disease called sign proliferation"?

I'm not convinced. I certainly have been critical of new architecture -- the L.A. Live complex in particular -- that engages the public sphere only through the aggressive deployment of billboards and other signage. In this particular case, I'd argue that the proposed sign ordinance would benefit from additional flexibility and, when it comes to enforcement, sharper teeth.

But in general I can't seem to summon much outrage about what the new crop of signs is doing to the cityscape, though I am certainly fascinated by how many others I know can and have. What's more, the hyperbole on this issue from Hathaway, Usher and others has sidetracked what might otherwise have been a productive conversation about the complex relationship between billboards and urbanism in Los Angeles.

In truth, the signage controversy is a proxy fight. What's really driving the anger of billboard opponents, particularly in certain parts of the Westside, is a growing sense that the city has become ungovernable, that dense development and other changes to the cityscape are being imposed on their neighborhoods from without and that our mayor remains, on these issues at least, asleep at the switch.

In that sense, the idea that billboard growth is an assault on our collective urban-design principles is at best a red herring. This is a place where billboards and other kinds of signage have long aspired to the size and prominence of architecture -- not just the famed Hollywood sign but also the thrillingly tall billboards and other signs on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood and the 32-foot-high illuminated letters, spelling out LAX, marking the entrance to the Los Angeles International Airport.

At the same time, many of our buildings have long dreamed of becoming signs, or at least performing a credible imitation of them. To pick a recent example, think of the new apartment complex wrapping a Metro stop at Wilshire and Vermont, where architecture firm Arquitectonica and graphic designer April Greiman turned a prominent corner facade into a two-part mural that depicts a hand holding a rice bowl -- and wears its love for billboard culture on its sleeve.

Or the 5-year-old Caltrans building downtown, by Thom Mayne and the Santa Monica firm Morphosis, where the tangle of scaffolding and oversized signage that leans out over Main Street is clearly inspired by rooftop billboards a few blocks south. Or Frank Gehry's Santa Monica Place, where the giant mesh lettering on the 1981 facade was inseparable from the architectural character of the original shopping center (which is now being reconfigured) as a whole.

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