Buildings and Blocks

Lights On

Architecture has long been the host to advertising in one form or another. With the minimalist aesthetic of early 20th century functionalism, architects sought nontraditional ways to decorate their creations. Surfaces painted or wallpapered with signs selling things replaced finely-carved marble or terra-cotta facades. Founded as it was on trade in artifacts as diverse as tobacco, furs and human beings, this country pioneered and refined the art of billboards, painted commercial murals, neon and incandescent signs. The advent of electrical lighting extended their useful life into the hours of the night, transforming the structures on which they were mounted into displays of light, color and movement. Heavily visited entertainment and shopping districts - Times Square in New York, Piccadilly Circus in London, Ginza in Tokyo - have become urban machines for selling. While the technology for doing this has changed over the years, the basics have remained the same. Animation produced by programmed light bulbs has been replaced by computer-controlled arrays of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) - giant video screens - that provide layers of information unequaled in visual complexity and impact.

Low-tech commercial signs have become familiar landmarks of a city's skyline, such as the giant green Cities Service sign (now red and orange CITGO) hovering over Boston, or our own JFG sign at the southern end of the Gay Street bridge, welcoming drivers to that part of town. Indeed, some of these older signs, considered folk-art, have received national landmark designation.

Even less sophisticated signs are still in common use. Perceptive tourists can occasionally find a trace of an old Coca-Cola logo peeling off a brick wall, while new commercial paintings decorate blank facades of downtown buildings. Large banners, stretched over metal frames that were once called billboards, punctuate the strips and interstate highways, mounted on steel towers that each cost more than a small house. All of this seems normal in a culture and economy based on consumerism, where jobs, pensions, identities, are linked to the success of businesses selling products we have been taught to need.

The drive along Kingston Pike, from Bearden to Farragut, is a textbook on outdoor advertising. At the smallest scale, businesses housed in freestanding buildings mark their presence by neon accents that follow their rooflines. A larger lighting budget will allow the structures themselves to be washed by floodlights embedded in the landscaping at ground level or mounted above on posts. Then there are the signs. At their most modest we have the Lexan-encased, fluorescent-lit boxes and the mini-marquees whose message can be changed at will, though manually. These are quickly being replaced by programmed LED displays (the small ones at Sonic are particularly intense, even in broad daylight). While signs that blink or otherwise change image are not new, the latest generation, using computer technology, open new possibilities for roadside information, entertainment, and distraction.

Already, there are a handful of new, digital billboards using a mosaic of LEDs that are, in effect, large wide-screen television sets. According to Lamar Outdoor Advertising, these displays have no production charge, no installation schedule, offer the freedom to change the message at any time, and have an extended life. Since LED luminance radiates in only one direction, and these displays are viewed head-on, they are about twice as energy-efficient as billboards illuminated by reflected light. That's good news for the environment, but it needs to be balanced against the energy and environmental costs of producing and transporting the displays, and the loss in jobs of workers installing conventional billboard banners. The commercial effectiveness of electronic changing displays is still untested. What happens when information, such as a telephone number or internet address, disappears just when you're trying to remember it?

If viewed objectively, roadside signage could seem like high art, and there are scholars who study it as such. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Learning from Las Vegas, published in 1972 as an attempt to seriously analyze the design of the commercial strip, has been required reading in architecture schools for years. The idea was picked up more recently by architect Rem Koolhaas who, with a group of graduate students, published the two-part Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping which deconstructs the complex social, economic and aesthetic phenomenon that has become this nation's leading pastime/addiction.

Over on Parkside Drive, beyond West Town Mall and the two open shopping centers anchored by big boxes, and fronting I-40, stretches a surrealistic landscape: miles of new car showrooms and service centers surrounded by acres of asphalt, sculpted steel, and high-intensity lamps. As symbolic of our culture as the cathedrals of the middle ages were of theirs, these are transformed by artificial illumination into night-for-day stage sets, the very opposite of what filmmakers try to achieve with their day-for-night effect, shooting in broad daylight with blue filters to fool the viewer's eye. Provided ostensibly for security purposes, the lighting (using some $1000/month in electricity per dealership) creates a glowing oasis, a two-dimensional monument to consumerism and the seductive power of the automobile, an invitation to come and spend, to drive away and spend even more. Hundreds of vehicles lined up in orderly rows for inspection await the ultimate decision. Tacoma or Tundra, or maybe Prius to save some energy?

Perhaps the most bizarre use of the new sign technology has been the installation of LCD video displays at each urinal in the men's restrooms of certain restaurants. (I don't know if there is an equivalent in women's restrooms.) I was a bit put off when I first saw printed placards at the urinals in a popular, corporate café, but the switch to digital is astonishing. Watch TV while using a public restroom? When it comes to selling, I guess anything is possible. Maybe we should just sit back - or stand up - and enjoy.

2008 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.
Photo: Lights on at Toyota of Knoxville