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Silent City vs. Hello Kitty

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In September 2006, the mayor of São Paulo passed the so-called “Clean City Law” that outlawed all outdoor advertisements, including on billboards, transportation, and in front of stores. Within a year, 15,000 billboards were taken down and store signs had to be shrunk so as not to violate the new law. Outdoor video screens and ads on buses were stripped. … In a survey conducted in 2011 among the city’s 11 million residents, 70 percent found the ban beneficial. Unexpectedly, the removal of logos and slogans exposed previously overlooked architecture, revealing a rich urban beauty that had been long hidden.  


People began to see the city instead of reading what was covering it. It wasn’t all good. The mercifully hidden became just as visible as the unfairly concealed. I can relate. Here’s a corner of Dubai so far untouched by outdoor signage. It’s my favourite point on the drive home and I dislike having to share it with other drivers.


People are still moving in, taxi drivers learning the building names, how to get around. No-one’s yet targeted with advertising or tempted with retail opportunities. It’s a refreshing change from every urban surface being intensively cultivated to add value to some square footage nearby. Surfaces are what’s being cultivated but it’s the people who look who are being farmed.

My refreshing scene isn’t without its noise. There’s that curvy building on the left crying out to be looked at and just out of frame left are a few screamers you don’t want to know about. Buildings such as these are the descendants of look-at-me architecture – architecture as advertising.

Robert Venturi is credited with some words that formed a basis of some kind for Post Modern architecture. He rightly picked on the Big Duck (1931) as a building that says something – a building that, in addition to originally providing a place for the sale of duck produce, also said “We sell duck produce!” to passers-by. Well … fuck the duck. There’s nothing new to say. This next image describes Post Modern architecture better than anything I’ve ever read or seen. It also describes the form–content relationship of pretty much everything since.

the duck architecture

Venturi could have made much the same point with the 1956 Capitol Records Building in Los Angeles. It’s likened by many to a stack of records. “Hey Granddad – tell us again what a record was!”

Capitol Records Building and AA Airlines Building from

1956 was already Post Modern. The beacon at the top of the spike spelt out “Hollywood” in Morse Code – how Post Modern contextual was that??!!  :-o#  Post Modernism existed, waiting to be brought to our attention. The signs were there.


When Claude Bell‘s restaurant sign no longer pulled in the customers, he built a building that said look at me! The year was now 1964.


Post Modernism made us aware buildings send messages but the one thing literary Post Modernism taught us was that different things mean different things to different people. Looking back, the duck and the dinosaur were kind of cute, casually inviting us to look at them and hopefully enter and buy stuff. After that it all got rather complicated.

Buildings began saying things. More things, witty things, ironic things, social commentary things, self-referential things, architecture things. Buildings sent messages, but there was no guarantee those messages were ever correctly formulated, encoded, transmitted, received, decoded, and finally interpreted in the way the sender intended. And, even if they were, there was no guarantee those messages were ever necessary or even relevant to begin with. Enthralled with the elegant simplicity of signifier and signified, Post Modernism in architecture ignored these inconvenient truths.

It all stayed up in the air for a while but, with entire cities of complex and contradictory statements, well … is it any wonder we needed a rest? These days, we still have some pointless shapemaking which, by the complexity and expensity of those shapes, still manages to say stuff about their clients and thus satisfy THE major social function of architecture. Such buildings are really just big billboards and it’s a shame we can’t pass a law against them too.

Even if there was, people would still find ways to circumvent it. This is Rolex Tower, by SOM. 2009-ish. It’s generally regarded as one of the more handsome buildings flanking DubaI’s Sheikh Zayed Road. And it probably is.

Exteriors of Rolex Tower, SZR

To their credit, SOM didn’t design a building that looked like a watch. And to his credit, the client did not just give it some swanky name but instead named it after one of the products one of their companies distributes. Branding – that beautiful synergy of form, content and message. We know it’s branding because the contractors didn’t get the logo font right first time.

A story: Mario Bellini designed many calculators for Olivetti at the time when a calculator was something that was designed, that could be designed.


In the 1970s, Signor Bellini observed the Japanese make calculators smaller and smaller until they were just the size and thickness of a credit card. He graciously accepted the calculator was no longer something that could be designed. It no longer needed a designer. It could do its job just as well without having a sexy shape. Bigger and better calculations were being performed. Life went on. The form and content of a calculator lost all logical relationship. Desktop calculators still exist but nobody bothers to make them look special anymore. It’s all about the functions.


Mostly, but let’s not digress with ornament. It’s criminal, and also very wrong.


Surface kicks in when shape can do no more. Using shape to add dubious value was always rather primitive when you think about it – especially in the case of buildings where those shapes usually cloak those architectural stalwarts of columns and slabs. There’s not much different you can do with them. It’s all just space enclosed.

The forced representation of shapes that change (whilst cloaking columns and slabs) is also rather crude – it’s still a fixed representation of something fluid – a lie. People may get off watching algorithmic morphings onscreen, but there must eventually come a time to freeze-frame the fun and work out how to build it. Buildings with shapes that actually do change is an idea that crops up every now and then.


The merciful credit crunch killed such explorations into dynamic shape but – swings and roundabouts – encouraged lighting effects as the more cost-effective way to get people to look at buildings.


In many ways, the 1999 Burj Al Arab was a groundbreaker with the whole bagful of lighting effects thrown at it. In the architectural lighting business, this is what’s known as a colour vomit. It fairness, it’s not usually as technicolour as this.

Venturi got it wrong, couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It wasn’t about architecture at all. It was all about the lights, the fake glamour, and the advertising.


Learning from Las Vegas II won’t happen only at night. Buildings with expensive shapes may still perform macro city branding but daylight-readable LED advertising is what we actually look at while waiting for the lights to change.


It’s only a matter of time before buildings such as this next one cut out all the middlemen and open up entirely new vistas of dynamic decoration, dynamic camouflage and dynamic advertising.


We’ve already been trained to want it. Building surface sold as advertising space goes back a long way.

The signs became larger, the technology better, and the lease duration shorter and shorter to match our attention spans.

Sites and cities where this wouldn’t be considered long-term, can still make effective use of site hoardings. This is good you might say, but it taught us to appreciate real buildings as 2D images of real buildings, and to be grateful for it.

Here’s Casa Mila shrouded in a site hoarding showing us what we can’t see, but even that pseudo-view is thwarted by a billboard. Brave new world.


2D graphics have been granted the legitimacy of Art. We learned a new term: “building wrap”. We learned to say “that’s amazing – so much better than the real building that was there before – this is a good thing.”

We were taught to want more, another dimension. Cities around the world now offer us sponsored building projection performances as Art – or at least as an attraction to entice us to some location where we can dispose of our income.

The best examples of architectural projection tend to use the existing building as a base for deformations and distortions that remind us of how amazing the thing is we’re watching. Building facades thus become screens upon which more interesting fantasies are projected.

In passing, my friends. Here we are, inside Casa Battlo, looking at a fantasy projection onto a model of the facade of Casa Battlo. Outside, on the street, the actual facade can be viewed for nothing.


In the future, every second we look at a building, we will want it to be thrilling.

The building is not trying to be a cinema. It just wants you to look at it.

When all this can be done in full daylight, it’s game over. It’s pretty much game over now but as soon as we have large-scale, daylight-viewable holograms then we’ll have entered a new and possibly final level. Using buildings to make puerile statements about Form will have gone the way of the desktop calculator.

I say “Bring it on!” We might yet get the buildings we need but probably only if better and bigger screens can be found out there to exploit. Hello, Kitty!


We all know about skywriting. People tend to notice messages written across the sky. So far, it’s mostly been text, although the resolution did improve some with the pseudo-digital puffs of stuff.  However, given the state of the lower atmosphere, we’re probably not going to see much growth in signwriting technology or usage. For the same reason, growth for cloud projections is limited. They just can’t be produced on demand. But here’s a cheeky one.


New Type of Hell #1:  Hi-res holographic images projected into the stratosphere.

Dames and dudes, listen. Why bother building pyramids, palaces of justice, cathedrals, culture centres, or any of the other architectural representations of immortality and omnipresence when holograms of one’s favourite benevolent client, despot or brand can be embedded in the sky? It won’t be cheap. Piling rocks on top of each other is so 3KBC. Buildings are too rigid and slow to be entrusted to carry communications with the flexibility, speed and immediacy that modern society demands. So sorry Schoomy. Live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.

But why stop at the stratosphere? Here’s LASERCAT. Same shit. If we can project Art onto the moon, then some company will jump at the chance to sponsor it. Art is the advance guard of advertising. I fully support this. The sooner buildings cease to be attractive mediums for messages of any type, the sooner we’ll be able to see and appreciate our buildings for what they are and can be.