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Reading The City

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This is the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. Some years ago now, I read that the city’s mayor had banned signage on buildings because he knew his city wasn’t the prettiest city in the world but thought people weren’t looking at the city enough because they were too busy reading it. Removing signage didn’t make Sao Paulo any prettier but the absence of things to read did make it strange. It became visually quiet, and people suddenly noticed it and looked at it anew. The mayor was right.

This particular corner of Dubai has changed slightly since I took this next photo but it’s also strange for the same reason. The property development company DAMAC began putting their name on all its developments and, not to be outdone, the much larger property development company EMAAR began doing the same. A signage race followed.

Dubai’s Downtown area is almost fully developed by EMAAR so it’s slightly bizarre seeing almost every tall building with an EMAAR sign. In this next image, the one on the left has a sign on its roof for the benefit of observers in Burj Khalifa which would be the only EMAAR building in Dubai without signage if at night-time the entire south side of Burj Khalifa didn’t become a huge LED display.

There’s a lot of visual information in east/south-east Asian cities in general and Chinese ones in particular. One of the most common forms is signage silhouetted against the daytime sky and illuminated at night but, unless you can read Chinese, it’s just colorful graphics and not information. It only becomes noise if you can read it.

But all of us understand numerals and, when you see them on buildings, they’re probably telephone numbers in easily remembered sequences of eight and, if you’re in China, with many of the lucky number eight. Graphically speaking though, one telephone number looks much like another. Unlike language signs that convey meanings such as identifiers and other information, telephone numbers are pure information and old-fashioned hyperlinks to more information. These ones below are one and a half storeys tall and fairly awesome.

The Chinese language can be written and read vertically as well as horizontally so it’s suited to reading text scrolling up buildings kitted out with LED. The text on the building to the left in this next photo is saying Celebrate Joyously National Day but others in the genre might ask us to celebrate other things such as low-interest bank loans.

Some spectacular moments in cities have been propelled by the synergy of high property values and advertising. New York’s Times Square was probably one of the first. Neon signage took it to another level.

Daylight readable LED took it to another.

It’s a similar story for London’s Picadilly Circus.

I can’t help feeling something’s been lost but I’m not going to upset myself about it. Asian cities have their signage hotspots too. This next is Tokyo’s Ginza san-chome intersection. It’s held up quite well, probably because there are few large signs and the top of the round San-ai Building has always been the dominant position, its sponsor changing once only every few decades. Most of what we see here is not general applied signage but specifically intended to indicate places of business.

This characteristic is shared by bar and restaurant signage in the less nodal streets of Ginza or Shinjuku or, for that matter, even the nodal parts of Shibuya, Ikebukuro or Roppongi. It’s all just haptic stimulation if you can’t read it and, even if you can, you need to know where you’re going before you can even begin to look for that place you were told about.

Hong Kong has a rich history of neon signage that’s steadily being dismantled. There’s much to read though, and some of it in English. Hong Kong’s signage is distinctive for being mostly independent of buildings and establishments. What’s interesting is not how the buildings of the city have been disguised but how they’ve become irrelevant. We’re too busy reading to notice or care.

Hong Kong signage is like Las Vegas signage in being physically independent of buildings even though it denotes places and conveys messages about them. The famous EAT sign tells us architecture is irrelevant. It’s now clear the I AM A MONUMENT sign is a sad cry of denial.

If architecture was once a sign, then it was only one during the day before LED came along. Suddenly, illuminated buildings had a new type of surface pattern that made buildings strange but only at night. (Surface was already the new shape even before the 2008 economic crisis made the decadent display of structural excess expensive as well as stupid.) First came colour, initially with blue point lights that were the most legible at night.

Buildings that were in too much of a rush to appear modern had early LED prone to failure. In Dubai, you could always rely upon The Address Hotel to have at least three strips either misfiring or that needed fixing or replacing. The hot humid climates aren’t kind to external electrics.

Here’s a night view of Shanghai showing buildings lit mostly in monocolour.

It soon became possible to have buildings that change colour and, thanks to devices such as these below, change colour quickly. It was now possible for the surface of any building to be a giant LED screen.

Across Shanghai’s Bund, buildings lit evenly, stably and warmly let you know you’re in an historic area.

This message is reinforced by the absence of any but the subtlest advertising. These tunable LED are an example of connected lighting – which means lighting for the entire street can be controlled as a single array.

Connected lightning has been a thing since at least 2016 and is about much more then using your smartphone to set and adjust domestic lighting levels. On scales such as historic quarters, it brings a coherency that architecture and urban planning either didn’t or couldn’t. Historic quarters don’t want or need the vibrancy and dynamism that over-fast cycles of lurid colours and novel motion graphics have come to represent.

These next three examples are of urban-scale connected lighting. The middle one is in Suzhou, framing an RMJM building of typology globally known as pants. The image on the right is the city of Hungdao and this blog [from where the photo comes] has a fairly long video showing these and other buildings in action.

Once buildings are connected and connected in arrays, they can be used for disseminating single messages for whatever purpose, as strikingly used in the 2018 Farhenheit 451 remake.

Whether connected or not, LED building wraps exist not so much to prettify buildings or cityscapes but to monetize building facades by turning them into advertising space. To date, there’s been very little attempt to monetize the skies. Skywriting wasn’t uncommon in the 1960s but it was more to advertise some beach event or soft drink than it ever was for for personal messages. It was compelling but half the fun was trying to guess what the message was going to be.

Digital skywriting or “skytyping” uses a row of light aircraft flying inline as a lo-res dot matrix printer. It requires optimum weather conditions but it’s daylight readable.

Anything to do with the sky is going to be affected by weather conditions to some extent. Not much progress has been made with projections onto clouds or advertising on blimps. Blimps with point lights advertising Asahi beer I think it was, were a feature of Tokyo evening skies circa 1990. We all looked up amazed at this things we never saw wherever we were from.

For decades we were all happy with fireworks making events out of the nighttime sky. Fireworks have their own rules and are resistant to being shaped into messages. Their appeal remains a haptic one amplified by music. The event itself can only be used for that lesser form of advertising known as sponsorship and so we’re never allowed to forget who’s paying for them and why.

For a people who invented fireworks, the Chinese have quickly embraced the drone shows that have made fireworks appear lame. Drone shows don’t generate noise or smoke and the positions of their light sources aren’t determined by chemical reactions and gravity over time. They therefore have greater expressive potential and, when the sky can become a huge LED screen, are compelling. So far, the 2020 Shanghai New Year drone show remains the benchmark for what these things can do, “these things” being some 3,500 drones programmed to position and illuminate as a single display. There’s videos all over the internet. We’ve not seen the sky do things like this before.

It’s evolving quickly. On April 15 this year about 1,500 drones were used to advertise the launch of some video game. The drone show recreated some characters from the game before ending with that now ubiquitous hyperlink, the scannable QR code. It’s probably a first glimpse of some future hell but, for now, it’s audacious, impressive and every bit as compelling as we’d expect any huge sign suddenly appearing across the sky commanding us to do something to be. I don’t know what it means but, compared to the communication range and power of architecture as signs, it’s awesome. True, it’s bigger, but the buildings have also became small.

Other than that, I don’t know what to say about all this other than note a progression from small to large, as well as a constant drive to identify and monetize any space left to be monetized. Buildings as branding and buildings as carriers of defined or even arbitrary messages are all beginning to feel like dinosaur concepts from the past. It’s high time anyway we stopped trying to load buildings with characteristics neither novel nor intrinsic and instead focus on making them better at the things they do best and that already make them unique.