Despite Drama, Signs Can Have a Role in L.A.

L.A. is boiling with billboard drama right now. <em>Los Angeles Times</em> architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne looks at the debate and argues that signage can have a positive role in the urban landscape.
March 30, 2009, 6am PDT | Nate Berg
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"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."

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Published on Friday, March 27, 2009 in Los Angeles Times
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