Let There Be Lights

Yes, billboards can be ugly, as can be the infinite forms of signage, be they on buildings, off freeways, or on banners trailing droning biplanes.

And yes, the billboard lobby can be deceitful, select councilpersons devious, and our outdoor signage laws confused.
Welcome to the political construct of the City of Los Angeles.

That said, let us not ban all those billboards just yet, and turn the city into blandsville.Let there be lights. Let there be lots of them, dazzling, diverting and distinctive dancing diode displays, known as LEDs, illuminating the sky and celebrating L.A. As long as they don’t shine into anyone’s residence.

To be sure, such displays can be intrusive and tawdry, but I must admit my prejudices as a long-term light show enthusiast.

When in the early 1990s as senior creative consultant to Disney Imagineering instead of prosaic landscaping to grace an ambitious project overseas I proposed a mix of dancing lights and holograms celebrating the Disney characters. This was rejected, as well other similar computer constructs I advocated. I still love the idea. Who as I child wasn’t awed by the electric light parade.

Then there was the time in the 1970s in New York City when I rented a bachelor apartment on the upper floor of an East Side tower. In addition to having views of the construction of two projects I had a hand in developing, it provided a glimpse of the Empire State Building, bathed then at night in red, white and blue lights. That image became a feature attraction for my evening soirees.

Actually, my enthusiasm for the bright lights of big cities dates back even further, to the late 1950s and one of my early writing assignments then for the New York Times. Besides scripting news broadcasts, every hour I also wrote the headlines that crawled around the landmark triangular Times building that lent Times Square its name.

After delivering my copy to the typist who edited the sign, I took particular pride walking through Times Square seeing my words in electric lights, competing with the neighboring displays, including the smoke rings rising rhythmically out of the mouth of the smiling man in the Camel cigarette sign. It is an image I’ll never forget.

Meanwhile, as a true believer, I also look forward to seeing how the video displays and other creative constructs will change our views and enjoyment of the city’s public spaces.

We certainly have the benign weather and those marvelous evenings to make outdoor displays in the entertainment district accessible.
It is time for Downtown and Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard too, to sparkle with an imaginative array of brilliant, blinking conceits that will mark it as the creative capital of the world.

Indeed, the city has for some time needed a new iconic image for its pale promotions, as well as fresh photo ops for tourists.
Let’s face it: The Hollywood sign is stale, the Santa Monica Bay beach scene is too seasonal and modest (not to mention being a sad second to Rio de Janeiro), and the Spanish burg of Bilbao with its Guggenheim museum had first dibs on the distinctive, sinuous metallic styling seen on Disney Hall.

We do not need icons that are yesterday.

We need something that expresses a now L.A., one that is engaging, flexible, fun and free, and that can change in a microsecond.
At present the touted “sports and entertainment district” Downtown is visually a bore, with the centerpiece convention center having all the panache of a bland office park in Orange County.

If L.A. is ever to throw off its suburban shroud, it needs people to animate our public spaces, places to see and be seen, and perhaps share an experience, without having to buy a ticket or make a purchase. As for our “lifestyle” malls, they frankly have become démodé.
So let us encourage the computer wizards of the new media to view the entire Downtown entertainment district and Hollywood too as stage sets of sorts for the latest innovations that can be seen from sidewalks and streets.

This includes primarily video billboards, scoreboards and screens, replete with animation and color, as well as holograms, laser shows, and one can only guess what some computer genius will come up with in the future.

And if you haven’t noticed, the future is here, now, in bright lights and Technicolor. Let us revel in it.



Sam Hall Kaplan is the author of L.A. Lost and Found. He is the former design critic for the Los Angeles Times and a former Emmy Award-winning reporter for FOX 11. He offered a commentary on LA's billboards in this week's episode of SoCal Connected, and shares some more thoughst below.


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