Clothing the Naked
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Historians like to say that L.A. is not so much a place as a "blank canvas" where new places get painted in every few years. And of course, they're right. Each generation gleefully wipes out the city that came before: parks, buildings, boulevards.
Lately, we've found a way to remake the city not just every few years or even months, but weeks or days.
I'm talking about super-graphics. Super-graphics are those huge vinyl billboards stretched across the face of an office or apartment tower, covering its walls and windows right over. These graphics are often 50 or 60 feet tall and show, like, a bottle of vodka, a clever slogan, or a new Hollywood beast.
A lot of people hate super-graphics. Every day, battles are fought by folks who object to the crass commercialism and "visual noise." Tenants object to staring out their windows through the semi-transparent cheekbone of a famous face.
And yet, like many, the Urban Man is…conflicted. I mean, I've always tried to balk at crass commercialism. But as I drive around town, I often find the cheekbone beautiful, the bottle shapely, or the beast amusing. And here's the kicker: the building itself was usually pretty bland before it obtained this sharp new clothing.
I mean, it's the most boring modernist structures that lend themselves best to super-graphics. Historic buildings with complex ornamentation don't work so well. Neither do playful postmodern constructions.
For decades, architects built office towers that did their best to rise blank and grim out of the earth without the slightest human interest or dimension—like enormous flat nothings.
Maybe, I think, subconsciously, they were always building them as flat screens…just waiting for the technology to bring them to life. Maybe, unwittingly, architects knew it was only a matter of time before someone would repaint their creations with outrageous images: Men in trench coats and sunglasses, women dancing with loose hair.
In fact, most of the structures that wrap themselves in these new ads remind me of an anonymous dweeb who chooses to wear a loud message on his T-shirt. I did not previously notice him in the crowd, but now he's trying his best to amuse me. And I think…what more can I ask of an anonymous dweeb?
Me, I work in one of these blank structures, 10 stories but otherwise unnoticeable, a building which until recently told no tales. Now it sometimes tells a five-story scene from a martial arts movie or relates a cryptic message from a soda company. For a while, a gigantic hand busted through the flat wall of windows to offer a taco to motorists passing on the 405.
When I see something like that, I think, "Well, hey, it's something."
I recall how once upon a time every building told a story about the shared culture, be it Victorian brick or Tudor half-timber. I say to myself, "Now that the shared culture is momentary and ever-shifting, don't we deserve a momentary and ever-shifting architecture? Isn't that how our imagination now moves? Don't we secretly like that best?"
In fact, now that I'm getting used to the idea, I'm pretty sure I like super-graphics better than freestanding billboards. Freestanding billboards seem like intrusions on the skyline, while super-graphics seem like covering an otherwise nakedness.
I figure building owners should cut the tenants in, and of course, the city should derive serious revenue from this use of the public-eye space. In fact, I don't think I'll call it crass commercialism anymore, surely that's an obsolete term. Now that we all put on logo'd duds and decorate our walls with LCD's, commercialism doesn't seem crass anymore. Surely advertising offers our one shared story, the kind of clothing we can all wear at the same time.
Hey, listen: I'm not being ironic. In a world where Bob Dylan now does Pepsi commercials, there's really no irony left for the Urban Man.
Copyright © 2009 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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