The Los Angeles City Council's long-running efforts to revise regulations on outdoor advertising are now caught between conflicting federal court decisions. The recent decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the citywide billboard ban, while last year a federal judge ruled that the city cannot outlaw billboards if it allows exceptions such as the Staples Center district to mount as many signs as it wishes. To complicate matters, a group of state lawmakers recently proposed a two-year moratorium on electronic billboards in the state, claiming that the changing electronic messages pose a road hazard.

A new phenomenon is fueling these controversies: the trend by real estate developers to monetize the exteriors of their buildings. In light of the enormous financial pressures the real estate industry is currently facing, it is not surprising that building owners are turning to new revenue streams by leasing the exterior surfaces of buildings.

Today's information age has infused our culture with visual and text information, leading to a dramatic increase in the commercial value of content. In some heavily trafficked neighborhoods, global advertising interests are offering fees to lease exterior wall surfaces that match or exceed the rental rates for interior space behind those same walls. With specific new developments in film and lighting technologies, a building owner can, in some cases, sell both the exterior wall and the interior space of a commercial building to advertisers.

Tall buildings weren't originally conceived as beacons of information. But the future power and potential of these grand surfaces is already on display in New York's Times Square, London's Piccadilly Circus, Tokyo's Ginza and Shinjuku wards, and L.A.'s Sunset Strip and L.A. Live, where buildings have been transformed into high-rise advertisements, with hundreds of brightly lit signs, flashy electronic billboards and "see-through" signage adorning their exterior walls and rooftops. Static office rents combined with advertisers seeking more effective ways to reach their target audiences will lead to a similar transformation of other urban areas. Modern city planning imperatives, traffic congestion and lifestyle changes are reinforcing this trend as central cities grow ever more dense with greater populations.


While Los Angeles and other cities may not be able to withstand the pressure to integrate content into commercial building, they can insist on creative and appropriate ways to incorporate this information. For example, technology is evolving rapidly, like the light-emitting diodes that can be embedded into the curtain wall of a tall building while still preserving occupant visibility and privacy. Transparent films that project advertising to the outside while preserving transparency from the interior can now be applied to a building's exterior surface.

As the financial pressure mounts to locate advertising on building surfaces and as the technology adapts to accommodate it, city officials will ultimately need to examine outdoor signage from a planning and land-use perspective as well.

Clearly, some neighborhoods are highly commercialized, and they are frankly at their best when animated and content rich. But other neighborhoods are principally residential in character. And, of course, in a city like Los Angeles, known for its broad avenues tracing a grid across the urban landscape, we have many areas that are transitional, mixed-use and contain qualities from many neighborhoods. In these areas, specific decisions will need to be made to resolve the appropriate location, size and qualities of signage, in particular lighting.

Planning officials, developers, architects and community stakeholders will need to engage a complex conversation out of which the word "appropriate" will gain new meaning.

In yet another lawsuit, the founder of a Beverly Hills-based company named SkyTag is arguing with the city that while it may regulate commercial advertisement, it cannot regulate "supergraphics," a kind of artistic mural, protected, he maintains, by the First Amendment. Now the ethereal question of "When is art promotional and when is art just artistic?" appears to have been asked and we can suppose that the final answer will not be coming anytime soon.

In our digital age, the lure of information and the image of the big building may prove to be an irresistible marriage. Fueled by omnipresent media and communications, more of the new city may become less a spatial proposition than one of streaming content.

And in all of this, the skyscraper, that mysterious monolith once referred to by Charles Jencks as the "enigmatic signifier," will become less enigmatic and more signifier.

Scott Johnson is design partner at Johnson Fain, an international architecture, planning and interior design firm based in Los Angeles. He also is author of the new book "Tall Building: Imagining the Skyscraper."

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