Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Beauty, and the Horror, of the Concrete Screen

Concrete will never be the same.

Unfortunately, I am both an inveterate optimist and a trained pessimist. I foresee beautiful things from this technology - adjustable tunnel lighting, embedded parking garage signage, and many more things that make designers very happy. I also foresee frightening amounts of embedded advertising - on subway station walls, on the sides of buildings, and, most of all, on the sidewalks beneath our feet.

I live in a small town now. But I have lived in urban centers in the U.S. (San Francisco, Seattle) and always find the barrage of advertising messages in such cities to be either exhausting, because one cannot tune out their chatter, or distressing, because tuning them out successfully means tuning out much of the rest of our visual environment. I have also lived in international cities (Amsterdam, Rome) where such advertising is not prevalent in the historic city centers, and felt a genuine relief not just in the beauty of the city itself but in the integrity of its message, which is a whole host of visual cues and details that make what advertising is allowed - and it's not much - seem awkward by comparison, like someone explaining a joke. (That's why I like good graffiti art, which makes new jokes and doesn't explain them to you.)

So in my small town, embedded fiber optics in sidewalks will probably not arrive until after I am long gone. But I feel for people in San Francisco and Seattle who will have to put up with this new technology. In some parts of town, looking down is about the only place left to look that isn't making a sales pitch.

That being said, it's a very attractive technological advance, and creative architects will do great things with it. It's the not-so-creative ones I'm worried about.

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