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Urban Issues

Advertising in the public realm

“Advertising physically separates us from the lived experience of the urban fabric, however ugly or beautiful.” Joseph Rykwert

An article in The Architects Journal about billbords gave me an opportunity to think about the issue once again, not that going to a fairly liberal university hasn’t given me plenty of opportunity to hear the discourse on advertising but i appreciated the articles perspective with reguard to public space and the built environment. Read the Article.


The use of advertisements in the public realm has long been considered a bit of a thorny issue. Most populists or anti capitalists feel that advertising has crept too far into the public realm, buses, on top of buildings, bars, bathrooms, and even on top of the gas pump. What happens then when a public structure turns what was supposed to be a façade for public art into a giant billboard? Such is the case with the British Film Institute (BFI), in London. The BFI owns the IMAX building at the base of the bridge, when the building was originally built it was designed as a glass shell over an inner wall that contained the IMAX equipment. The architect Bryan Avery envisioned the outer shell as a place that would be treated by an artist to give passing motorists and pedestrians a taste of public art. Until 2006 things went as envisioned until one day the BFI, citing financial needs decided to sell the space for advertising and what was once a giant piece of public art, became a giant piece of public advertising.

The financial needs argument is a hard one to fight, however an interesting footnote to this is that “being a grant-aid body, it will only receive a fraction of any large advertising revenue.” My question is where is the rest of the money going, and god forbid that they are offering the space at a cut rate. While I personally don’t feel that public buildings should be able to turn their facades into ad space. Rogaine ads on the side of city hall? I do think that if they are forced to resort to that they should get full market value for the space. Of course in my ideal world London and a number of other cities would follow São Paulo, Brazil it instituted the ‘Cidade Limpa’ (‘City Clean’) campaign, which banned all advertising in the public realm. It has turned out to be a bit of a boon for the city coffers since the city has collected about $8 million US from advertisers who decided to take their time pulling down their billboards.

The removal of a lot of these billboards has had a mixed effect on the cityscape, a number of historic gems have been uncovered but a number of shantytown sweatshops have been exposed as well. While the advertisers may not be too happy popular opinion appears to support the initiative with 70% in favor of the policy. Of course a policy like this implemented in other cities then begs the question of what happens to place that are famous mostly because of advertising, Times Square in New York City and the Ginza district in Tokyo come to mind. Perhaps cities could create marketing preserves where certain areas are left open to billboards, a way to look back on the proliferation that was once allowed, lest we forget.



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