“…And for the briefest of moments he saw the full face of the billboard. It was advertising washing powder. Or a car. He has forgotten before he hit the ground.”
Between the Billboards by Owen D. Pomery
Between the Billboards is a graphic novel which tells the story of an architect living between two billboards during a time of an architectural limbo. The quote above describes the fleeting moment when the architect falls from his abode and finally sees what the rest of the world does. The last sentence is what captures my imagination the most.
Down the street from the office where I work in London, advertising products, health and safety warnings, pubs, bars, shop signs and construction projects all vie to make their presence known. The overwhelming amount of information is difficult to process. Like the architect in Owen D. Pomery’s book, we forget all these signs in a matter of seconds, as we find ourselves unable to take in or react to what they are trying to tell us.
Let’s rewind a little. Advertising, as an umbrella term, has been a prominent feature of buildings for centuries. When we look at buildings from the 1800s, especially around industrial hubs such as Stoke-On-Trent, where the pottery industry was booming, typography was weaved into the grand Victorian edifices, boasting to the world who owned the building, commissioned the building, built the building. In architectural advertising today, this happens infrequently. New construction branding cares less about who designed it, commissioned it, and built it; their names can be found only in small, insignificant logos, placed more out of courtesy than pride. The importance is now placed on selling architecture. We sell space like we sell coffee or tea. The price fluctuates from high to low depending on location, the elegance of the packaging, and how you want your product to be perceived to the outside world.
Take, for example, Shoreditch’s new exchange. This new multi-use development advertises itself as ultra-luxury flats which provide everything you need within walking distance. One-bed flats with prices starting from £700,000 target people expecting the highlife. The use of gold throughout the colour scheme is a clear indicator that they are pitching these flats towards the kind of people who would happily spend a fortune to get their hands on civet coffee. This kind of advertising is common, and as soon as the hoarding goes and the apartments are sold, the advertising disappears into the ether, leaving a brick and glazed modern building which seems no different from the others. This branding and architecture is just another billboard forgotten in a flash.
Although this is perhaps a negative way of seeing what is happening in the current climate, I think that graphic designers and architects should collaborate in the design process to ensure the brand goes beyond the developers’ need to sell and instead creates a more lasting experience of the space. Everyday examples of this is the way-finding and numbering on buildings; how people visualise the routes and navigate the urban landscape. This could bring back the notions of pride and ownership in the way buildings are marketed. Hopefully Shoreditch exchange will prove my initial impression of separation wrong, and instead have a fully integrated design which focuses on the well-being of its inhabitants, thus avoiding the trap we have seen in many developments where profit has won over design.