More on interactive advertising: Better be careful what you wish for

I wish I had it in me to resist plunking down cash on things like eVolo’s Skyscraper for the XXI Century. The New Titles racks at Stout and Urban Center are generally piled high with volumes like this, glossy omnibus reviews of architectural design competitions, and when I have a few bucks in my pocket I tend to bite.

I’m always idly expecting to find some actual critique there among the purty renderings, and eight or nine times out of ten I come away disappointed. Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way. (The exception this last year was Typological Formations, an AA pamphlet that continues to resonate with me, as provocative as it is beautifully designed.)

It’s the uncritical embrace of whatever frankly dubious (social as well as technical and structural) assertions the projects are making that really makes me wonder what the various juries and editors are looking for in these competitions, and in eVolo’s case especially the vibe is not good.

Nevertheless, every once in awhile I trip over something in one or another of these books that makes it all worthwhile, like that experiment you read about in Psych 101 that returns randomized rewards just often enough to keep the hapless rat jamming down on the button. And this is the case here: snuck in among the squamous mile-high neoplasms and the vertiginous shafts premised on pure unobtanium is an entry that puts a delightfully nasty latterday twist on the basic, time-honored pod-and-frame iconography we inherit from Archigram and the Metabolists.

It’s an entry by the team of Edwin Liu, Nathaly der Boghosian, Felix Monasakanian, Efren Soriano and Hugo Ventura called Billboard Skyscraper. Billboard Skyscraper posits a pod-stippled megastructure in the form of an enormous undulant wave, in which the end of every pod is a smart-glass window, and every window a single pixel in the kilometer-square screen. And then it requires the subsidized residents of those pods to exhibit the “correct” consumption behavior in order to make use of their sole window on the world:

The invasive insertion of this massive entity into the downtown [Los Angeles] area alters or destroys existing sight lines and replaces them with corporately sponsored images. Living rent-free in the towering structure are residents that are participants in the performance of the building as advertising conduit…In coordination with RFID tags embedded in participating advertisers’ products, sensors within each pod determine the level of consumer activity that an individual produces. In a typical scenario, consuming more of the “correct” brand clears the window to full transparency, removing the “pixel” as a participant in the advertising façade.

Consumer inactivity or consumption of the “wrong” products causes the smart glass to become opaque…[O]perating at full commercial potential produces a surface punctuated by transparent windows, while…operating below established market criteria will compensate by activating the surface with advertising.

It’s a breathtaking proposition. I bet these kids’d find Irish babies pretty tasty, too.

It’s a damn shame I can’t find any pictures of this thing to show you: it’s one of the few student projects I’ve ever seen whose construction would result in an LA truly worth of Ridley Scott. The neat little self-correcting ad-placement algorithm this team has ginned up seems to capture, too, something of the deeper nature of living in an Empire with no edge and no outside. For the notional residents of Billboard just as for the rest of us, there really is no way not to play the game. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about this project is that once the ideas that animate it are on the table, there’s no telling what they might lead to, however clearly satiric they were at their inception.

I consider it very bad form on eVolo’s part, by the way, that they make it virtually impossible to learn anything at all about their entrants. No contact information or other metadata is offered, either on the Web site or in the pages of the book, making it unlikely that winning entrants will be able to leverage their success here in any meaningful way. (Amusingly enough – as I should have suspected, given my brushes up against Internet ad sales one or two lifetimes ago – if you Google “billboard skyscraper,” you get…scummy bus-dev pages on ad rates.) I’m still willing to extend eVolo the benefit of the doubt as to the sincerity of their aims, but I have to say this doesn’t help their case.

At any rate, I have to say I was delighted to find among the usual dreamy wankspires one finds in these books not merely a project with actual teeth in it, but the nous to dissect out some of the generally occult linkages between architecture, commerce, technology and representation, and I do hope some of those names crop up again in future.

4 responses to “More on interactive advertising: Better be careful what you wish for”

  1. cataspanglish says :

    So fine to find someone who uses the word nous, very usual in the North East of England. BTW I’ve read what you’ve written on this blog about the birthing pains of Everyware but I got it in my sticky mitts here in Spain, via Amazon, the other day and there’s some damn poetry going on in that writing, making it mighty readable so thanks for that.

  2. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Interesting project!!!! The billboard, of course, has had an architectural pedigree, and this pedigree has sometimes teased out “the generally occult linkages between architecture, commerce, technology and representation” … and this is even before VSB’s Learning From Las Vegas. Aside from Adolf Loos’ Chicago Tribune competition entry, consider Tom Wolfe’s writings on “Electrographic Architecture” (1969), or, even more alarmingly, Erik Gunnar Asplund’s “Advertising Mast” from the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition: http://www.metmuseum.org/special/century/ma1984.1168.3.L.htm

  3. AG says :

    Thanks, cataspanglish! That means a lot to me.

    Only tangentially related, EGR, but I can never help thinking in this context of Sunny Jim’s “The Subliminal Man.”

  4. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Oh … that’s a brilliant link!!!!!

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