Jon Grounsell: Flashing signs don’t belong here

Tokyo's Ginza District lights up at night. Picture: Complimentary
Tokyo's Ginza District lights up at night. Picture: Complimentary
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Wandering around Ginza District, Tokyo, a few weeks ago on my first trip to Asia, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the colour, vibrancy, audacity and sheer power of the visual displays coming at me from every angle.

Billboards? Why bother with those when you can animate a whole building facade with LEDs embedded in the glass. Kate Moss seven stories high on the Chanel building is, well, gigantic, and other impressive adjectives; even more so when she turns and dematerialises into Jon Kortajarena.

Returning by day it was rather different, I could now see the buildings for what they were, all very neat flat windowless boxes. No wonder they don’t floodlight them, I mused, there are no architectural features to light up. Which rather pinpoints the problem with display lighting, it shines out from the building, not on to it, and overpowers everything around. Take a piece of dull grey sandstone and no matter how powerfully one floodlights it, it can never compete with a light source shining directly at the human eye.

We already have an example of this in Princes Street. Stand at the top of The Mound and look down at the LEDs distributed around the Primark building. Can you see anything but those ultra-white strips? The building is gone. Put a moving visual display next to anything, whether it is a castle, Doric art gallery or gothic monument and the visual display wins hands down every time. Unless those same monuments are themselves covered in fairy-light LEDs, they can’t compete.

So where does one stop? Perhaps it is better not to start.

Liquid crystal displays don’t make any more money for advertisers than paper posters. The value of any advertising is in the footfall that passes, not the number of flashing lights deployed, so whether poster or hi-tech screen, that advertising is carrying a message to the same pedestrians out for an evening stroll. The screens aren’t necessary, or essential, in any sense of the words. However, the impact of the Castle, the National Gallery and the Scott Monument most certainly is necessary and essential if we want to impress visitors with a unique experience which they can’t find at home.

Does this mean I don’t want to see any visual displays in Edinburgh? Absolutely not; we at the Cockburn strongly supported Hollister’s planning application to put a visual display of Huntington Beach, California, behind their shopfront in George Street, a first for them outside of a mall.

It is important that we understand and respect the heritage that makes Edinburgh the beautiful city it is. Edinburgh should take down its “for sale” sign.

• Jon Grounsell is an Edinburgh architect and a council member of the Cockburn Association