Friday, 21 March 2014

Boardwalk Dominion

The profusion of written signage in the urban landscape is routinely denounced by commentators on the built environment. I’m not so convinced – perhaps it’s a result of a degenerate sensibility formed in the decade of Pop Art but the way that buildings, people and advertising signage jostle together seems endlessly fascinating to me. The defenders of a pristine and unsullied cityscape may have a point where architectural excellence is concerned although for many years the Duomo in Milan was wrapped in advertising for Alitalia without any lasting damage (other than to Alitalia which had to be rescued from bankruptcy in 2013). But in those locations where architectural heritage is in short supply, inventive signage can often be an enhancement. What I enjoy is what results when undiluted commercial vulgarity saturates the environment to the point where visual coherence is fragmented and lost in a centrifuge of conflicting messages while the daily commonplace of urban life continues in a bizarre counterpoint. The best place to see this happening is the United States although I suspect that India runs it a close second. 

Atlantic City seems to be one of those places where capitalism and criminality engage in an eternal courtship ritual. The frontier between the two constantly shifts and blurs while the gambling industry makes enormous profits for some and creates enormous headaches for law enforcement and guardians of civic values. Like most seaside resorts the city must cope with persistent urban decay while changes in public taste threaten to entice visitors elsewhere. Louis Malle’s eponymous movie of 1980 painted a melancholy picture of a city in terminal decline. Casino gambling and business and political conventions have kept the place afloat since then but competition from rival cities leaves no room for complacency. The latest engine of regeneration is the association with the Prohibition-era HBO drama series, Boardwalk Empire, that has inspired more than a few nostalgia-led period attractions, re-packaging the past for contemporary consumption. 

Some of these postcards pre-date the era of Prohibition when organized crime became embedded in the city while those that include advertising for brands of beer can be dated after 1933. Advertising signage is omnipresent, even on the beach there’s no escape. The pleasures of a seaside vacation shown here are relatively innocent – a leisurely promenade in a rolling chair, decorous dancing in modesty-preserving costumes, diving elks and dance marathons at the Million Dollar Pier or just taking the bracing sea air with hats firmly in place. Every space for advertising has been seized and colonised, most notably by Sherwin-Williams whose gigantic upturned tin of paint is about to overwhelm the unwary occupants of the rolling chairs that trundle past on the Boardwalk. Visual impudence on a grand scale. Cover the Earth is no idle threat. 

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