City Signage – Public Blight or Future Heritage?

Can city advertising be an art form? Melbourne is famous for its laneway murals; graffiti by artists such as Banksy. As advertising looks for new and creative ways to steal our attention, it is embedding itself into the fabric of our urban public spaces.

In the course of my final year of urban planning studies at RMIT University, I had the recent pleasure of engaging in a lively ‘mock tribunal’. The subject of the ‘hearing’ was an application to erect a massive electronic promotional sign at Riverview House, wrapping around the corner of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets in the CBD. In an actual hearing at VCAT's King Street offices, the relevant local Council is represented, along with the permit applicant, any objectors, and expert witnesses who inform the members of the Tribunal (eg traffic engineers, heritage experts, architects etc.)

As an ‘informal court’, Primary Dispute Resolution techniques are employed by the mediator to either approve or reject the proposed development. In my mock tribunal hearing, the permit applicant / developer argued that the signage was supported by the Local Planning Policy Framework (specifically Clause 22.07) which states “Advertising signs that contribute to the lively and attractive character of the area are to be encouraged”. The applicant’s main argument was that the intersection of Flinders and Elizabeth Streets was run down, decaying and that the precinct could be rejuvenated through the addition of the proposed digital media screen.

He pointed to the liveliness of world cities such as New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong – all of which have much bigger clusters of significant electronic signage than what he was proposing for little old Melbourne. He’s not wrong, Times Square has always been an urbanist's wet dream - a symbol of the bustling Metropolis’ irresistible prosperity. Bright lights go hand in hand with big cities, so what's the problem? Why shouldn’t Melbourne aspire to have a comparably intoxicating neon precinct to reflect its stature as a global city?

On the other hand, Council steadfastly opposed the signage, claiming that due to its size, location, animation and scrolling text, it would form a “dominant element” within what Melbourne’s planning scheme refers to as the Flinders Gate Heritage Precinct Overlay. The signage would contradict council’s strategic planning efforts within the Retail Core (between Elizabeth and Russell Streets) to create a pedestrian oasis of beautified city streets with generous footpaths, low building heights with generous setbacks, large public open spaces, iconic vistas towards city landmarks and a level of solar access unavailable in other parts of the CBD.

Council claimed that the sign would take attention away from all these carefully planned neighbourhood characteristics and that by commanding the attention of pedestrians, they would pay less heed to the heritage significance of Flinders Street Station. The City of Melbourne has a history of opposing electronic promotional signs. Those applications that are ultimately approved and built are typically the result of intervention from the Minister or the reversal of Council’s decision by way of VCAT. Examples of animated signage applications rejected by Council include Emporium on Lonsdale Street, the Nike [now Telstra] site on Bourke Street, the FCUK sign (after the surrounding area was absorbed by the City of Melbourne) and Young and Jacksons on Swanston Street.

These have all been built, leaving the unmistakable impression of the Council as a toothless tiger. This list gives a snapshot of the rapidly expanding footprint electronic promotional signage in the CBD. Advertising is becoming more common in our city. It is ubiquitously working to embed itself into Melbourne’s neighbourhood character, redefining community images of the aesthetics of public open space. The MCC claim to oppose animated signage applications because they have no power to regulate their content. Hypothetically, they could potentially display content of an offensive or libellous nature without Council having any say. The electronic signage at Riverview House was approved by the Tribunal and built – you can see it now. Do you think advertising signage can be a form of urban art? Have a look at the signs as you walk through the city and let us know what you think.

Alex Waters is a Student Planner and employee at G2 Urban Planning



Susan Holly's picture

Signage and artworks on building can form an integral part of the streetscape. Its also constantly changing and often reflective of whats going on in Melbourne. I like the space on the corner of Republic Tower (cnr Queen and LaTrobe) that rotates differnet art works on a cycle of about every 2 - 3 months I think. I don't always like the art or understand it but it makes you think and I look forward to seeing the new works as they are installed.

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SignageGuy World Advertising's picture

Signage, Urban Art, Street Art - all can be really appealing, and attracting, providing it has been carefully been planned, to seamlessly intergrate into the surrounding environment, while it is also achieveing its ultimate purpose.

Whether its custom facades, advertising signs, directional or electronic signs - i think in australia we are waaaayyy behind the rest of the world, in coming up to speed with different technologies to engage people in different ways.

Maybe the examples in this article, shown in melbourne, are the begining of MCC thinking 'outside the box' if you will.

But i think its a good move towards diversity.

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Chris Peska's picture

Welcome to Urban Melbourne Susan and thanks for your comment. I, too, really like the rotating artworks at Republic Tower. I think structures that visually enhance an area can only be a good thing for our urban connectivity.

Peter Maltezos did an article on Republic tower recently, and here is the link. Enjoy :-)

Observe. Design. Build. Live.

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MelbourneGuy's picture

Illuminated advertising also adds to the excitement of a city. Whenever I come back to Australian cities after being overseas I'm struck by the darkness of the cbd streets at night. It's time the MCC broke away from tradition and made this city more colourful and lively for both its inhabitants and tourists alike.

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Alex Waters's picture

Interesting comments. I'm a little surprised nobody took the 'anti advertising' position. The way I wrote it I tried to pose questions rather than state my opinion. Clearly I've subconsciously convinced some that advertising is fine in the city. Where are all the NIMBYs?

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Alexander Sheko's picture

I'm not terribly fussed about advertising in the city, and I'm not really surprised that most people are at most ambivalent towards it. I think the main anti-advertising argument would related to its perceived "trashiness" and its adverse effect on the "classiness" of beautiful old buildings.

Interestingly, though, your photo of the sign on Young and Jackson (i.e. a tight crop) looks less appealing to me than the sign actually looks in its full context. I think this is due to the fact that there's a lot of colour and movement to take in at that key intersection and the sign's effect on the old building isn't so intense. I actually quite like that sign and think it adds interest.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the concept of advertising as urban art, but certainly it's something that contributes to the urban aesthetic landscape, whether positively or negatively. I wonder why we couldn't have signs that displayed a mixture of advertising and "actual" artwork?

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Martin Mankowski's picture

I think advertising can transcend its original intention to become urban art. Looking at the Skipping Girl in Victoria St - originally just an advertisement for a vinegar manufacturer, now considered a Melbourne icon, long after the company has disappeared. Just like traditional art, maybe only time can measure whether an advertisement as urban art has been successful?

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