Signs of the City
Urban Crossroads #21


                                                                              Abdun Circle, Amman. (Jumana Bississo)

There are many sources of visual pollution in the city. These include not only shoddily designed and implemented streets and sidewalks, but also features ranging from the profusion of telephone and electricity lines to the uncontrolled spread of billboards and building signs.

In Amman (and generally in this region as a whole), we face a serious problem with billboards and signs. When examining building signs (the billboards polluting the sides and medians of streets and highways are the subject of a separate investigation) we face a state of almost complete visual chaos. One will find small shops each of which has over five signs announcing its presence. On the level of whole buildings, it is common to find buildings plastered with signs that conceal much of the original façade. Some of these signs are small ones measuring no more than a half-meter by half-meter and placed along the higher stories of the building where no one is able to read them. Moreover, while some signs are placed parallel to the building surface others will be perpendicular to the surface, jutting out of it.

There basically is no limit to the lengths that people go through in Amman to create unusual signs. For example, there are two signs in different parts of Amman, each of which has a half of the same Volkswagen Beetle car projecting out of it! Interestingly enough, neither shop sells anything related to automobiles. A more relevant - though equally curious - sign is that for a shop that sells chairs. As one would expect, the shop sign has real plastic chairs attached to it.

More recently, there has been a proliferation of mega-sings that are placed on top of buildings, and often are higher than the building itself.

In the final result, the building often becomes a billboard. The idea of building as billboard is not a new one, and architects as well as architectural and urban critics have been exploring this subject for decades. Among the most perceptive of those is the renowned American architect and author Robert Venturi. In his design entry for the 1967 National Football Hall of Fame building competition, Venturi concealed his building behind a large billboard. This electronic billboard was intended to announce to approaching automobiles the results of football games taking place at the time.

In fact, Venturi regularly has defended the idea of the "modern vernacular," including what often are tasteless signs and billboards. As part of this defense he came up with the now famous phrase that "Main Street is almost alright." However, I always have wondered what his reaction would be to the manner in which signs have proliferated in a city such as Amman, making the signs of Main Street to which he refers rather timid. (In fact, a few years ago I had invited him to come and lecture in Amman, and he was interested in coming, but the visit eventually did not materialize).

Strict regulations are needed in Amman to control the chaotic spread of building signs, which are a major source of visual pollution in the city. On the other hand, it might be argued that such regulations may suffocate creativity and prevent talented architects from implementing high quality designs that incorporate bold signage. Considering the present state of affairs, our immediate concern is the former than the latter issue. Still, a review process may be instigated whereby it would be possible to present to a review board designs of signs that are perceived to be innovative and of a high visual quality. The review board would have the authority to provide special exemptions to allow the implementation of these designs.

There is no shortage of examples of regulations in different parts of the world that have effectively accomplished the goal of controlling the chaotic spread of building signs. In fact, we do not have to look very far for such examples. In the Beirut Central Business District, which has been developed by the public shareholding company Solidere, very effective regulations have been put in place to control the use of signs. According to such regulations, signs only may be placed along the ground floor, and not on the upper floors of a building. Such signs may only be as wide as the individual shop window itself, and it is recommended that they have homogenous backgrounds. Projecting and luminous signs are prohibited. In the case of office buildings, the names and logos of building occupants are confined to the main entrance hall. If a single company or institution happens to occupy the entirety of a building, wall mounted letters without background may be placed along the higher parts of the building. Such regulations have had very positive results, and have effectively contributed to creating a high-quality visual environment in the Beirut Central Business District.

Admittedly, if similar regulations are put in place for Amman, and such regulations are strictly enforced, many will complain, specially the owners of the shops, stores, offices, and companies who would be required to remove or modify their original signs. They will argue that such legislation limits their freedom to announce their presence to the public, and that having to change their sings will place an unnecessary financial burden on them. Most probably, incentives would need to be put in place to make such regulations more acceptable to such groups. This might include waiving the fees that the municipality charges on commercial building signs for a year or two. On the other hand, sign makers probably will be pleased with the new regulations since this will bring a considerable amount of new business to them even though the quantity of large signs they can make will be greatly curtailed. Such new regulations also will be a bonanza for those collecting recyclable materials such as scrap metal. An incredible amount of scarp metal will be produced as the old signs are replaced to conform to the new regulations.

One often hears of the concept of "minimal intervention - high impact." Reforming regulations for signage and strictly enforcing such regulations provides an excellent example of this concept. Through it, we would be able to greatly enhance the visual qualities of Amman and effectively deal with a major source of visual pollution, all at relatively little cost. Fortunately, some steps in this direction already are taking place in the country. The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority is in the process of putting new regulations regarding building signs. Let us hope that this will be a prelude for a nation-level rethinking of this major source of visual pollution.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 7, 2004