Signs & Sheds

Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there. But to gain insight from the commonplace is nothing new: Fine art often follows folk art…Modern architecture has not so much excluded the commercial vernacular as it has tried to take it over by inventing and enforcing a vernacular of its own, improved and universal. It has rejected the combination of fine art and crude art.

- Excerpts from Learning From Las Vegas. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, 1972

 Vitruvius, known for his classical treatise De Architectura, wrote that architecture should provide firmitas, utilitas and venustas (firmness, commodity and delight). If Vitruvius were driving around Los Angeles today, he’d probably struggle to find much delight in the ‘universal’ architecture of strip malls that dot the landscape of Los Angeles.

Out of economic or aesthetic necessity, or both, a building’s signage is often tasked with providing ‘delight’ for the eye. Los Angeles has a strong tradition of hand painted signs, particularly on the shop fronts of small businesses. Through paint and typography, these signs overlay a unique identity over an otherwise anonymous and prosaic structure.  

Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour coined the term decorated shed in Learning From Las Vegas. They defined it as a purely utilitarian structure with a purpose communicated only by its decorated frontage. The decoration is intended to distract the viewer from the structure and to overcompensate for its failings. In Los Angeles, the decorated shed makes a lot of sense from an economic perspective. There is a continuous cycle of businesses opening, closing and relocating, which requires the mobility and adaptability that a generic structure can offer.

The shed can also be a blank canvas for a multitude of unexpected interventions, both formal and graphic. For example, the sign can be scaled to the size of the building or it can project from it to transform the building’s silhouette against the sky. From hand-painted ‘folk art’ signs to the haphazard assemblage of projecting signs -- a unique mixture of graphic economy, and whimsy, can transform and personalize an otherwise nondescript architectural space.