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Part ‘Blade Runner,’ part ‘Star Trek’: See the wild new billboard of the future

The humble billboard gets a not-so-humble redesign.

Part ‘Blade Runner,’ part ‘Star Trek’: See the wild new billboard of the future
[Image: The Propeller Group, Volatile Landscapes, 2021 (artwork)/courtesy of Orange Barrel Media (photo)]
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The Sunset Strip in Hollywood is known for many things, from hair metal to celebrity drug overdoses, but one of its most enduring hallmarks is outdoor advertising.

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Along with New York’s Times Square, it’s one of the most valuable places for billboards and outdoor advertising in the world. Billboard rents along the 1.5-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard running through the independent city of West Hollywood can reach upward of $200,000 per month. And since 2018, when Netflix was reported to have bought more than 30 billboards along the Strip from Regency Outdoor Advertising for an estimated $150 million, the value seems to be resilient even in the internet age.

[Image: Sunset Spectacular/courtesy of Orange Barrel Media (photo)]
Now the outdoor ads of the Sunset Strip have a wild new billboard counterpart, and one that completely reimagines what a billboard can be.

Designed by L.A.-based Tom Wiscombe Architecture in collaboration with advertising company Orange Barrel Media, Sunset Spectacular is a three-sided, crag-like, 67-foot-tall tower of steel that looks like it could have been mined from a metallic alien world. Vertical digital screens adorn the two sides oriented toward the street, and the ground level has a teepee opening into which pedestrians can enter to see a light and video show projected onto its interior hull. It’s part Blade Runner, part Star Trek; and a forthcoming public plaza will add to this new way of thinking about what the revenue of outdoor advertising can bring to cities.

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[Photo: courtesy Tom Wiscombe Architecture]
This unconventional billboard project is the product of a design competition launched in 2015 by the city of West Hollywood at a time when digital billboards were spreading across greater Los Angeles to the dismay of many residents.

[Photo: courtesy Tom Wiscombe Architecture]
“They were asking how could media engage the pedestrian and not only cars, how could we look at new formats of media, and how could we begin to integrate it into architecture,” Wiscombe says. “All that is building on the legacy of the Sunset Strip as a mecca for advertising. And I think it’s really smart to not just keep repeating that legacy but to question what it is, how it’s changed today, and what that has to do with community, with architecture, and with content.”

Wiscombe’s design features aggressively non-rectangular vertical signs. Intermixed with advertising, the billboard’s two digital screens will also feature displays of art. Late at night and early in the morning, the screens will display interstitial videos like stars slowly moving across the sky or the subtle glow of an L.A. sunrise. Though advertising is clearly the main purpose for the structure, the screens will also try to fade into the background when possible—particularly in the very late and early hours, when advertisers are less likely to pay for screen time.

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The tower’s three planes are held together by what Wiscombe calls a tesseract, a bending tubelike form that provides the internal structural support of the tower and emerges at its surfaces like the exhaust vents of a time machine. He says it was important that the tower not just be a scaffold for ads, but that it be a truly three-dimensional object that mixes flatness and depth in order to draw pedestrians in.

[Image: Sunset Spectacular/courtesy Tom Wiscombe Architecture]
“It plays that dual role. It’s something that you haven’t seen before. It’s alien in some regards, but it’s also something that is familiar,” Wiscombe says. “In a lot of my work I’m always going for something that is simultaneously familiar and alien, so you’re engaged by it but it also produces a sense of wonder.”

The screens are now operational, and the concrete will soon be poured for the surrounding public plaza, which will include lantern lighting, benches, and landscaping. It’s expected to open in August. Though Wiscombe says detailed studies were conducted to ensure light pollution wouldn’t affect nearby residents, some have already complained about the screens, calling the sign “a little Las Vegas.”

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Sunset Spectacular is part of a broader effort by the city of West Hollywood to rethink how billboards and digital advertising integrate with the Sunset Strip. A recent report looking at arts and advertising in the city features 21 proposed projects for new or renovated billboards that range from traditional rectangular signs to sculptural additions to buildings to new public spaces. And in 2015, the city began pushing the limits with an innovative new take on the utilitarian billboard scaffold, installing a bright-blue metal pole reminiscent of a bent paperclip, designed by L.A.-based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects.

Sunset Spectacular is the highest-profile example of how the city is updating billboards for the modern age. The project is a public-private partnership between the city and Orange Barrel Media. In exchange for a 10-year lease on the land used to build the tower, the city will receive a portion of its advertising revenue—a cut that’s estimated to be more than $2 million per year. Wiscombe says that funding helps create a new public space while also providing an ongoing source of revenue for years to come. “At the end of the day one of the most important things about this is the business model. Because the city gets a lot from it and all they have to do is provide the real estate,” he says.

[Image: Sunset Spectacular/courtesy Tom Wiscombe Architecture and Kilograph (photo)]
He believes similar billboard and public space combinations could work in other cities, as well, though perhaps not quite at this scale. “I’ve made pitches and am in the middle of making pitches for others around the world,” he says. “I love the idea that there could be more public-private collaborations in our cities.”

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The machinations of replicating this concept may still need to be figured out, but on the Sunset Strip, at least, the future of the billboard is now.