Urban air is polluted—and it’s not just the smog. Signs litter cityscapes like semiotic trash, projecting messages that compete for people’s attention. The billboard, having commanded column and cantilever to carry commercial declarations, is a special case of advertising with architectural ambitions.
Open Air, a collaboration between Stephen Glassman Studio and the Studio of Environmental Architecture, contends that these incessant sales pitches degrade the quality of the public realm and represent a broader conflict between growth economics and global ecologies. Billboards are valuable in how well they reference something else, a commodity, but lack any real value as urban objects in and of themselves. Open Air reclaims ad space as a site of production by transforming the billboard from a consumerist monument into green infrastructure.
The sign is replaced by a bamboo bed, a floating forest in the urban skyline. Open Air uses atmospheric water generation to both irrigate the bamboo and feed a water bottle filling station. The bamboo garden signifies this public utility by abstract association rather than signposting. The presence of lush foliage phenomenologically indicates the presence of water. Compared to the literal messaging of advertising, Open Air is an exercise in ambient informatics that engages humans’ innate subliminal perception.
Open Air repositions symbols and technology in service of public good rather than public capital. A billboard incessantly projects unwanted information at individual passersby, whereas Open Air provides the public with the freedom of choice over content. People can opt into learning more about it through augmented reality. Holding up one’s phone to Open Air reveals a layer of metrics and data about current and past solar energy and drinking water production. In addition to technical information, ever-changing overlays of art, quotes, and other reprieves from the noise of consumerism. In this way, people can reassert mastery over technology, and Open Air can be a nexus for communal experience, like a shared water well in a town square.