Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Warsaw's big billboards

I was standing on the corner of Al. Jerozolimskie and ul. Marszałkowska, when I noticed small objects raining down on me from on high - short lengths of string, cable ties, bits of plastic. I looked up to see a crew of mountaineers (alpiniści in Polish) taking down a huge advert from the side of a ten-story building.

Although the area was not roped off to pedestrians, the work was carried out extremely quickly and efficiently. Within three or four minutes the operation was all over.

The use of residential buildings as gigantic advertising hoardings is controversial. There are two arguments against - one is aesthetic - Warsaw is becoming one vast advert; fine architecture (not in this particular case) is being hidden from view. The other argument concerns people who live behind the ads. You will see in the top photo lights pointing at the billboard to illuminate it at night. These shine directly into people's flats when they're trying to sleep. They do receive some remuneration (via their building's administrators). The ads are supposed to be translucent, but every now and then, someone living behind a billboard takes a Stanley knife to it to let in some daylight.

The practice of using buildings as giant billboards started in the late 1990s, when there was a lot of refurbishment of facades going on in central Warsaw; the scaffolding etc was covered up by huge ads which helped pay for the building work and protected it from the elements. The next step was to to use buildings not undergoing renovation (I seem to recall the Universal building on the opposite corner of this crossroads being one of the first) for billboards that could be up to 50 metres high.

Above: seconds after it's off the wall, the billboard is furled up and dragged away. It looks like the guys are taking it down to the Metro station. Now there's an improbable conceit - imagine them stuffing it into a rush-hour Metro carriage!

I have nothing against huge billboards - when they are on the side of uninhabited buildings (such as this unfinished development on the corner of Sobieskiego and Sikorskiego that I wrote about in September 2009) or when they are helping to pay for ongoing refurbishment work. Warsaw looks like the opening credits sequence of that excellent US TV show, Mad Men (Moni and I have just one more episode of the fourth series to watch then nothing until March 2012). We're going to miss it - TV drama at its very best.

But blocking people's access to sunlight, blasting their windows with lights when they're sleeping - that's not on.

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