by Rhys Edwards
Was there ever time when Vancouver was “authentic?”
The Museum of Vancouver’s latest permanent exhibition—Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver—recounts the history of Vancouver’s love affair with neon signage. Several conserved signs illuminate visitors as they browse the documents that reconstruct this history. Among other things, visitors are asked if the abundance of neon signage in Vancouver, between the 1950s and 1970s, indicates the authenticity of this era.
Authenticity could stem from the relaxed approach to the leisure and goods that these signs once advertised, and, perhaps, a more liberal endorsement of a vibrant advertising culture. That said, the idea that the neon sign is indicative of some kind of authenticity, is to misconstrue its history. Neon does not reflect the authenticity of mid-20th-century Vancouver, any more than a gladius reflects the authenticity of the Roman Empire. At the time, neon advertising became widespread, as it was a novel technology that consumed little power and exuded little heat. It was a pragmatic celebration of the growth of the middle class, and the ushering in of an urbane society situated in the flourishing Northwest.
The neon sign is also a signifier for a historical moment that has been appropriated as a period of late authenticity in North American culture. Other items in this taxonomy include wing tails, Ray-Bans, chrome styling, roller skates, and doo-wop. Modern-day designers often invoke the storied connotations of these items, whether in retro-style smartphone cases or with the irrelevant insertion of a classic Italian car into an advertisement for Yaletown condos. Some economies subsist almost entirely on these connotations: consider the seemingly timeless myth of Las Vegas, luminescent in its neon, or in the orange-and-brown colour scheme of a certain family-oriented Canadian fast-food chain.
One can only speculate how the neon sign came to be this way, but perhaps it’s because neon signage so readily lends itself to a diverse range of applications. The neon motif can be manipulated endlessly, whereas there are only so many ways to represent a Vespa. Many adults of today, particularly Vancouver’s, grew up when this type of decor was considered an integral part of the urban landscape. For these adults, neon is invested with one of the most powerful emotional attachments: childhood nostalgia.
Here authenticity has been retroactively constructed, and we are then left with the original struggle: if authenticity is not to be found here, then where is it to be found? Is there even such a thing, and if so, how do we define it? Perhaps authenticity is located in the very pluralism of history, the constant negotiation and renegotiation of experience.
Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver shows how our culture has come to define visual value in the decades since the ‘golden age’ of advertising. Those who were for neon signs thought them to be a smear against the principles of educated society, while those who were critics found distaste in the attention neon signs demanded of anyone who was unfortunate enough to live near one. Convergent with increasing distaste for neon signage was an ongoing effort to re-brand the city as a naturalized settlement within the pristine wilderness and beauty of the lower Fraser Valley. To reinforce this ‘down-to-earth’ perception, neon signs were no longer permissible. They were perceived as fragments of a culture estranged from Vancouver’s identity; in their status as a cross-continental urban motif, they were obstructions to the city’s own assertion of its uniqueness—a notion of Vancouver as the ‘non-city’ city.
These impulses precipitated the enactment of a 1974 bylaw that effectively shut down the city’s neon culture. Most of the city’s 19,000 signs were dismantled, except for those that, according to the bylaw, were “of exceptional quality in terms of visual delight and enjoyment.” Some of the remaining signs, such as the Vogue and Orpheum signs on Granville, or the Save-On-Meats sign on West Hastings, are now considered heritage objects; they are vestiges of the city’s former neon splendour. The loss of these signs is not a blow against Vancouver’s authenticity. Their removal reflects a historical shift: from the enthusiastic embrace of modernism in the mid-20th century, to the ‘non-city’ narrative of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. It is this distinction that has characterized much of Vancouver’s artistic output and its growth as a unique cultural centre.
There is a different reason to mourn the loss of the neon sign. As an art and design medium, neon is utterly unique. Neon signs are captivating not only for their superficial qualities, but also because of how succinctly they convey the intersection between form and technique.
There is a certain charm to how cartoon characters, cultural stereotypes, and popular symbols are reduced to their most minimal form within the art of neon. This is reinforced by the spectacular visage of the sign itself. One cannot remain impassive in the face of the neon sign—in any given space, it’s the focus of attention. Yet, a neon sign presents itself plainly, without subtext. In this sense, the neon sign epitomizes the craftsmanship, exuberance, and fluid sensuality of mid-20th-century design.
It’s the momentous quality of neon signs that led to their downfall in Vancouver; residents could not stand the dizzying barrage of light into their homes and the public. Unfortunately, with the loss of the neon sign, we have also lost the design principles that facilitated their creation. The advent of LED lights, screens, and billboards, as well as computer software, has expedited the degradation of advertising aesthetics. The designers of two-dimensional business signs need not concern themselves with material limitations, for images are rendered on the limitless plains of computer screens, and printed to the specifications of the business. There are rarely endearing features to the signs of today, because they lack any real tactility. Since they are largely unnecessary, cheap, and abject, there is little worth in creating a lasting design. Neon engendered a consistent material aesthetic within Vancouver’s business community, and in doing so, promoted agreement within that community. In Vancouver, neon has been replaced by bloated billboards and unenthusiastic facades that are aesthetically bankrupt and ultimately contributing little to our space but visual clutter.
We are too familiar with the mediocrity of contemporary signage, and this familiarity suggests passivity. Where ordinary citizens once stood united against the apparent neon menace, there remains only apathy in the face of much more dire circumstances. If neon signage was an affront to our social values, then what does our consent to the current state of Vancouver’s signage suggest of us now?