By Richard White,
I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.
When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.
Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life. Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.
The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century. It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights.
Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.”
In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.
Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger. Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.
Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.
Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park
Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still wonderful works of art.
Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles.
Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only. Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions.
Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended. (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).
The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons. Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.
See Appendix for history of neon.
Age of LED
Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light. There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like.
Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight.
Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen. The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations.
Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.
While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality.
Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Learn more: Putting the public in public art.
Take away idea
Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.
They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”
If you like this blog, you might like:
The curse of minimalism
Neon History (excerpts from www.neonlab.com)
Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.
In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.
After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”
By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.
A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.
Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.
During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.