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An Odd Campaign and a Missed Chance to Reinvent the Hollywood Sign

April 15, besides being that other checkbook-related deadline with which many of you wrestled, was the day that the Trust for Public Land was supposed to have scraped together $12.5 million to buy back Los Angeles's Cahuenga Peak—the land to the west of the Hollywood sign—from developers. In an effort to bring awareness to this cause, in February, the city embarked on one of the most bizarre campaigns that I've ever seen, temporarily draping the sign in screenprinted mesh fabric to read SAVE the PEAK. But it took so long to put up that for three days, Hollywood was temporarily re-named SALLYWOOD, SAVEYWOOD, and SAVE the POOD.

With such a dismal stunt for its launch, it should be no surprise to anyone that the $12.5 million was not met, but the deadline has been extended to April 30 to raise more money, which, according to a press release, has been coming in from local bake sales. Yes, Los Angeles is now buying land with the proceeds of Beachwood Canyon residents' homemade lemon bars. Maybe they can organize a few more bake sales to help cover the city's budget deficit.

The campaign was a failure because it was flawed in so many ways,. The Hollywood sign itself is in no danger whatsoever, so putting a message there was oddly misguided. Even if the land is owned by developers, which it has been for years, the chances that any building permits would even pass approval by the local neighborhood are very slim. But I see it mostly as a huge missed opportunity for artists, designers, and architects to engage with one of the planet's most recognizable structures. Where was the amazing competition to envision what might happen to the Hollywood sign if the land around it was given back to the city?

The funny thing is, in the last few weeks, I've been exposed to some amazing ideas about how to bring the Hollywood sign back into the public realm. The Danish architect Christian Bay-Jorgensen proposed embracing development by turning the Hollywood sign into a hotel. It's something that will never happen, of course, but it gets people to question issues about making this landmark more accessible. I especially like the public walkway that runs right beneath the hotel concept. It makes me question why exactly the public is kept away from the letters. Why can't we (legally) go closer to the sign? Why can't we stand behind it?

Or this idea, named HLYWD, by INABA and Darien Williams, which I saw as part of the show "UNPLANNED: Research and Experiments at the Urban Scale" at SUPERFRONT LA. Here the designers play upon the disproportionate value of the Hollywood sign (globalized fame) to its actual usefulness sitting up on that hill (no longer needed to point out a 1920s real estate development and/or the location of the film industry). So they propose that the letters should travel around the city, popping up in witty word clusters to help memorialize different neighborhoods.

Besides the fun of seeing WOOL pop up on downtown's Bunker Hill (where goats were recently employed to help clear brush), I like that the letters are literally taken down from their legendary perch up on high and become a tangible historic element with which people can interact. They don't have to be the real letters, even, we could make facsimiles, which could pop-up, unannounced, all over the city.


A few days before the POOD sign went up, the singer Ke$ha made this video of herself and some friends supposedly embarking upon a late-night mission to change the sign. It's not real, of course, but the fact that they are so realistically and creatively engaged with the idea of changing the sign brings a smile to my face. From the video you can see Ke$ha and her team were actually up there, and their prankster motivation gives this the spirit of so many of the great Hollywood sign conversions in the past (my favorite was HOLLYWEED, to commemorate relaxed pot laws in California in the 1970s. It makes me wonder: Why don't we see more videos and artworks about such an iconic part of our city? People come from all over the world to see it, but for L.A.'s residents, it's just sitting up there, largely forgotten in our daily lives.

The Hollywood sign isn't as precious and sacred a monument as we'd like to think it is. And the land around it, even though it's the same sometimes-slippery chaparral as all of the Santa Monica Mountains, could fully support some more fun interactions with the city's most famous landmark. Why wouldn't we play with the sign more in a way that doesn't interfere with its physical well-being—using lighting, or projection, or augmented reality? Organizations could accept artist or designer proposals to temporarily transform it in a way that enhanced our knowledge about Los Angeles's history or created those all-too-rare shared experiences with our neighbors. At the very least, such exciting cinematic experiences would be completely true to the industry that the sign helped create.

Top photo by LA Philanthropy Watch; Peeps photo by Charlotte Johnson, winner of National Geographic's 2009 Peeps in Places contest.

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