Does neoclassical architecture need digital signage?

The Franklin Institute, whose Corinthian portico and pilastered wings, designed by John T. Windrim in the 1930s, overlook Logan Square and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, wants to replace a low-tech billboard in front of its main entrance with a digital sign.  Predictably, neighbors and preservationists are up in arms.  The sign, opponents claim, will distract motorists and challenge pedestrians at an already dangerous intersection, be a flashing blight on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (Philadelphia’s version of the Champs-Élysées)–and pretty soon everyone will want one, and the Parkway will coruscate like Times Square.  The Franklin Institute responds that it’s a very small sign, really, and there’s already a non-digital one in place.  (There’s also a controversy as to whether opponents of the sign have legal standing to take the Institute to court, but I’m not competent to comment on that issue–more here and here.)

One question, though, is not being asked:  What effect will a digital sign have on the building behind it?  Classical and neoclassical architecture is alive.  Its rhythmic alternation of space and volume and its play of light and shadow invite careful, quiet attention–even contemplation.  To move around or through such a building evokes a response–not the “oh wow look at that” response that, say, the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House tend to evoke, but the kind of response that comes from taking a series of deep breaths.  Once years ago, after a long day of meetings in Washington, I stopped on the way to Union Station and walked along the main axis of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, not really looking at the paintings but simply feeling the alternation of rectangular and round spaces and light and shadow.  At the end of my five-minute stroll, all the day’s stress and tension had left me.

So it’s worth asking:  will a blinking digital billboard make it impossible for the Franklin Institute’s building to do what John Windrim wanted it to do?

Lee T. Pearcy
Director, Classicizing Philadelphia