Empire of Signages

By CC Williams

We generally search in the distance for what is at hand and sometimes even mocks us. Everything is visible, barely disguised, but we fail to recognise it. We are held back by the clamour of "meaning," by what is fixed and stationary. The object of our quest twists and turns, passes in and out of the shadows, but remains throughout on the exterior, beneath our confused gaze.

- François Dagognet, “Towards a Biopsychiatry,” 1992 (1)

With their polemic book Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour interposed vernacular commercial signage into the popular architectural landscape. Since then, best-practice Environmental Graphic Design books have proliferated on architectural bookshelves and #signhunters have emerged to collect ghost and Googie signs for their nostalgic Instagram collections. Architectural discourse, meanwhile, perpetually speculates on the theoretical relevance of Las Vegas, as laminated notices continue to “deface” cast concrete architectural “ducks” and starchitects design deconstructivist “sheds” to contain generic shopping mega malls in Las Vegas. The commercial and architectural landscape has undoubtedly changed since the seventies. However, the architectural imagination has yet to follow through on Robert Venturi’s imperative to highlight the relevance of the commercial vernacular as an example of an “iconographic architecture.” (2) Instead, the discipline continues to study commercial signage as little more than a hollow defacement of architectural form or a best design practice, ignoring a non-judgemental discussion of the most visible articulation of the urban fabric.

The popular impression of signage as a superficial, two-dimensional, iconographic format, rather than an articulated form, is partly to blame for its marginalisation within architectural discourse. A quick search on “vernacular signage” will deliver extensive information on the styles of typography that, along with images, form the rhetorical content of signage. Yet, if this content can be imagined away, as a number of contemporary artists have done, (4) then it is clear that signage is not only a series of bodiless, metaphysical, messages but also a complex infrastructure of objects, panels, boxes, extrusions, and articulations that cover over, weave through, project from, and bind together the urban fabric. Restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, franchises, and the megastores of global brands, adorned with various ensembles of signage—off-the-rack, haute couture, handmade—form a vernacular architecture of signage that has become the material and the practice through which commercial entrepreneurs construct their spatial identity on the streetscape. In doing so, shopkeepers, marketing firms, signage manufacturers, and commercial designers have become architects, articulating both the form of and our daily performance on the urban stage.

Nowhere is the phenomenon of signage more pronounced than in the highly unregulated streets of Japan, infamous for the swirling confusion of mass, bright signage, so often received across the mediatized distance of Western films such as Blade Runner (1982), Black Rain (1989), and Lost in Translation (2003). Japan’s sign culture was heavily influenced by the merchant class of the Edo period (1603-1868), (5) although some traditional forms, such as noren or “doorway curtains,” are said to date back to the rise of a distinct merchant class catering mostly to the needs of samurai during the Muromachi period (1392-1482). (6) Merchant or commercial signage in Japan continues a long held custom of merging iconography with the material objects that are part of the permanent, entrepreneurial and episodic, festive streetscape. Drawings from early Edo entertainment precincts reveal cubic billboard constructions of fabric and timber scaffolds, well before they were discovered on the Las Vegas strip. It could be said, in fact, that a vernacular tradition of mass signage in Japan significantly predates the notion of mass consumption, which did not fully appear in Japan until the 1960/70s, when the income-doubling policy began to take hold. (7)

In his book Learning from the Japanese City (aptly tracing Las Vegas in its heuristic title), urban historian Barrie Shelton notes fundamental differences in the derivation of Japanese and Western cities’ collective form. In the Western city, he notes, “the object is the building” while “symbols and information [are] controlled and relegated to minor and subservient places in the overall composition.” In Japan, on the other hand, the “street exists as the neutral and utilitarian container which is subordinate to or at least independent of the sign.” (8) While the individual buildings on the Japanese street are often highly stylised ancient, modern, or contemporary “object” forms, the buildings as a collective ultimately fade away behind the layering of signage. The effect is a kind of chiaroscuro, where the signage are the light and the buildings the dark. The urban form of the Japanese city is composed by the commercial identities represented through an accumulation of signage and objects, wrapped and layered around the neutral building, rather than by the composition of buildings.

The importance of a building representing its commercial identity through its adornment in signage parallels the careful curation of personal, bodily adornment in Japanese culture. (9) “Correct” forms of dress—from highly specific and often traditional livery of the working class to the osoroi code where couples, friends or family dress the same in order to stand out in their togetherness—are integral to social norms and daily performance. Adornment, as sociologist Georg Simmel argued, is a property that forms an “extension of the personality” or an expansion of the ego. (10) Furthermore, through the adornment of the body, he proposed that humans possess dual drives to please/give joy and also to gain recognition/distinguish themselves: “being-for-himself and being-for-the-other.” Architectural surface ornamentation is often considered through both these drives, yet commercial signage is almost always assumed to be an example of “being-for-the-other,” for commercial gain. The signage adornment that makes up a commercial streetscape is not only an economic practicality: it is also a fundamental expression of possession and social status. In this article, and in related imagery collected on a recent field trip to Osaka and its surrounds, I consider contemporary Japanese commercial signage as a “being-for-himself,” a means of commercial self-representation, a spatial delineation, and a derivation of traditional vernacular material and spatial practices. In doing so, I focus on three predominant typologies: “signboard architecture,” the staging of space through fabric, and performative constructions of signage.

Potemkin Villages, Signboard Architecture

Who does not know of Potemkin's villages, the ones that Catherine's cunning favourite built in the Ukraine? They were villages of canvas and pasteboard, villages intended to transform a visual desert into a flowering landscape for the eyes of Her Imperial Majesty… Adolf Loos (11)

In the early 1970s, as Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour were writing their findings on the American landscape’s “decorated shed with a rhetorical front and a conventional behind,” (12) Japanese architect, theorist, and self-proclaimed “architectural detective” Terunobu Fujimori began a fifteen-year survey of surviving examples of what he termed “signboard architecture” (kanban kenchiku). Originally the renovation of traditional machiya or other rudimentary buildings through the addition of “false” cement, plaster, brick, tile, or even copper façades, the popular construction technique began as a manner of imitating Western architectural ornament and took off in the reconstructive years after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Signboard architecture speaks a language of mimicry, the scaffold frontages of shops adopting the vernacular, sometimes stereotypical, character of another place or time. (Image 1)

Image 1/ Remnants of “Signboard Architecture,” Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, Photograph by CC Williams

Architectural scholars criticised Fujimori for his interest in this commercial vernacular because it “lacked the pedigree of either a trained architect's design or a native tradition considered pure.” (13) Yet this form of identity construction has become commonplace today due to a shift in the forces shaping the commercial landscape from the formal concerns of architects to commercial capital. As Reyner Banham observed in the 1970s, it simply “makes financial sense to put up relatively simple single-store boxes, and then make them tall enough to attract attention by piling up symbols and graphic art on top.” An awning of any shape and size, he continues, echoing Simmel, “expands the ego and enlarges the sphere” of commercial visibility and personality. (14)

In contemporary Japan signboard architecture is visible in two distinctive manifestations. The first is the stage-set like construction of false façades along Japan’s (covered and uncovered) shotengai (shopping streets) and other narrow streets. Patchwork snakes, miles upon miles of abutting façades, representative of various eras and styles, weave their way through both large cities and smaller regional centres. An Indonesian restaurant, for example, might project a roofline extension reminiscent of a traditional hut from its utilitarian base, whereas a kissaten (tea shop) might don a dark brick façade and window mouldings reminiscent of a Viennese coffee house. (Image 2)

Image 2/ An Indonesian restaurant projects a roofline extension reminiscent of an indigenous “Indonesian” hut, Minasemba, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

The second manifestation, not entirely distinguishable from the first, are the pedestrian-level entrances that are attached to and often foreshadow the city’s tall buildings and large complexes. Small huts and articulated entrances project from the base building, usually bearing little stylistic relation to the larger complex. These, often rudimentary, add-on scaffolds support signage “walls” and appear to be the everyday entrepreneur’s realisation of the high architectural designs of the Metabolist movement’s plug-in capsule. Rather than happening high in the air on the walls of megastructures, they exist on the pedestrian level, accepting the temporality of commercial reality while maintaining a “local” or “glocal” culture. The do-it-yourself juxtaposition of buildings large and small, old and new, has evolved as a result of the bubble-economy and the resulting high land prices that caused rapid, unstructured redevelopment. When sections of the city’s street-level architecture are torn down it is “rebuilt, incorporated within the basement of the high rise that took its place. There again are the bars, the little restaurants, the warren reborn.” (15) While many businesses have taken their internal space off the ground floor and old businesses have resprouted out of new megastructures, the organic growth of the city remains visually articulated at the pedestrian level through the visual figuration of signage and scaffold. (Image 3) (Image 4)

Image 3 / Any base building may have several of these scaffold extensions or entrances. Two modern pencil buildings and their add-ons, Bakuromachi and Dōtonbori, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Image 4 / Any base building may have several of these scaffold extensions or entrances. Two modern pencil buildings and their add-ons, Bakuromachi and Dōtonbori, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Fabric: Layers, Boundaries, Interruptions

The pedestrian level predominance of signage in Japan has largely evolved from basic principles of spatial construction, particularly the use of fabric to articulate, interrupt, layer and stage space. Japanese space, notes Shelton, is delineated by the floor, around which fabric screens and curtains are hung to interrupt space between outside and inside (16). An example of this are noren, or “doorway curtains,” a piece of material divided into two halves, which a person must part to enter a building or room. Originally designed for the practical purpose of protecting open doors from sun and dust, their contemporary use is for the most part symbolic, signalling spatial division and providing infrastructure for the placement of shop crests. Prolific contemporary author of Japanese culture and long-time resident of Tokyo Donald Richie describes this form of signage as so prolific in the old Edo period that the main street was given the name “noren-gai” (noren street). (17) The form of the noren remains a distinctive character on the present-day streetscape, where it continues to mark entrances to traditional restaurants and shops. Even contemporary enterprises employ the formal language of noren, hanging laminated signs, yellow sales cards, and digital screens in a line at their entrances. (Image 5) (Image 6)

Image 5/ Noren mimicry, Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, Photograph by CC Williams

Image 6 Photo / Noren mimicry, Shinsaibashi, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

The preservation of this popular vernacular form is remarkable considering that solid forms have mostly replaced screens and curtains as functional delineators of inside and outside in Japan. Yet, even though a restaurant has a solid door, it will not be open until a noren is hung in its doorway or under the eaves at the entrance. (18) Even though a shop has solid walls with permanent signage, its space of commerce is not truly signified until several temporary placards and nobori (flag signs) surround the entrance fluttering in the wind to catch the eye and the soul with their colourful movement. Like Simmel’s jewels they emphasise the radiating sphere of commercial personality via “sensuous and emphatic perceivability” (19) Even the most ornate or corporately franchised façade will typically display a number of these additional elements. (Image 7)

Image 7 / Tenjinsujibashi, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Fabric awnings, building crowns, and other extending volumes use traditional frame constructions bound by stretched paper or material to appropriate empty space for commercial occupation. The papered surface of chōchin (20) and andon (21) lanterns have classically featured the name of the establishment they are advertising and, now cheaply manufactured, are used en masse to decorate business frontages. The concept of the fabric-covered light chamber has also been appropriated on a larger scale for buildings. In areas such as Osaka’s now touristy Shinsekai, scaffolds extend the presence of the building, sometimes by more than twice its original size. Covered in stretched fabric and bearing images and kanji, they glow from within. Occasionally, a giant puffer fish constructed in the same fashion, its belly illuminated, hovers over the street creating an elaborate awning for a tourist restaurant. In Osaka, most famous for the Dōtonbori (an entire canal lined with elaborate, supersized neons), large retailers such as Zara, Uniqlo, and Apple, in conjunction with contemporary (star)chitects, have further transposed the vernacular signage of illuminated scaffolds into their designs. Contemporary skyscrapers, essentially large lantern “sheds,” diffusely highlight the branded character of the signed building in highly populated shopping areas. (Image 8) (Image 9)

Image 8 / The little viewed undercroft of the famous Glico Man sign featuring traditional paper lanterns, Dōtonbori, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Image 9 / Lantern Shack, Dōtonbori, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Wrapping the Everyday

Signage “structures” in Japan are not only made via physical construction methods such as fabric and scaffold, they are also created through the careful arrangement of temporary signage and other commercial ephemera in a performative art of display. In his article on Japanese Ceremony and Ritual, contemporary philosopher Augustin Berque describes the Japanese emphasis on temporal forms and their privileging of “becoming over substance (being).” The traditional home, he notes, is dependent “on the ritual fulfilment of certain sets of actions (e.g. laying of the futon at night) rather than being determined by concrete and stable forms (e.g. a bed in a bedroom).” (22)The traditional streetscape is likewise dependent on a ritual fulfilment of actions. Each morning in Osaka, shop owners or staff will screech open their roller shutter and begin laboriously unpacking and arranging their particular set of signage in addition to their wares. The process is repeated each day, with little change in the arrangement, and can take from ten minutes to an hour depending on how elaborate the display of goods is and how much of the shop is featured on the street. Each night the signage and object displays are dismantled, roller shutters closed, lights turned off. The everyday process of wrapping their frontage in signage is an important part of a shopkeeper’s ritual fulfilment of the actions/transactions of the producer/consumer relationship. Signage defines actions of opening and closing, extension and compaction, unfolding and repackaging, negotiation and disagreement.

The delicate and precise diurnal construction/deconstruction of the building’s wrapping often appears as important to the shop’s existence as the commercial enterprise itself. What is inside the wrapping, as Roland Barthes notes, is often “disproportionate to the luxury of the envelope.”  The envelope, he continues, “in itself, is consecrated as a precious though gratuitous thing,” and “often repeated, postpones the discovery of the object it contains.” (23) When noren, nobori, lanterns, placards, bicycles, and dummies are arranged in layers articulating an undulating, wrapped territory at the entrance to a shop or business, they emphasize a conscious effort of procession or unveiling. (Image 10) (Image 11)

Image 10 / Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, Photograph by CC Williams

Image 11 / Many shops have little space inside: they’re more like glorified storage cupboards. The major display hangs off the façade and over the sidewalk, Amerika Mura, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

For the Japanese, wrapping and display are important ritual processes that form a rich part of their cultural heritage. As explained by Hideyoki Oka in his famous book series How to Wrap Eggs, packages have their own vernacular formation and have “assumed their shapes over years and years of unself-conscious use and experimentation […] [B]ehind each of these humble packages lie generations of art and craft.” (24) The vernacular formation/construction of commercial signage as a wrapping, separate from its rhetoric, can be understood as a deeply ingrained social and cultural construction—a construction not dissimilar to vernacular architecture.


I’ll leave you with the most Venturi Scott Brown thing I can say which is we didn’t try and come up with these ideas to stamp them all over the goddamned American landscape. We said, ‘what is the American landscape doing anyway?’ People were doing this long before architects were doing it—people setting up shop, putting up signage. McDonalds was McDonalds long before Pop Art got a hold of it. They wanted large beautiful signs so that people would turn in and buy a hamburger […] The everyday folk who are trying to get people to notice their businesses are doing the right thing and that is what we try to learn from.

- Interview with Venturi Scott Brown and Associates (now VSBA LLC), 2011. (Image 12)

Image 12 / Shop selling ready-made signage options, Namba, Osaka, Photograph by CC Williams

Signage is often seen to be the cause of ugliness, chaos, and confusion in the urban landscape, as though it conceals some forgotten and beautiful essence or harmony. I hope to have convinced you, through this brief examination of some very particular vernacular constructions in Japan, that commercial signage is the result of legitimate discourses between capitalist logic and the formulation of space. The compulsion for signage to take on such splendid physical formations is related not just to the consumer, but also to the producer. Most retailers will not have been the creators nor even the owners of their spatial property, so they construct their own identities through the tools of temporal commerce: signboard façades, scaffolds, fabric layering, digital screens, awnings, off-the-shelf flags, and more.

For a long time, the consumers of architectural and cultural theory have been presented with the option of either commercialism or conscience when it comes to the cities’ streetscapes and the subject of commercial signage. The vernacular has traditionally been revisited because it is deemed to be at the heart of an architectural “conscience.” But as mass consumption becomes the dominant structure of the everyday urban landscape, we can no longer separate commercialism and conscience, nor, as a bricolage of signage becomes a dominant vernacular of the urban streetscape, commercialism and architecture.

Rather than attempting to undress our cities in an attempt to find their naked essence, we could do well to “learn to value the wrapping, as well as the wrapped, and seek the meaning they convey together” (25) and to examine the unrecognised “being-for-himself” aspects of commercial signage: the metaphysical and physical demarcation of space, the fulfilment of daily rituals, ownership, and the physical construction of entrepreneurial identity.


(1) Francois Dagognet, “Towards a Biopsychiatry” in Incorporations (Zone 6) edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 540.

(2) Robert Venturi quoted in Rem Koolhaas and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “Relearning from Las Vegas” in Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping edited by Rem Koolhaas, C.J. Chung, J. Inaba, S.T. Leong & H.U.G.S. (Cambridge, Mass: Taschen & Harvard Design School, 2001), 593.

(3) Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture as Signs and Systems (Cambridge Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 13.

(4) Artists Robyn Collyer (1992-95), Gregor Graf (2008) and Nicolas Damiens (2015) have presented worlds devoid of signage content in Willowdale (Canada), London and Tokyo respectively.

(5) Masaru Katzumie, “A Unified Image of Environmental Design.” in Process Architecture, vol. 42: Japanese Signs (Tokyo: Process Architecture, 1983), 12-14.

(6) Kazuko Koizumi, Traditional Japanese Furniture: A Definitive Guide, (New York, Tokyo, London: Kodansha International,1986), 166.

(7) The income-doubling policy was part of a governmental intervention to strengthen Japan’s global economic position. The policy was implemented by Hayato Ikeda, Japan’s Prime Minister from 1960-1964, and one of the most significant figures in Japan’s post-war economic boom. The aim, along with the lowering of taxes, increase in welfare, and investment in private enterprise, was to double the average income (and by implication the GNP) in Japan within 10 years. This goal was achieved a few years short of this deadline, in 1968, when Japan became the world’s second largest economy. John Clammer, Contemporary Urban Japan: A Sociology of Consumption (Oxford UK, Malden MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 9

(8) Barrie Shelton, Learning from the Japanese City: West Meets East in Urban Design (London, New York: E & FN Spon, 1999), 94-5.

(9) Clammer, Contemporary Urban Japan, 70.

(10) Georg Simmel, Mike Featherstone and David Frisby, Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings (London, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1997), 210.

(11) Adolf Loos, “Potemkin City” in Spoken Into the Void: Collected Essays,1897-1900 edited by Adolf Loos (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982), 95.

(12) Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form, Rev. edn (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press,1977), 90.

(13) Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects, (University of California Press, http://site.ebrary.com/lib/utslibrary/Doc?id=10729559, 2013), 96-97.

(14) Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1973), 119.

(15) Donald Richie, “Walking in Tokyo (1986)” in A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan, (Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1992), 55-56.

(16) Shelton, Learning from the Japanese City, 94-5.

(17) Donald Richie & Joel Sackett, Tokyo: A View of the City, (London: Reaktion, 1999), 37-38.

(18) Koizumi, Traditional Japanese Furniture, 93.

(19) Simmel, Featherstone and Frisby, Simmel on Culture, 207-8.

(20) Paper stretched over a collapsible spiral bamboo frame.

(21) Paper or fabric stretched over four sides of rectangular bamboo frames.

(22) Augustin Berque, “The Rituals of Urbanity: Temporal Forms and Spatial Forms in Japanese and French Cities”, Ceremony and Ritual in Japan: Religious Practices in an Industrialized Society edited by in Bremen & Martinez (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), 250-1.

(23) Hideyuki Oka, How to Wrap Five More Eggs: Traditional Japanese Packaging, New York: Weatherhill, 1975), 8.

(24) Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990): 45.

(25) Joy Hendry, Wrapping Culture: Politeness, Presentation, and Power in Japan and other Societies, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 109.

CC William is a doctoral candidate in the “Critical Spatial Thinking” joint program (University of Technology Sydney and Technische Universität Berlin), Architecture graduate (UNSW Hons 1), designer, communications manager, university tutor and mum of three with a particular interest in the spatial role of graphic and communicative surfaces in the urban environment.