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Urban Air project hopes to transform billboards into living ecosystems

Rendering of Stephen Glassman's Urban Air project.
Rendering of Stephen Glassman's Urban Air project.
Stephen Glassman
Rendering of Stephen Glassman's Urban Air project.
Rendering of Stephen Glassman's Urban Air project.
Stephen Glassman

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There are more than 5,800 billboards in Los Angeles. You drive by them all the time, maybe not even registering what they're advertising; could be a car, could be a burger. But what if one caught your eye not for what it was selling, but because it wasn't an ad at all? 

Producer Leo Duran has this story about one man sees a new possibility for these billboards, and is trying to change how you see them, too. 

Sculpture artist Stephen Glassman is on the hunt for the perfect billboard. Driving down Lincoln Boulevard, he passes through Venice until one billboard, three stories high, catches his attention. In particular, he’s attracted to the frame of the billboard.

 “It's tall and simple, and it's just got a great kind of symmetry, and it has a lot of space around it. I think it would look quite beautiful,” Glassman said. 

He is looking to use the billboards for something other than advertisements; he wants to replace them with a wall of bamboo and streaks of green. The idea is that this picturesque image of nature hovering above the cars will transform what can be a stressful, traffic-filled commute into moments of zen. 

To do that, Glassman has started a Kickstarter campaign called Urban Air. He wants people to re-think the world beyond their dashboards, and consider alternate uses.   

“When you take that advertising away, what you see clearly is that we have a whole other layer of infrastructure in our landscape that these structures offer. And what can be done with that?” he asks. 

Billboards have been used as canvases, before. Two years ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned 21 artists to display their designs on billboards across Los Angeles.

But Glassman is bringing together a more eclectic group, including structural engineers to help design the façade, environmentalists and plumbers to help measure the bamboo's ecosystem, and even the billboard industry is getting in on the act. 

The outdoor ad company Summit Media will donate a billboard on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice to serve as the prototype, in a barren area of telephone poles and radio towers, right next to an IHOP.

To build on this location, he's hopes to rais $100,000 from Kickstarter. The money will go to retrofitting the billboard, constructing the planters, and installing the technology to monitor the ecosystem. It’s a lot of work for a relatively simple concept. 

“You want to design for the viewing experience, and billboards are really designed for the drive by experience, so as an artwork, you want that scale of impact,” said Glassman. “That velocity, that context of velocity. You have not very much time to say something very complex…it's just a flower arrangement on a major scale. That's all it is.”

The campaign ends December 11th, and if he's successful, he'll install more permanent versions around Los Angeles.