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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Reading the City: Reflections on Roadside Marquees

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ALL CITIES – The city is in constant conversation. Amidst important discussions about its streets and people, it also engages in the day-to-day talk of the weather, business, and what’s-for-lunch. It relays the events of its days and offers itself to the future. And while there are serious matters to be dealt with, it is important to listen closely to the habitual hum of the city, by reading signs of its livelihood and well-being.

This is the cities ‘urban vernacular’. The concept of urban vernacular considers the correlation between the aesthetic and the cultural (historical, geographical) patterning of a place. The term further suggests that a silent conversation exists in the city, where changing conventions are archived in building design, but signs also speak of place – in text, material and font. We may read into this dialogue as it takes place through visible textures, materials and characters in urban architecture and infrastructure. With due attention to both form and content, we may gather greater insight into the subtleties of local culture and geography.

The following compilation of photos considers the way in which roadside marquee signage speaks of the city, within the city. For, the signs nod to similar notions of cultural geography, personal expression, the flux of economics in the abundance (or lack) of resources.

Roadside marquees link road-bound patrons with stationary institutions, by advertising the most current ‘deals’ and events. Here even, it becomes apparent that the design/form of these signs illustrates a presumed relationship between the writer and reader. In their basic figure, roadside marquees assume their readership will be passing quickly, often in a vehicle. Such are examples of the way signage not only speaks literally, but also symbolically of the way we travel in and around the city.

Their compositions are based on several factors: the limitations of space, availability of individual letters and the tone of writer(s). Interpreted beyond their literal communication, such signage also provides a description of the cultural dynamics in place with its use of language (slang, misspellings, local grammar/vernaculars).

In addition to invaluable insight into the urban dialogue, these signs contribute to a typographic discourse. We can consider the degree to which marquees inhabit a neutral realm in the spectrum of the businesses/facilities which use them. The signs not only mediate legibility, but also effectively operate for commercial institutions of all sizes: gas stations, corner stores, grocery and hardware stores, night clubs, community centers and churches. Because the marquees are used in a range of institutions, they demonstrate trends in local (and broader) socio-economic patterning. Reflecting both what people are buying (should, want to), and what is in stock, roadside marquees also read of changes in the weather, local events, and even personal anxieties and insecurities. They can be read with humor and curiosity: considering the specific, informal tone of those who compose them. The marquees are after all, written to appeal a mere passing glance. It may be for this reason that the signs often adopt an interesting tone that abides by no formal grammatical standard, and instead considers the elements of negative and positive space, vertical punctuation and colour to attract the eye.

There are many things to be said for paying attention to the signs that are less often considered, as they provide an important alternative expression of the city as lived by those who inhabit its space. Ultimately, roadside marquees represent a conversation of the everyday and further portray the city in authentic striving, and its patterning of a daily livelihood.

Images and text by Alison Creba