Show me a person who loves billboards, and I’ll show you a shocked expression. Those towering advertisements, often an intrusion to urban skylines, are loathed by many for their disruption of a city’s otherwise beautiful horizon. Billboards are consistent news-makers; recently, motorists in Brooklyn, New York, escaped a billboard toppling onto a major highway while residents of São Paulo are enduring heated social debates sparked by the banning of the over-sized adverts in 2007. With some cities outlawing billboards and others struggling to redefine laws surrounding public advertising, designers and architects have taken to reimagining these structures.
In a housing design competition, Apostrophy, a Thai-based design studio, presented the billboard, repurposed as a living space. Since the structure would be made financially viable by the advertising on one of its sides, the dwelling is designed as a new kind of urban subsidized housing. Customized for up to three stories, the billboard house is mounted on a trailer base, making it instantly mobile. Though this idea might seem outlandish, in some ways, billboards are ideal for providing shelter. “They are incredibly strong to deal with wind loads,” explains Lloyd Alter of Treehugger. “They are usually tall in wide open spaces so that they can be seen from a great distance, but that means they also have great views; They are exposed to wind and sun, creating lots of energy generating opportunities.” Apostrophy realized the positive impact their project could have on the environment, installing solar panners on the roofs of the billboards.
Apostrophy’s mock ups are beautiful, looking more like an a modern, furnished home than a billboard. The design studio gave careful consideration to small details — the iron lattice work decorating the façade even mimics a style found in conventional Thai houses. But Apostrophy isn’t the first to attempt a billboard revolution; rethinking the billboard is a common assignment in design and architecture schools. Students, enamored with their newfound skills, often get carried away with the fantastical structures they can create, tossing practicality out the window. I can attest to this experience; in one of my undergraduate design classes, I recall repurposing the billboard as a sort of public transit system, converted into landing docks for cable-connected aerial gondolas. Though this free-thinking approach is refreshing, leading to creative solutions that otherwise might’ve gone unnoticed, many practical questions are ignored. Would people actually want to live in billboards? For those seeking subsidized housing, living in such a prominent structure might be unsettling. But with housing prices skyrocketing in urban areas, Apostrophy’s project is a creative solution to overcrowding in countries where the population is booming.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.