From Advertising to Aah: Billboards Transformed Into Sky Gardens

Urban Air hopes to suspend a bamboo garden that will tower above the traffic-clogged streets of Los Angeles.
You probably never thought a billboard could look this beautiful. (Photo-rendering by Stephen Glassman)
Dec 11, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Billboards are a ubiquitous part of cityscapes throughout the country—and on a lot of the roads in between. Wouldn’t it be nice if one day when you were stuck in traffic you could look up and instead of seeing the latest ad for fragrances or food, you saw a little bamboo forest?

That’s the goal of an art-in-public sitework by Los Angeles-based sculptor Stephen Glassman. The project is called Urban Air and Glassman’s vision is to transform existing urban billboards into living, suspended bamboo gardens that will, “put a crack into the urban skyline. People can look up and see an open space of fresh air.”

Glassman told TakePart that, “Bamboo has always been a kind of personal medium for me because it allows me to work on a very large scale intuitively and structurally with a great economy of means—so it’s become almost like drawing in space.”

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He added that, “My work with bamboo began with the art of the Japanese kite. It was a very fundamental experience and really the foundation of my work in that a kite is a beautiful object, but above all it needs to function and to fly. So the function of a kite is the kite itself, but as a practice the function is to take your eye to the sky, like a vehicle to take you to other places. That’s a very fundamental aspect of my work that’s continued throughout and is very apparent with Urban Air.”

Glassman’s installations started to gain global attention after he created large-scale structures in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots, 1993 Malibu fires, and 1994 Northridge earthquake.

He did a lot of work with bamboo in the areas affected by these devastating events that took on an aspect of public monuments. “They were sort of these free-form monumental structures that were about community resilience and community rebuilding,” he said. 

For the billboard installation, a video on the Urban Air site explains that the commercial facade of the billboard is removed and replaced with architecturally integrated planters that are installed with living bamboo and water misters that irrigate the plants. The misters also provide a cloud effect, almost like a cloud forest. In addition, the billboards are equipped with environmental sensors that monitor the air quality within the cloud forest and each billboard is wi-fi enabled to communicate this information.

“We’ve secured access to a number of billboards, but initially we’re only going to choose one installation,” said Glassman. “Summit Media owns many billboards and they’re working with us on finding the right one and are very committed to doing it. My intention is to work things out on this one and let it come to fruition as a completed sculpture and not just an idea.”

“Then my hope is to contact and work with the C40 Initiative and the Clinton Climate Initiative. They’ve lined up 40 of the biggest cities around the world to sign an agreement that each city will reduce its carbon footprint by a measurable amount by 2020,” explained Glassman. “So my intention is to introduce Urban Air as a symbol of each of those cities’ participation, but also as a kind instrument in that each Urban Air installation will have the ability to track, monitor, and communicate those results to each other. So wherever there’s one of these billboards you’ll be able to keep in touch with the reduction in the Earth’s carbon footprint.”

Urban Air is currently in the final day of a Kickstarter campaign and they’ve also aligned themselves with, a social network founded by the actor Adrian Grenier and film producer Peter Glatzer.

“Shft is very much about the intersection of ecology, design, media, and culture,” said Glassman. “And they’ve teamed up with us to produce our performance benefit that’s coming up in January and will feature Nels Cline of Wilco, and others.”

But you can help out right now.

Urban Air’s Kickstarter campaign ends today at 7:11 PM, Pacific Standard Time.

What do you think about Urban Air’s efforts? Would you like them to bring a bamboo garden billboard to your city?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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