In January 2019, Morris Adjmi Architects (MA) was commissioned to design a sign to fill an 85-foot stretch of vacant scaffolding on top of a 12-story building in DUMBO, a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. For nearly 50 years prior to the vacancy, the scaffolding contained an illuminated sign that beamed the word “WATCHTOWER” in massive red letters over the New York City skyline. While iconic, it was a slightly sinister presence—a foreboding and mysterious word that loomed high with intensity over the Brooklyn Bridge.
MA understood that erecting a new sign in this location was sure to cause controversy stemming from the complex history of the site. Unknown to millions of New York City residents and tourists, Watchtower is a proselytizing publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who used the 12-story building that featured the sign as a printing facility. The Jehovah’s Witnesses owned numerous buildings along the borough’s waterfront, effectively operating an insular religious campus for decades before selling their properties to real estate developers in the mid-2010’s.This change of ownership brought a simultaneous wave of opportunity and anxiety across Brooklyn. Developers had high hopes for the commercialization of the newly-acquired buildings while the surrounding communities worried about radical and sudden changes that might upend traditions and neighborhoods. It was precisely these conditions that MA was tasked to navigate—the kind of anxiety that produces the quixotic desire for the good-old-bad days, a counterintuitive but real community sentiment that can breed ill-will and cause developer backlash.
In addition to balancing the project within challenging cultural and commercial contexts, the client’s brief was very specific with respect to the new sign’s form due to a regulatory ruling regarding the right to erect a replacement after the WATCHTOWER sign was de-installed in 2017. Specifically, the new sign could not exceed the size or illumination of the previous sign. Operating within these prescriptive parameters, MA’s creative team decided on a stealth-concept design—a new sign essentially hiding in plain sight. In giant red illuminated sans-serif block letters, with letterforms nearly identical to the former sign’s giant red channel-letters, the new word “WELCOME” could almost be mistaken for “WATCHTOWER” at a distance.
However analogous in form, the new message could not be more opposite in meaning and purpose. WELCOME, an omnibus word, instantaneously functions as a platitude and a pointed political message, a major place-making icon for the robust and reinvigorated borough of Brooklyn, as well as a simple announcement for the change of building ownership and the opportunity to build new businesses therein.
Beaming brilliant red across the New York Harbor, the new WELCOME sign faces the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street with an eternal message of hope and inclusion. By happy coincidence, the new sign was lit on November 27, 2019, exactly 50 years to the day that the former WATCHTOWER sign was first switched on in 1969.
Image Credits: Will Femia, Field Condition