Kino Ochota neon, Warsaw – image by Monika Kostera via Flickr (CC licence)
There are certain childhood images, experiences and smells you tend to remember for the rest of your life. For me one of those experiences was the view of the now demolished sports hall we passed in our car on the way to visit my cousins.
It was a big (at least big in my eyes) building with a curved roof which looked a bit like an oversized trilby with its brim curved upwards. Or at least that’s how I remember it. The architecture was quite striking. But the building’s real feature I still remember to this day was its ‘mobile’ neon sign.
As the hall was primarily used to host basketball matches, the neon sign was created to resemble a bouncing ball which an invisible hand placed in a basket at the end of the three- or four-second sequence. It was mesmerising.
As you drove past the hall, you would wait for the ball to appear in its initial position. The neon would then go off and the ball would reappear a split second later slightly lower, then higher, then lower again. Eventually the ball would end up above – and then go through – a neon basket.
And all these balls were linked by a thin neon light which blinked for that split second between the different sequences to express the ball’s movement.
And the Poland I remember was full of such neons. We often thought they were rubbish – not as elaborate as the Piccadilly Circus neons, not advertising any Western brands – but looking back at them now I often think they were small pieces of art. Sometimes on purpose, often probably by accident.
A few months ago the BBC website published an audio slideshow featuring some of the remaining Cold War neons (click image to open the slideshow in a new window).
A Polish photographer, Ilona Karwinska, is on a mission to save them and she talks about the neons in this BBC piece.
Her website features some lovely images of the surviving signs, she also set up a Neon Museum in Warsaw:
Really lovely stuff, despite all this sentimentality.
Shame the modern signs and neons are so boring and less imaginative. No more bouncing balls….