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Daniel Berset climbs a wooden stepladder in the eaves of a 19th-century building on Geneva’s Rive Gauche and emerges onto the barrelled zinc roof, chatting breezily as the traffic rushes along the Quai Gustave Ador below. “It’s a beautiful evening,” he says, dusting a cobweb off his grey twill ensemble. “But be careful.”

It’s no coincidence that Berset is nimble up here: rooftops are his preserve. He is the director of Force Promotion, one of the only companies in charge of erecting and maintaining the luminous signs that sit atop the buildings on Geneva’s lakefront, La Rade. These neon advertising hoardings have come to define the city, from the glowing yellow sans serif letters announcing human-resources company Hans Leutenegger to the crisp white signs bearing the names of Swiss watchmakers such as Tissot and Breguet. “So many companies want to be here, we have a waiting list,” says Berset, explaining how it can cost up to chf25,000 (€23,000) a month to occupy a rooftop. “La Rade has impact, 24/7 visibility and prestige – there is nowhere like it in the world.”

Indeed, this is no Piccadilly Circus or Times Square; Geneva’s cantonal and city authorities make sure of that. While this corner of the lake is home to a constellation of brands, every detail of the hoardings is approved by the Commission for Monuments, Nature and Sites (cmns); this office of city architects and administrators rigorously imposes rules on the height, density and brightness of the lettering. Flashing lights are absolutely prohibited. “It comes from a time when people were worried that blinking might scare the horses,” says Berset. “Our clients know it is something classic. Very few of them ever ask for anything else.”

The result is a collection of luminous static letters and pared-down logos that decorate the classical façades along the shore. Each one is built by hand in one of the ateliers that surround the city. The calligraphic script of brands such as Cartier and the green letters of Rolex, and its familiar logo, are secured to the rooftops using discreet but weather-hardy scaffolding that can withstand the city’s icy winter wind, known as la bise. “In many ways these signs tell the history of Geneva,” says Myriam Laugier, Force Promotion’s jovial directrice de clientele. “Neon itself was invented in 1910 and this city was quick to adopt the technology. The first signs went up in the 1930s.”

In a small industrial estate just outside Lausanne, the team at Néon-Lumière have just finished a new sign for watchmaker Richard Mille (the brand’s fourth in Geneva) and are working on restoring another in a yard filled with old signs. The owner, Tony Santangelo, who bought the business three years ago, says the process of making a rooftop sign is surprisingly manual. Every letter is a handmade freestanding metal box with a translucent Perspex cover. “Each one is traced from the designs, cut and moulded from sheet aluminium and then painted in the workshop.”

Though there are several sign-making workshops in this region with the word neon in the title, the real business of crafting these signs – where glass tubes are painstakingly handblown, shaped and then filled with different gases to give them colour – is an increasingly niche metier in Switzerland. “leds are taking over,” says Santangelo, waving a string of small modern bulbs. Despite this, some of the most stunning signs on La Rade still use traditional neon tubes, which are visible inside their casings. The sign owned by Swiss watchmaker Bedat & Co, for example, uses stunning azure-blue neons that have a depth and complexity that’s unrivalled by most of its led neighbours.

Though the technology may be shifting on La Rade, neon is still part of the city’s identity: Geneva is filled with beautiful examples of neon signage from the medium’s heyday in the mid-20th century. From the red sign of the popular Redo café to the much less salubrious pink hues of the Pâquis district, there is a penchant for eye-catching signs. La Rade itself is a mixture of historic buildings, bright lights and sublime views. It’s a curious diversity that reflects the civic mentality. “It’s a contradiction,” says Olivier Walker, a graphic designer who has just launched sign-painting business Studiomoderne, specialising in gilding. “We are conservative but we have to glow, to be international and interesting.”

Even so, Walker feels that there is space for more creative courage on La Rade. While many brands are producing their in-house lettering on a grand scale, he hopes that they will start to realise the power of handblown neon tubes to transmit a message that speaks of craftsmanship and quality. “This old craft of neon has real soul,” he says. “It’s a good match for watchmakers. I think now is the time to return to some of the old values of sign-making.”

Geneva’s residents have their own riposte to the commercial nature of the harbour-side illuminations. More than a decade ago the city and cantonal offices for the instruction of modern art came together to commission a series of installations that act as a conceptual counterpoint to the signs on La Rade. Rather than the lakeside, the signs were placed in the city’s Plainpalais. After a long period liaising with the private building owners here (and persuading them to lend their roof space), an international competition was staged. The first sign was a neon work by Geneva-born artist Sylvie Fleury that declared “Yes to All”. The most recent was commissioned in 2012 by the owners of an austere-looking private bank, Lombard Odier & Cie. It reads simply: “Dimanche”. It’s something of an anti-advertisment, playing on the idea of empty space that Sunday represents in a usually frantic sector.

The city’s delicate commercial-civic lights and letters still need careful stewardship, however. While the cmns does a stellar job regulating new signs, what stays on La Rade is determined by financial forces. Even the oldest, most-loved signs have no official protection. “Hans Leutenegger has recently decided to end his contract so we’re looking for a new marque for this spot,” says Daniel Berset, referring to a nine-metre-long rooftop and its jaunty yellow letters on the Quai Gustave Ador that locals cite as their favourite city marker. “Next week it will be gone.”

As the mayor of Geneva, Guillaume Barazzone, prepares to radically change the infrastructure of La Rade, reinstating some of the dozens of lidos that were here in the early 20th century, the city authorities might reflect on the nuances of typography and quality of light. These are the things that make all cities – but especially Geneva – such curious, twinkling urban patchworks.

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