February 1, 2008
The Thrill is Gone
Searching for the lost soul of Times Square amid the Jumbotrons and theme restaurants.
You know that scene in the movie I Am Legend where Will Smith (playing the last man on Earth) and his German shepherd (playing the world’s last good dog) go deer hunting in a depopulated Times Square? Well, to my urbanist-geek way of thinking, the most impressive aspect of this masterpiece of computer-generated cityscape is that the new TKTS booth, currently under construction, plays a pivotal role in the action. How is it that before the whole human race perished from a nasty viral infection (or was transformed into obnoxious zombies) we still had the presence of mind to complete a lovely public amenity, the long-neglected winner of a 1999 design competition?
In real life the new TKTS booth has been a long time coming. The old TKTS booth on Father Duffy Square, a glorified traffic island at the north end of Times Square, was a desperate 1970s attempt to infuse a little culture in the form of half-price tickets to Broadway shows into an urban environment so stubbornly seedy that it might as well have been populated by zombies. The 1973 model was a trailer surrounded by piping (originally rented by the month) that supported squares of canvas painted with the abbreviation “tkts” in lowercase Helvetica: very iconic, very 1970s. The new booth, based on a winning design by Australian firm Choi Ropiha and executed by New York architecture firm Perkins Eastman, features a white pod-shaped box office tucked beneath a set of south-facing red steps supported by structural glass.
According to Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, the organization that tends to the well-being of the neighborhood, the TKTS booth was originally scheduled to be up and running in time for New Year’s Eve 2000. Then, revived in 2003, it was supposed to be completed last year, but the process was slowed by engineering challenges. “No one’s made structural glass panels this large,” Tompkins explains. Now he insists that the booth will be done “at the end of spring.” “Like May or June?” I ask. Tompkins demurs. With luck it will be done before a virus wipes out the species.
What I realize when Tompkins lets me inside the construction fence that currently rings Duffy Square is just how cool this new piece of civic architecture will be. I’m thrilled that there will be a place in the middle of Times Square where I can stop, sit down, and study the spectacle (though I fully realize it’s not considered normal for actual New Yorkers to visit Times Square intentionally).
I’ve always loved Times Square. One of my earliest memories is of sprawling across the backseat of the family car, stuck in traffic, and looking up at a giant man blowing smoke rings. More recently, when the New York Road Runners introduced a route for the NYC Half-Marathon that would take runners around Central Park and down Seventh Avenue, and then west on 42nd Street, I ran the race even though I hadn’t been training for the 13.1-mile distance, deciding that the sensation of running through Times Square would be like Gatorade for the runner’s soul, magically propelling me to the finish line at the southern tip of Manhattan. It didn’t disappoint.
Even in the mid-1990s—as the four office towers at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue were beginning to rise, and the condemned strip of porn theaters on 42nd Street was giving way to the big mainstream multiplex movie theaters, McDonald’s, Madame Tussauds, and The Lion King, when everyone seemed to be railing against Disneyfication—I was upbeat. The strategy devised by Rebecca Robertson—then head of the 42nd Street Development Project, assisted by architect Robert A. M. Stern and graphic designer Tibor Kalman—that would codify Times Square’s flashy aesthetic in a way that developers could understand (much as the LEED standards have made environmentalism accessible to developers) was brilliant in the way it transformed a perceived liability, the area’s native tackiness, into an asset.
A decade ago I wrote that Times Square was the one place in the creaky architectural backwater that was New York to “explore the marriage of architecture and electronic technology, of form and image, that is emerging as the defining style of the early twenty-first century.” I wasn’t wrong. But the architectural environment of the city has loosened considerably since then, and now we have a lot of experiments in form and materials. And bright video screens, big and small, are a fixture of everyday life.
So Times Square was the future—but now I’m starting to wonder if it’s the past. Do we still need a district dedicated to overstimulation for overstimulation’s sake in today’s environment? In the 1990s Robertson came up with a way to institutionalize the Times Square look, mandating illuminated signage on every building—corporate tower, hotel, or discount store—and rescued Times Square from the most extreme form of aesthetic cleansing. The end result is not as bad as critics feared; even Marxist social historian Marshall Berman acknowledges in his 2006 book, On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, that “the thrill’s not gone.” Nevertheless, Times Square, which we still imagine is the hub of the theater district, is now the epicenter of branding, its vitality dependent on the creative brio of the advertising industry. And branding, at this moment, is less a matter of originality and more a matter of claiming turf, whether that turf is a Times Square Jumbotron, a wee cell-phone screen, or the spot that blocks the paragraph you’re trying to read on a Web site. I’ve always loved Times Square, but I’m sick to death of branding.
I try to express my concerns to Tompkins, who acknowledges that though Times Square is “one of world’s great public spaces, it doesn’t feel that way at all.” But his issues are different from mine. While part of his organization’s stated mission is to “nurture” the area’s “creativity, energy and edge,” he is best able to address problems like “streetscape schlock” (the proliferation of ugly, random bits of street furniture) or “pedlock” (the tendency for pedestrian traffic jams).
The alliance has done endless studies devoted to improving the pedestrian experience. Enthralled by the European “shared-space” movement, Tompkins has already worked with the city’s Department of Transportation to implement changes that will make the skinny islands that separate Seventh Avenue from Broadway more alluring to pedestrians. The most recent set of recommendations comes from a “Bowtie Development Design” group that includes firms such as Rogers Marvel Architects and the graphic designers of Doyle Partners. Likely changes include some sort of distinctive pavement pattern that will better help to define the square that isn’t really a square and possibly help pedestrians claim some of the pavement that currently belongs to cars.
A noble effort, but it’s still about surfaces, and Times Square will only regain real “energy and edge” if there’s something there that’s deeper than the signage, something that might attract and hold the attention of New Yorkers. Oddly, it’s only now that I’ve figured out what Disneyfication really means: it creates a neighborhood defined by its facades rather than what takes place behind the walls. It’s only now that, lured into the Times Square M&M’s World by its exceptionally beautiful animated signs, I’m reviled by the merchandise, roughly the same pointless souvenirs they sell at M&M’s Worlds in Las Vegas. Maybe it’s the lingering effect of that Will Smith movie, but I’m wondering now how a neighborhood can appear so crammed with people and visual stimulation when, in truth, nobody’s home. So my plan for late spring is to find a spot on those red bleachers and ponder whether I can still love Times Square for its overwhelming superficiality in a world where overwhelming superficiality is the norm.
Courtesy Andrew Prokos Photography