But I was listening to the Band today as I wrote this story about Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick:
James Dean in Times Square 1955
My beef with the current state of Times Square is that when there is such a saturation of billboards, communication ceases to exist. When every advertisement screams at you, they cancel each other out and nothing remains memorable. over-stimulation = NO communication
I started reading “Learning from Las Vegas”, Robert Venturi’s analysis of the signage on the Las Vegas strip. He’s talking about how on the strip “communication dominates space as an element in the architecture and in the landscape.” The same dominance of signs occurs in Times Square at a pedestrian scale.
Times Square used to be called Longacre square and was renamed in 1904 when The New York Times set up their headquarters in the building at One Times Square (where the ball drops).
The original news ticker at One Times Square was installed in 1928 and first used to announce the results of the Presidential election of 1928. (Times Square was the place that New Yorkers gathered to get news and celebrate big events like the World Series or presidential elections.)
Starting after the Depression and through the 80’s, Times Square became known for it’s seediness. It was a den for pornography, prostitution, drugs and criminal behavior. New development in the 80’s started to clean up the area. That was when zoning regulations were made which require buildings to be covered in billboards to maintain the “authenticity” of the area.
Disney bought a space in Times Square in the 90’s and changed the profile of the area to be more of a family-friendly destination. Times Square was “Disneyfied”. Jane Jacobs would be horrified.
My first memory of Times Square was going to get fake ID’s with a couple friends in high school! Unfortunately I can’t find that photo, but need to see if someone has it.
The old billboards were spectacular – the Camel guy blowing the smoke ring, the Pepsi waterfall (both designed by Douglas Leigh) and the more recent Coke bottle with retractable straw and the steaming Cup of Noodles. Now all of the still and moving images blend together to create a monotonous scream of color and activity.
Times Square isn’t actually a square – it’s the crossing of two large avenues. The northern point is called Duffy Square, named after Father Duffy – LaGuardia dedicated it when he was mayor.
In the last few years Bloomberg started a program to make New York’s streets more pedestrian friendly and it’s really visible in Times Square. Huge areas are blocked off for pedestrians, which give people more space (and seemingly time) to stop and look around. Also, it makes travel times faster for cars because Broadway no longer chokes off the traffic coming down 7th avenue. Huh, I never would have guessed that closing roads would actually make traffic move faster, but it worked.
The Times Square alliance is also doing great work to get cutting edge artists to do installations and performances here. This is the beginning of getting real New Yorkers to visit this neighborhood but we still need good food, reasonable prices and possibly fewer flashing lights.
This neighborhood is also known as the theater district, and the theater is another place where you will rarely find New Yorkers. How to get more New Yorkers to see theater? Cheaper tickets? Waiting in line for three hours to get half-price tickets for the current shows is not fun.
In “The Experience of Place”, Tony Hiss talks at length about the unique atmosphere of Times Square, different from any other place in New York. The Reuters building and Ernst and Young building, high-rises built in the 80’s on 42nd street succeed in blocking out most of the afternoon sunlight in the Square. The northern part (Duffy square) is the only place that gets significant sunlight.
At night, architecture disappears and only signage is visible. So it removes the disjointedness between sign and building. Times Square actually works really well at night.
As I contemplate this project in Times Square I’m asking myself a few questions:
What if there was massive coordination of signage in Times Square? Or integration of signage with architecture? What if the advertisements in Times Square were entirely typographic and consisted only of beautiful letterforms? Maybe there needs to be a new height/size for billboards. We need to bring in white space – it’s a shame that so much money and energy is wasted on signs that can’t even be read.
In our lives over-stimulation results in a lack of communication. When everything is screaming at you, it’s difficult to bring meaningful personal content into the experience. If we simplify our surroundings do we actually get more out of it? Can we bring more of our own meaning when the visual noise is reduced? Beyond looking, what can people do with this visual stimuli? I could give people a blank slate and they can draw in their own images. If Times Square were more interactive it could add another layer of meaning. I could ask “What is your Times Square?”
From Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, Sal finds himself back where his journey began.
Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City. The high towers of the land–the other end of the land, the place where Paper America is born.