Renewal, But a Loss Of Funk

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – February 29, 1988

Renewal, But a Loss Of Funk

Will a building boom make Times Square square?

Americans’ emblematic visions of their country incline toward the arcadian — cabins in a peaceable countryside, a small town with no entertainment wilder than a Sousa band in the park. But in this century, as the U.S. became an urban nation, New York City’s Times Square emerged as a different sort of American apotheosis. Times Square exemplified a certain idea of the city carried to its frenetic extreme: a few blocks dense with too many lights and too much action, a happy chaos of honky-tonk night life (the Florodora girls, Legs Diamond’s Hotsy Totsy Club), theatrical bliss (Barrymore’s Hamlet, the Marx Brothers) and the spontaneous razzmatazz of the rialto. There was a civic side as well: Times Square became the natural New York place for jubilation en masse, every New Year’s Eve and every time America won a war.

Those were the good old days. Tourists and all kinds of New Yorkers still come to the boulevards and side streets, and the Broadway theater still has its headquarters in the half-mile strip north of 42nd Street. With its theaters, odd shops and even odder people, Times Square remains a singularly exciting place. But the balance between high life and low life did tip for the worse during the 1960s and ’70s. Pornography merchants proliferated, and street criminals grew more brazen. Funk and festivity were too often edged out by rattiness and fear.

 Now, all of a sudden, the rattiness is being excised. And in the process, several other qualities seem in danger of disappearing too: the reasonable scale, the special romance and the sense of celebration. On the pretext of rescuing Times Square, much of what makes the neighborhood special is about to be denuded, the scores of small, old, higgledy-piggledy buildings replaced by a dozen shiny towers. Two weeks ago, the state gave approval to leases for four big, bulky skyscrapers designed by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, part of a $2.6 billion plan to redevelop 42nd Street. A few blocks away, on the northern side of Times Square, demolition is nearly complete on half a dozen other high-rise sites. Says Vincent Tese, the head of New York State’s Urban Development Corporation and the man in charge of the ambitious plan: “The dream is about to become a reality.”

 But which dream? Damon Runyon did not write stories about office workers. The would-be master builders of Times Square seem to be ignoring the lessons learned in scores of American cities during the past two decades, where downtown neighborhoods were ripped apart wholesale as a way to “renew” them. In almost every instance where a cluster of high-rise office towers replaces smaller commercial buildings, a kind of dead zone results. Street life becomes a daylight affair. “Look at 8 o’clock at night on Sixth Avenue,” says Actress Colleen Dewhurst, an antidevelopment activist, alluding to the dreary wall of high-rise office slabs a few hundred yards east of the theater district. “You find yourself running because you’re frightened. It’s spooky.”

 At least the buildings planned for the Times Square area are eclectic. Two are glassy towers designed by late-modernist architectural stars — one a rather awkward quasi-spiral by Kevin Roche, the other a larger, more elegant tower by Charles Gwathmey. Both, although not their architects’ best work, look to be at least as good as the run of new commercial buildings in Manhattan.

 The most problematic part of the Times Square redevelopment plan is the Johnson-Burgee complex, which will straddle the confluence of 42nd Street, Broadway and Seventh Avenue. The planned buildings are of varying heights (29, 37, 49 and 56 stories) but otherwise identical: grand colonnades, red and pink granite, glass mansard roofs. These will be hulking structures, with more than twice the square footage of the area’s current most egregious behemoth: John Portman’s 50-story Marriott Marquis hotel a few blocks up Broadway.

 Not that they will be unredeemed corporate fortresses. Most of the ground floors will consist of shops and restaurants. Furthermore, Developer George Klein has promised to install elaborate commercial signs on the facades. On 42nd Street, Klein and his partners at the Prudential Insurance Co. have agreed to acquire most of nine architecturally precious old theaters (many now showing sex-and-mayhem movies) and spend $9.2 million to renovate those that become nonprofit playhouses. (A new hotel and merchandise mart are also envisioned for the same stretch of 42nd Street.) Finally, Klein and company will spend $81.8 million to spruce up the surrounding sidewalks and overhaul the purgatorial Times Square subway station. “We can create the most extraordinary buildings in the city and create a sense of place there,” says Johnson. “It’s better to do it all in one spot than plop, plop, plop buildings all over Times Square. I should think it will be more important than Rockefeller Center.” Adds Burgee: “It’s a great opportunity to make a center where there is not a center.”

 There is already a center, though, and it is eponymous: Times Tower, originally the newspaper’s headquarters, stands on its own triangular island where the three streets come together. Built at the turn of the century, Times Tower (now One Times Square) was the odd but lovable younger sister of the classic Flatiron Building a mile down Broadway — until its terra-cotta exterior was ripped away in favor of a charmless white marble skin in the mid- 1960s. The dowager has been turned into a cheap mummy, yet the disposition of Times Tower remains an architectural cause celebre. Johnson and Burgee once proposed that the building be stripped down to its steel skeleton, gaily painted and lighted — a wry Piranesian folly absolutely perfect for the spot. What seems more likely, alas, is that the building will be demolished and replaced by a conventionally highfalutin plaza, monumental and mute.

 The great threat is that the redevelopers, because they are spending so much money and seeking to attract blue-chip office tenants in a soon-to-be-glutted market, will make this motley, redolent crossroads orderly and decorous — that they will make Times Square square. New York City planners, to their credit, have during the past year made an attempt to enforce preservation of some of the area’s glittery, hodgepodge character. Today Times Square has 29 “supersigns” composed of 200 miles of neon. The latest rules require that large, bright, animated versions be included on new buildings. A planned Holiday Inn on Broadway, designed by Architect Alan Lapidus, will incorporate supersigns in its structure. A whole 50-ft.-high sign could be plugged right into the facade.

 A good part of the ambience has derived from the presence of ancillary entertainment businesses: dance rehearsal studios, costume workshops and the like. Already such hole-in-the-wall firms are picking up and leaving the neighborhood — including, as of last year, the show-business newspaper Variety. One well-intended recent city rule requires that any new building in the area set aside 5% of its floor space for entertainment-related enterprises. However, as Architect Lapidus notes, “It is very hard to codify whoopee.”

 It is easier to codify building scale. In May the permissible height of new buildings along the major avenues will automatically be trimmed by a sixth. A building that could have risen 35 stories will be allowed only 29. More significant, the basic rule will stipulate that new towers along Broadway and Seventh Avenue have deep, low setbacks: only the first 50 to 60 ft. can be built out to the sidewalk; the rest of the structure must be set back at least 50 ft. The idea is to preserve a sense of openness, to create the illusion that the recently destroyed and about-to-be-destroyed low-rise buildings are still there.

 + The only buildings in the district that seem safe from imminent demolition are the 40-odd Broadway theaters. Most of those have now been declared landmarks under the city’s haphazard historic-preservation law. Yet since only some of these structures have truly distinguished exteriors, such no- exceptions landmarking seems wishful, almost fetishistic, as if the Broadway theater will be reinvigorated by preserving its quaint shell. “You’re landmarking many of the buildings that are old and obsolete,” says Producer James Nederlander, a co-owner of eleven theaters who plans to restore two more on 42nd Street. “A building gets old. What the hell are you going to do with it? You’ve got to demolish it, put something else up.”

 But the interiors are glorious, and as part of the Times Square mix, some sizable number of old-fashioned Broadway theaters is crucial. “They cannot be replaced today,” says Paul Segal, a past president of the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter. “They are unique in terms of their acoustics, their sight lines and their sense of intimacy. And also in their relationship to the street — how theatergoers spill out before and after the show and at intermission, and enliven the area.”

 Well beyond the prosceniums and box offices, Times Square is deeply theatrical. People come to any public place partly to perform, New Yorkers particularly, and in Times Square most of all. Sometimes the high-strung street life becomes a theater of the absurd, sometimes even a theater of cruelty, but the quirks and serendipity must be allowed to survive the earnest cleanup.

 For government planners, the great challenge of Times Square is ironic and unaccustomed: to specify the freewheeling appearance of unfettered development, to mandate a particular kind of commercial messiness, to regulate an unregulated look. John Burgee complains that “Times Square doesn’t have one single visual identity.” Exactly. As with circuses and carnivals, a certain incessant, amorphous teeming is the point. Times Square is supposed to buzz. It is supposed to swing.

 — Reported by Daniel S. Levy/New York