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Lane Rick: Writing ON Architecture: the signage of Times Square

Our writing, like our cities, outlives us. The inherent longevity of the written word, like the built form, informs our histories and relays information over centuries. But another, more temporary written language thrives in our cities in the form of advertising and wayfinding signage. These written elements appear and vanish with ease, a by-product of the ongoing dialogue between a city and its citizens.

The very essence of Times Square is defined by its signage, both now and in the past. Gaudy billboards crowd the elongated intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, replacing architectural facades with a 24-hour display of glowing words and images. Since the bowtie-shaped intersection was renamed Times Square in 1904, its electric signage has defined its urban identity and growth. Unlike buildings, signs are easily replaced with newer, more outstanding ones, which in turn cultivates an atmosphere of innovation rather than preservation, prefers the temporary to the permanent. At a time when New York is increasingly concerned with preserving its character and urban fabric, what does preservation mean when a space’s historic identity is about newness? The very adaptability of one of New York City’s most iconic public spaces means that efforts to preserve it must wrangle with the unusual process of maintaining its most consistently capricious element: the signage.

By the 1920s, Times Square was a thriving entertainment and cultural district. The already famous aggregation of neon signs and illuminated billboards, or ‘spectaculars’, in Times Square had cemented the district’s role as the sign-mecca of the city. In part due to the influence of theatres that profited from both Times Square’s reputation and a heightened street visibility of their marquees, a 1916 zoning ordinance was passed to permit the installation of large illuminated signs in the square, while restricting them in other neighbourhoods over concerns about the vulgarity of the lights and their tasteless endorsement of commercialism. Nearby Fifth Avenue businesses successfully lobbied the 1922 passage of a law that banned all projecting and illuminating signs along the entire street. With similarly tight regulations on spectaculars appearing across much of New York, electric signs increasingly concentrated in Times Square, where they were welcomed by the theatres that saw in illuminated signs both an opportunity to out-shine neighbouring competition and the cultivation of a bustling and thriving tourist attraction. As businesses sought to out-wow their competition, they installed bigger, brighter signs in a vicious cycle of one-upmanship. To this day, constantly evolving technology further accommodates the rapid obsolescence of the most interchangeable component of buildings and brands: the signs affixed to the facade.

The district’s identity emerged in the decades that followed precisely because of the absence of nostalgia among the theatre-managers and business owners that lined the intersection. The illuminated signs transformed the urban space, and in turn attracted more businesses and visitors, thus contributing to the bustling changeability of the district. The freewheeling evolution of entertainment and spectacle in Times Square only encountered preservationist forces after its rapid degeneration in the dilapidated context of 1970s New York. As economic decline and rising crime rates led to a widespread debilitation of the city, Times Square adopted a deviant subculture of hustlers, adult video stores, and peep shows. Regardless of the changing streetscape, the signs of Times Square remained a strong part of its character; plastic backlit panels and movie marquees replaced many signs, new neon signs that were installed advertised sex shops and peep shows in fluorescent colours. The intersection was still illuminated into the night, but with female silhouettes and racy titles of porn flicks instead of Coca-Cola bottles and Broadway shows. However, in the 1980s, the New York City Planning Commission worked with public and private interests to rehabilitate the floundering theatre district. Through eminent domain land seizures in 1982, landmark status designation for 28 of the district’s 44 theatres in 1984 and a comprehensive rezoning in 1986, Times Square was slated to undergo a total rehabilitation in the form of family-friendly entertainment in Broadway theatres, restaurants, and retail shops along the ground floors, and funded by office towers overhead.

To execute this manoeuvring act, the City Planning Commission consulted Robert A. M. Stern and graphic designer Tibor Kalman, whose ‘42nd Street Now!’ proposal oversaw the incorporation of signage in subsequent development of Times Square. The city approved massive glass office towers along the intersection, but required that each building mount illuminated signs on its facade, to preserve the district's character. This paradoxical gesture of preservation marks a disparity between Times Square’s architectural legacy and its cultural legacy. Unlike other historically-relevant neighbourhoods of New York, the architectural motifs were not deemed the most critical element of the district’s identity. Instead, it was the signs, which cover even those buildings that were landmarked for preservation. The 1987 Zoning Resolution was directed at fostering high-volume commercial and entertainment spaces in Times Square, and mandated the installation and upkeep of huge signs on the buildings’ facades and roofs. Signage regulations in most districts in New York City set a maximum area, height, or percent coverage for exterior signs, but Times Square follows the reverse condition: each building must exceed a robust minimum area of illuminated sign coverage, essentially ensuring that each building along the ‘bowtie’ has a 75-foot tall base of continuous signage.

Many of the buildings that were erected after 1987 display unusual efforts to incorporate the signage into the facades, often exceeding the minimum requirement by as much as 50%. The bands of LED screens on Gwathmey Siegel's 1585 Broadway alternate with horizontal windows, providing unobstructed views from inside the building. The drum-shaped corner of Fox & Fowle’s 4 Times Square accommodates its windows by wrapping a rounded screen about the facade and punching out the windows, leaving black squares scattered across the moving words on the facade. The subway stations are brightly advertised. In lieu of the recognisable green bulbs at the entrance, glittering lights spell out ‘subway’ above glowing medallions that mark the train lines that access the station. Even the pavement has words on it, bronze plaques that map the theatres of Times Square into an abstracted plan of the district.

The historic buildings, however, are no less extreme in their signage. The old New York Times Building at One Times Square can be better placed in history by its signage that its architectural form or facade. One of the earliest illuminated signs in Times Square was a news ticker, the ‘zipper,’ installed in 1928 near the base of the 25-story building, and to announce Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s victory in the 1936 presidential election, a two-story billboard of his face was installed on the facade. But with sign designer Douglas Leigh’s purchase of the building in the 1960s, the facade took on a new prominence, for he mounted over a dozen billboard panels to the exterior, and used them as a testing ground for new signs, including the famed smoking Camel sign and later, the steaming Cup O’ Noodles sign. As the building changed hands over the next half century, billboards were added and replaced, though the zipper remained, a subtle nod of preservation to the past. When Lehman Brothers bought the tower in 1996, they ran a cost analysis and concluded that more money could be made through wrapping the building in billboards than by renovating and leasing the relatively small office space on each floor. The building has been vacant since then, save the bottom three floors, which presently house a Walgreen’s, as though the drugstore’s very presence is an advertisement for the brand’s convenience and ubiquity.

The influx of capital that drives Times Square today has produced harsh accusations of ‘Disneyfication’ in an increasingly corporate urban space. Architects deride the tasteless corporatisation, and New Yorkers proudly avoid the tourist-heavy mobs, but the ongoing transformation of Times Square in fact reveals it as a unique urban typology, one that is inextricably tied to the signs that obscure the buildings behind them.

Times Square has always preferred the ostentatious to the nostalgic. By the 1890s it had already been nicknamed the ‘Great White Way’ due to its early adoption of electric street lighting. When vulgar spectaculars were banned in districts concerned with tasteful streetscapes, Times Square welcomed the illuminated signs with fervour. When economic decline pushed old businesses out of the district, theatres survived by showing porn films, replacing old marquees and ads with x-rated movie promotions and dancing silhouettes. With the arrival of the corporate financiers that upended the district  in the 1990s, Times Square acquiesced, exchanging its seedy shops and streetscape for Disney musicals and chain restaurants. With each transformation, the bright signs of Times Square continue to attract visitors. The district’s unifying element through decades of change has been twofold: culturally, it has adapted without losing its iconic peculiarity and distinction from the neighbourhoods that abut it; typologically, this has been possible because Times Square’s identity is not wed to its architecture and history so much as it is to the bustle of entertainment and the signs that promote it. Times Square’s very existence hinges on its disregard for its past, and its iconic identity thrives because of that, not in spite of it.

Times Square is still changing. In 2009, the 4-lane wide stretch of Broadway that passes through it was paved over and converted to a pedestrian plaza. Instead of honking taxi cabs, visitors can sit in chairs and benches that scatter the newly-formed plaza. The signs have evolved as well. John Portman’s 1986 Marriott Marquis Tower recently replaced the former collage of smaller signs on its facade with one massive LED screen, spanning as wide as a football field and stretching six stories high. In both its transformation and its preservation, Times Square has become a paradoxical icon of ephemeral newness. Its adaptability to new technologies and expectations has propelled it to evolve, but also reinforced its role as a shameless and immersive promoter of commercialism, entertainment, and advertising. People visit Times Square not for its architectural character, but for the glowing writing and imagery that hang off the glass and stone facades and compose the urban space, relegating the buildings to mere scaffolding. Even as Times Square changes, the illuminated billboards float overhead, a loud and colourful nod to the plaza’s history.

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