New York

“Times Tower Competition”

Municipal Art Society

With no discernible discrimination, empty sites, urban dilemmas, and building campaigns become causes for invitational and open architectural competitions. The competition is perceived as the easy solution to the problem; we are discovering, however, that the answers it provides are often formulated on scant and superficial information. The Times Tower Competition exhibition, cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, was entertaining and occasionally amusing, but its absence of rigor and innovation was disturbing. The incentives to mount an exhibition seemed more urgent than the desire to unravel the complex history and destiny of Times Square. Walking from entry to entry felt like attending a comedian’s talent night, with one predictable punchline hard on the heels of another. Perhaps the premise of real construction is necessary to fulfill the promise of competition; without it, cliché supercedes invention.

No restrictions or guidelines were imposed on the submissions to this juried competition, but they were judged with the criteria that the site should be occupied by a building; that the edifice should respect the wedge-shaped contours formed by Seventh Avenue and Broadway; and that it should be multi-use and accessible to the public. This confusion was emblematic of the formlessness of the competition’s premises and results. The exhibition included only a small percentage of the hundreds of entries, yet one can presume that the selection was a representative grouping. Almost all of the proposals dealt with obvious, reflexive images of Times Square—night and lights, movies, sex, and nostalgic recollections of the original Times Tower built by Eidlitz & Mackenzie in 1904.

One of the winning proposals, by William F. Schacht (for Lockwood Greene Architects & Engineers, with Cassandra McGowen), is a recreation of the original Times Tower in translucent white fiberglass. Through a complex program of interior lighting, the building can flicker, flash, and glow; its base would be a grand public space. Frank Lupo’s and Daniel Rowen’s winning submission strips the existing building down to its structural frame; the top of the northern apex of the frame supports large swinging-door-like video screens that would open and close for spectaculars.

Three of the most fanciful schemes were the most engaging. Michael Monsky’s Liberty at the Crossroads, 1984, shows the Statue of Liberty dejectedly sitting against her pedestal, having surrendered her crown and tablet. Monsky very directly undercuts the imagery of Times Square with this reminder of failed dreams and forgotten promises for the tired and weary. In a ludicrous vein, Fredric Bell, Roger Finney, and Bonnie Harken set up the prow of the Normandie in Times Square; this magnificent installation is documented in a mock-up of the front page of The New York Times which includes quotations from Ed Koch, a review by “Paul Golddigger,” and photographs of the monument and of a trio of perplexed sailors. And in a literary tale that is both fable and myth, Christopher Genik and Peter Waldman chronicle a sewage purification network that not only proposes improvement in quality of life, but introduces a notion of time, passage, and ritual to this most urban of sites and circumstances.

The Times Tower Competition and exhibition were a muddled compendium, yet the message was clear. The future of all cities is uncertain. Once artificial and manipulable, they now seem to operate by organic impulses, and with a momentum beyond control and comprehension. Times Square is a small parable in a larger tale. It will take energy, conviction, and inspiration to face urban problems and to build a communicative landscape; one recognizes that architectural competitions have limited intentions and expectations, but when something very broad and profound is attacked as superficially as it was here, there is a problem.

Patricia C. Phillips