Times Square today is bright and crowded – the most visited place on the planet, filled with electric signs, entertainment venues and retail outlets. But thirty years ago, the future of Times Square was in limbo as residents, the City and developers sparred over how best to redevelop the area.
In the 1960s, Times Square and especially W. 42nd Street had become a symbol of urban blight, crime and seedy bars and sex shops. Numerous attempts at urban renewal failed, but in the 1980s, a new initiative of the City and State, the 42nd St. Development Corporation planned to offer skyscraper sites for development.
“The general decline, the crime and pornography was a terrible urban problem,” said Carol Willis, founder and curator of The Skyscraper Museum. “But there was a thought that skyscrapers would kill Times Square.”
[pullquote]There was a thought that skyscrapers would kill Times Square.
Carol Willis, The Skyscraper Museum[/pullquote]Many people championed clean-slate urban renewal but there was also an emerging philosophy of urbanism that favored history and preservation. In 1984 an alternative ‘ideas competition,’ organized by the Municipal Art Society and the NEA, drew more than 500 entrants, and the resulting exhibition of winners attracted widespread press attention.
Flash forward to New Year’s Day, 2014, during a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, Ms. Willis came across a couple of the original contest entries. “The nineteen-eighties is a period that The Skyscraper Museum hadn’t really covered historically yet. It’s not that long ago, and Times Square is such a rich topic, but I realized that if you look back just thirty years, none of the buildings that were planned were built, but they precipitated the conditions that would create the code for what finally did get built.”
Other community-organizing efforts by the MAS, architects, and diverse advocates altered the trajectory of establishment plans, both for Times Square and in the new zoning regulations that had recently been put in place to incentivize high-rise development in West Midtown. Preserving the historic theaters, maintaining the bright lights of Broadway, and protecting the openness of the area’s central ‘bowl of light’ by setbacks at the street level and mandated acres of colorful electric signage were goals achieved by widespread civic engagement.
After extensive research, Ms. Willis has reassembled twenty of the drawings of the Municipal Art Society’s juried competition, which she says represent a cacophony of architectural directions, from poetic musings, to irreverent one-liners, to theory-driven manifestos. The result is an exhibition called Times Square, 1984: The Postmodern Moment.
“When you look at the urban renewal plans, it was the skyscrapers that were conceived of that would save Times Square, because they were the economic development aspect that was intended to, and successfully did, throw off revenues from their success to fund the non-profit theatres that were going to be renovated. So the skyscrapers were this kind of dei ex machina.”
The Skyscraper Museum exhibit runs June 25, 2014 – January 18, 2015 at 39 Battery Place in Manhattan. For more information visit the Skyscraper Museum website: www.skyscraper.org.