If you didn’t already know: prior to several sales and modifications, One Times Square, or the New York Times Building, was a dramatically different structure. Initially, it appeared as if you’d stacked three different buildings atop one another: the bottom like a severe Palazzo rise, the third a triumphal arch motif with a sidling blind arcade, and the third a sort of castellated faux-Gothic tower. What was perhaps most remarkable about the building’s facade was its height combined with its thinness if you were coming at it along 7th Avenue. As a strangely stretched out joining of styles culminating in an ornate crown, it is otherwise very much in line with the typology of the earliest skyscrapers. In the middle of this second image you can see the building after an extensive remodeling during the 1960s by Allied Chemical. Everything has been smoothed down, and the fenestration is elongated arches punched into sheer surfaces. In both comparisons, the image on the right — my point of focus here — is pretty much what you see today. Architecture has dissolved under a towering “Salon” of corporate imagery, by and large installed during the mid-’90s upon being purchased by a financial services firm. To me, this progression is incredibly illustrative of how buildings can reflect and reinforce cultural values. To be clear, I’m not focusing on One Times Square as it is now because it alone is illustrative, nor am I using the comparison to stir up romantic feelings about a Once-Upon-a-Time past which never existed.
What is conceptually compelling to me about the current building is that despite, or perhaps partly due to, the obscuring of the actual architecture it is so powerfully representative of extant, widespread pathologies. For decades now, following the standardization of television sets in people’s homes, we have lived in a world where a screen, and one’s appearance on it, has been the metric by which an individual was legitimized. This is one of those modern paradoxes: only through artifice can “reality” occur. Today, the computer screen and the endless material of the internet has mostly supplanted the television screen, yet a screen it remains. In the stead of terms like “movie star” or “rock star” we have “influencer” or “content creator.” Filmic dissemination has become democratized — switch over to your phone’s camera option, start filming, and then upload it wherever in the span of a minute — and people have taken that standard of legitimization into their own hands. In this climate, the aspiration is to have a certain amount of numerically quantifiable yet abstract followers, to engage those followers daily with predictable content (one’s personality — their “brand” — can be seen as comprising that content; the more easily reducible, the better for the memes), and to have corporate sponsorship.
Corporations have grown so enormous, influential, and untouchable that they have acquired a super-parental or deific status. People will eagerly describe themselves foremost as a “Marvel Cinematic Universe fan”, and cheer when the movie of the corporation they’ve allied with makes however many hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars more than the other, as if one behemoth’s victory of profit is a victory for the individual. Insatiable consumerism is what these corporations want, and it’s what they get, to the extent that it is considered a radical act of self-love to “reward” ourselves by purchasing items when we feel hollow. All the easier for corporations to make calculated gestures to reveal their “humanity” and thus acknowledge the humanity of their Consumer Base. This can manifest as graphic designers editing the coloration of logos or text to be green to imply corporate concern for environmental consciousness; or as the maintainer of Wendy’s Twitter account engaging in sassy play-fights with other fast-food accounts, to the delight of onlookers; or simply as “relatable” meme-awareness. For example:
In 2019, Hulu introduced a new ad format for binge-watchers. A brand runs ads during the first and second episodes of a binge-watching session that include jokes and references to binge-watching. Before the third episode, the brand rewards binge-watchers by running an ad that features a special promotion or announcing they will be able to watch the next episode without commercial interruptions.
Commercials themselves are now their own form of entertainment. An upcoming Super Bowl is potentially as exciting for the prospect of the game as it is for the advertisements, often compiled and uploaded to YouTube for separate viewing. The Electronic Entertainment Expo, inaugurated in 1995, is largely a slew of advertisements catering to brand loyalty, and although there has come to be a significant demographic which, armed with sarcasm, obsessively views and comments on the yearly broadcasts, there seems to be ignorance of the fact that, nowadays, any exposure is good exposure. Performative flubs are just another thing for a corporation to embrace and integrate as a meme, reaping the rewards of reactive self-consciousness (again — it’s that gesture of “humanity”). Hate-viewing and its opposite cease being distinguishable. The prevalence of commercials extends to the act of leaving a television or internet channel on even if we aren’t paying attention. We allow this tinny din to occupy our sonic space both because it conveys perpetual activity — a sort of substitute for the urban bustle of pedestrians — and because we are terrified of silence. We are so used to having our hearing violated and imposed upon that we do it to ourselves to maintain that aberrant normality.
It is then no wonder that the Ones Times Square building, and the whole of Times Square, has become an international icon and a tourist destination. Here, all of those pathologies are perfectly, forcefully exploded onto a single location with the fragmentation so characteristic of the modern city; here, we find a contemporary, sarcastic echoing of Theophile Gautier’s description of the Paris Opera, designed by Charles Garnier, as “a sort of mundane cathedral of civilization where art, wealth, and elegance celebrate their most beautiful rites”; here, as Siegfried Kracauer and John Walker have observed, is an entertainment confined to surface appearances, where the eye delights in the “easy recognition of identifiable visual icons and emblems”, and where the pleasure of advertisements is not the effect of a deep structured symbol system or an architectural parlance, but that of “ordinary and anonymous views […] repeated again and again [until] they become formal patterns abstracted and closed off from any critique.” If Times Square is a theater, then the play is one of consumer choices, a play that has sustained itself since the 1960s and ’70s when the city as landscape and site of activities was redefined by the accelerating structures of consumption, no longer seen as threats.
Contrary to the largely antagonistic relationship between modernist architects and the public, whether expressed theoretically or in actual urban development, there has been a postmodernist ambivalence about an architecture of consumerism. Architects like Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, and Steven Izenour prescribed ideas such as buildings being “decorated sheds” in texts like Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning from Las Vegas. The problem with these prescriptions is that, as Charles Jencks notes, not only do they fail to develop a symbolic theory so that aesthetic discrimination may occur; and not only do they carry with them a certain ironic condescension towards the populace by determining that, since things are the way they are, this is what people spiritually desire or require; but they also reestablish the narrow “rationality” of the modernists by setting up false binaries, where the choice is limited to the snobbery of a monolithic historical architecture (the Tragic) and the supposed democracy of a Las Vegas lightscape (the Comic). Even when this condescending acquiescence is followed through on, the “inclusivity” still hinges upon classist reservations. Compare the symbols and implications of Venturi and Rauch‘s Vanna Venturi House to those of their Guild House: the Venturi House, Dell Upton writes, “however ironized, enshrined a respectful middle-class self-definition, while the Guild House ironized but endorsed a view of its tenants as the detritus of consumerist society, prey to the developer’s tawdry deceptions and enslaved to television.”
During 2020, as our time spent outside became more infrequent and precious, I wonder how people might have reviewed engagement with their environments. What do you look for when you go outside now? Did you not even have that privilege last year, and were your outdoor excursions solely getting to and returning from your workplace? When most avenues of commerce are closed off, what does “urban life” mean? What pleasures and displeasures are newly evident to your passive and active sensibilities?