True public space in Manhattan is hard to come by. While the streets, avenues and sidewalks are technically considered places for people to roam free, they’re also narrow, overcrowded and sometimes unsafe. That’s why New York’s newly revamped Times Square, 2.5 acres of pure, pedestrian-only public space is a revolutionary vision in the way the city sets aside room for non-vehicular traffic.
Yesterday marked the official opening of the completed Times Square Plaza, a project six years in the making and conceived out of a joint effort between the City of New York, the Times Square Alliance and the design minds behind its sleek new identity, the Norwegian-American architecture firm Snøhetta.
Although a construction completion ceremony was held last December just in time to usher in the new year, today’s event saw a large crowd gather in the middle of Times Square to hear from key leadership who oversaw the project. The day featured speakers, musicians from Broadway’s Aladdin and of course — in true Times Square style — a whole lot of confetti.
The new Times Square, at 148,442 square feet, introduces double the amount of public space previously in the area. In 2009, Broadway was permanently closed to car traffic, thus inciting the reconstructed character of the space. Today, the finished project reveals a more unified ground plane and monochromatic design throughout the plaza, one that also literally sparkles thanks to nickel-sized steel discs embedded into two-tone, concrete pavers that reflect the neon glow of LED signage around Time Square. A series of 30-to-80-foot-long granite benches also line Broadway, defining the plaza’s edges.
Snøhetta’s founding partner Craig Dykers detailed his team’s role in designing the new vision for the crossroads of the world in a conversation with Architizer. When speaking of the project, he made it clear that the design intention was “less about adding things and more about taking away.”
Sydney Franklin: Can you speak about the materiality of the space?
Craig Dykers: There are two types of concrete panels in the plaza set in a patchwork across the site so you’re never aware of one shape or color. They’re always mixing. Also, they’re on two different grids, one aligning with 7th Avenue and the other with Broadway. You’re also never fully aware of which street you’re on in the new plaza which was important to us because we don’t want you to feel that you’re just on Broadway. Times Square isn’t just Broadway. They call it a bow-tie.
How does the texture and tone of pavers reflect your overall goal of this new atmosphere for Times Square?
A big part of what we were doing was creating a sense of simplicity in essentially a very complicated place. This is counterintuitive. You would have thought the thing to do with Times Square was to make it even more energetic but we felt it needed a counterpoint to balance the energy that was already here. So we made the space monolithic and very simple. It’s a different way of thinking about design that’s open to new challenges and changes over time. In a place like Times Square, you can’t avoid the fact that people are going to change it no matter what.
What about the benches that essentially frame the plaza?
The benches are very sculptural and perhaps the most photogenic part of the plaza. You can see how the benches are meant to be used because they’re at different heights. They’re rounded to minimize damage and completed with slightly different finishes — rough where your shoes hit and smooth where you sit.
How did you come up with the shape of the benches?
We always knew that Times Square was filled with so many different types of people with so many different interests that no single design would accommodate everyone. So we made it in such a way that it would be open to different ways of sitting. We started to look at how people move and how they interact with objects.
Furthermore, the benches are almost like big geological features. Manhattan was built on top of strong, natural rocks that are native to this region, so we wanted the benches to be kind of a weird combination of functional design and an odd memory of the geological conditions that exist here. But to me, they look like parts of an old 1940’s car you’d see in a film noir with rounded edges and monochromatic tones.
Were all of these features ideas that you brought to the table at the beginning when presenting to the client?
All of these things had to go through a lot of review including the design of the crosswalks connecting the two sides of the plazas. Where there used to be too many traffic lights and too little crosswalks, we widened the crosswalk across the whole space and made this textured surface so cars driving over it will slow down a bit. We also designed solid granite curbs that don’t show as much ware. All of the blocks of stone around the edges were hand-laid, each weighing hundreds of pounds. These details were so important in ensuring this was the most pedestrian-friendly space we could design.
Times Square is now a more mature, glossier version of the famous plaza that’s been heralded for years as too busy, too dirty and dangerous. Because of Snøhetta’s forward-thinking design, its new distinctive look — prompted by a bolder three-dimensionality thanks to the use of unique materials and shapes — will enhance the experience of being in Times Square for local residents, workers and tourists alike.