The Times Square we know today did not simply evolve towards ever bigger and brighter lights, but rather is the result of deliberately crafted design codes intended to produce a visually arresting environment – celebrating the advertising, commerce, and entertainment culture of New York through the use of bold, bright signs that can be seen as easily from across the street as on a television screen in Tokyo. The codes are the work of architect Robert A.M. Stern, hired by Mayor Ed Koch, who began in 1992 to develop design guidelines as part of a long-term plan to improve the seedy, dangerous, and declined “Crossroads of the World”.
The codes, known formally as the New York City Zoning Resolution for the Special Theater District , read like instructions for producing a crazy science fiction landscape. There are provisions regulating everything from sign size, illumination, animation, and visibility from key points in the square. One article reads, “each of the signs… shall have either: a minimum of 20 percent of its surface area continuously electrically animated either by means of flashing borders, writing, pictorial representations, emblems or other figures of similar character or by means of flashing sign surface area serving as a field or background thereto; or a minimum of 50 percent of its surface area continuously mechanically animated.” Elsewhere, the code provides instructions for creating a customized light meter with accompanying Times Square-specific lighting units: LUTS (Light Units Times Square). It is hard to find many other places where light is regulated so stringently and so specifically.
These highly prescriptive codes set out to produce an environment formed by light, in which light plays an unequivocal role: clear, constant, relentless, and above all, bright. It is the loudest, most bombastic announcement of American prosperity, and it is a wholly new luminous environment. However, despite efforts to manipulate light into confined limits, its wily behavior finds ways to cleverly subvert those intentions.
Amid this over-the-top environment, the modernist architectural glazing of the surrounding buildings becomes a slippery skin upon which Times Square’s illuminated signs reflect and reverberate. The light from a single sign is reflected in thousands of window panes, glazed storefronts, and glass curtain walls, and it mixes with reflected light from hundreds of other signs. Lights inside stores are overpowered by reflected light from outside; the resulting compositions on the glass challenge the tourist to see into the merchandise inside. Sometimes the transparent pane becomes almost opaque simply from reflections.
In contrast to the irrefutably informative illuminated signs, the reflections of those lights multiplied over the surfaces of windows and glazed facades produces the opposite: a thick atmosphere of light and color in which foreground and background become confused. Windows which are normally designated as the first enticing entrance into a store or company become obfuscated by the multiplied myriad of lights beyond. Instead of clearly expressing an identity, the building and the brand are engulfed by the ethereal environment around them.
Daylight also plays games with the show-stopping electrical extravaganza, toying with the Square’s strict configurations of time and illumination, and challenging the 5-minute animation loops. The constant change in lighting conditions throughout the day and seasons mean that it is never the same atmosphere as it was several minutes ago. Despite efforts to schedule the environment into regular, repetitive intervals, natural light counters with variability and variety. And daylight is responsible for one of Times Square’s biggest tricks: at certain times of day, the sun’s brightness completely overpowers the lights of even the biggest signs, and in one fell swoop, takes Times Square and turns it off.
Lighting design today, like architecture, is facing a new era of regulation. The increased use of computer simulations and the increasing importance of energy codes slowly changes the perspective on light into something much more quantifiable and less qualitative. Yet light, like all other elements of perception, resists that quantification. Through perception we are able to rediscover means and methods of conceptualizing space that have been temporarily forgotten amid the wave encouraging us to quantify our world. Times Square, perhaps unexpectedly, shows us that there are territories still to be uncovered.
Photo Credits: © Kera Lagios