Varying degrees of information blanket your personal space as you make your way through the connoted walls of Times Square. Signs, symbols, images, light, street performers, crowd of tourists, sounds, and vehicles …. confront you. Coca-Cola, Calvin Klein, Disney, Sony, NASDAQ, ABC, MTV….manipulate you. These encounters imply an interactive experience, one that is similar to the virtual space of the Internet just without the individual control of the journey.
Representing Times Square or any piece of it on a two-dimensional page whether as text or image creates an interesting dilemma. Redeveloping it as many have proposed in the past from its multiple vantage points with its simultaneous bombardment of image is even more fascinating. I was happy to have been given this opportunity to speak about such a place and not be constricted by the borders of the page. A presentation on the web allows for an interactive experience, one that replicates more precisely the space of hyper-information.
Jacques Derrida argued in Of Grammatology that "the end of linear writing is indeed the end of the book . . .that is why, beginning to write without the line, one begins also to reread past writing according to a different organization of space". Hyper-textural language can be read non-sequentially, it is interactive and it is spatial. The layers of linking information in this spatial way can be limitless. Information becomes codified and experience guided. Times Square has been fabricated out of this layering of information making it a potential zone for hyper-information exchange in the new informational city.
Architects of all discipline are now rendering their predictions toward the effect that the informational city will have at various scales in our lives. In the forefront of the discussion lies these question of what shape will future cities take:
How will new methods of communicating brought on by the Digital Age reduce the "physical" size of our world? Will the idea of Bigger being better apply?
How will we enlighten our conceptual understanding of exchange by means of electronic space to reach beyond that of mere goods and services? Will commercialization of goods change?
We will go beyond the formal technical requirements into the implied spatial layering for architecture of tomorrow? "Will buildings like information be dematerialized transformed into glass twinkling dust or light projections or will be left behind safeguarding some brick and mortar notion of reality?"
Will architecture remove itself as a proper reciprocal of real estate propositions and step forward to take responsibility for planning practices?
In short the purpose of this is to elucidate Times Square and realize its potential as a zone for Global Information Exchange by rendering links that will enunciate discussion about these questions we are posing on broad issues which will effectually transform our cities in the near future.
Real and Virtual Assembly Space
Proximity, Context and Place
Space of Flows - Organization vs. Codification
Growth of Signs
Hyper-Space - Compression of the Sign.
Real and Virtual Assembly Space
"Marshall McLuhan, author of War and Peace in the Global Village, suggested in 1964 that "today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned". McLuhan was speaking of the changes brought about by media such as television, but his argument applies equally well if not more suitably to Virtual Space and the Internet.
As the exchange of information becomes commodity the Assembly Space of the urban center will be transformed into Media Center. The world stage is being constructed and through use of the video screen, the new media apparatus, connected to the Internet, the urban center will become the portal to the 'Global Information Exchange'. This exchange is a virtual space where global communities will assemble locally, informationally.
In the early 1990's President Clinton along with the media unknowingly demonstrated the disconnect between "real" and "virtual" assembly with their choreographed electric town hall meetings. The idea of the virtual meeting place is denotative of the democratic ideal however; "can we say that 10 million people watching the President have in any meaningful way, met? It is a question with deep implications for Architecture"(1). Can architecture make real the virtual spaces of the digitized world?
(1) Sorkin, Michael. "Meeting Places". Progressive Architecture 4/1993 p.106-7
Proximity, Context and Place
The typology of space one might occupy in the Digital Age is changing. This is threatening to the sensory feel of architectural space, however, it is important to remember that changes in technology, which initially dismissed the significance of proximity, context and place, also ushered in the transformations brought about by modernism. The transformation of society at the turn of the 20th century pales in comparison to the global transformations of today. Architects at that time examined changes being brought by technology, in particular structural engineering. The pure geometry of early modernism was a response to the "machine age" ethos. These changes also fundamentally affected culture. It was enlightenment through technology.
However, at the same time, changes in culture tend to form a veil of nostalgia that presides over the elitist circle. When fear of change set forth by the bourgeois finally trickles down through society a rupture ensues. We saw this happen during the advent of the Industrial revolution in 1820, then in 1917, then again in 1939 and finally in 1989 when the Berlin wall collapsed. This final time however, the collapse was marked by information not fear.
In particular when applied to sensuous architectural space, the contradiction between technical advance and the nostalgic view, as it has in the past, creates anxiety for architects. "Can anyone doubt that our ability to produce more pervasive virtual space will threaten spaces of palpability and touch, the materiality, the physicality of building?"(1). We should look to the past only to find that momentous change when seen as guiding not as impeding can only aid us in creation not stifle it.
(1) Sorkin, Michael. "Meeting Places". Progressive Architecture 4/1993 p.106-7
Space of Flows - Organization vs. Information
"No architect has ever designed a bank, or a university, for that matter. They have designed only the physical shell that houses them. Banks and universities have an informational structure and content more marvelous by far than any architect can depict or has yet needed to."(1)
The informational structure Michael Benedikt speaks of is a space of information. This new spatial paradigm for architecture will be made from a “Space of Flows”. The spatial patterns determined by informational processing activity will result in spaces characterized as a network whereby planning will be determined by information flows. Interaction between spaces will be made in response to these flows of information rather than in organizational schemes. Reconfiguration and modification will be the dominant strategies for the planning of space. The process is now interactive and the flows multidirectional.
In this informational mode of planning and development a flexible, pervasive, integrated and reflexive spatial order rather than additive evolution will prevail. Informational systems transform the city into scaffold where “Places” become “Flows”. Manuel Castells author of The Informational City and The Rise of the Network Society writes of how information processes will reorganize space and time in the network society. "The new spatial order is a "space of flows" quite different from the "space of places" to which we have been accustomed. People still cluster in specific locales, but these clusterings take their shape from their involvement in global networks. Consider the City of London. The City has been in roughly the same area for many years. It would seem there is a simple continuity from the 19th century to the present day. For Castells, however, this is not so. The changing physical structure of the City over recent years, with its dazzling variety of unorthodox architectural creations, is now dominated by its position in global electronic money markets. London, New York and Tokyo form a financial trading network, carrying on an endless series of transactions. Physical proximity and highly concentrated transactions remain important and even acquire increasing significance - but they have their origin in globalized information flows. They are no longer "places", where "place" is defined as a locale, the form and meaning of which are contained within its boundaries."(2)
As the city is a node of the global network, gathering places of the city are nodes of the network. Within these nodes are "parcels or packets" of informational spaces. Historically the City Square was a broadcast mechanism where information flows spread between people. Today these same spaces have become filled with manipulative mechanisms as discussed in Growth of the Sign, which are not broadcast mechanisms but advertising mechanisms. These mechanisms resolve a cultural homologation but not an informational one. For example in Times Square the parcels of information, i.e. the sign/signboard/billboard, are informational but the spaces between are not. To make the square informational is to amend the space between that space which may be considered as the "flow". To control this "flow" is to interpret the space as a compression of signs.
(1) Benedkt, Michael, 1993, Cityspace, Cyberspace, and The Spaciology of Information.
(2) Anthony Giddens reviews Manuel Castells The Rise of the Network Society in "The Times Higher", December 13, 1996
Thanks to "the democratization of information, thanks to satellite dishes, the Internet and television we can now see through, hear through, and look through almost every conceivable wall" both figuratively and literally. This presumably intensifies the architects' trepidation, but to the contrary, this free flow of information through virtual space not only excites the need for architecture, it also assures the future of democracy, especially in the city.
Growth of the Sign
Times Square connects all aspects of communication in one space - the metaphoric "Gross Roads of the World". Here the act of communicating goes far beyond the written or spoken world. The square with its publishing houses, theaters and then cinemas attracted many to a stage whose curtain of sign/signboard/billboards entertained, informed, and influenced the evolution of culture. The transformation of this space over time has created one of the most recognizable symbols for societal exchange in the world. Times Square represents communication as a by part of culture, and presently promotes the possibility for expanded global communication manifest within the urban fabric. It is a place "where the video screen becomes both window and doorway."(1)
Before there were buildings in Times Square there were signs and these signs' messages have
The signlsignboardlbillboard advertising is a language of images. It is the action of visually calling
something to the attention of the public, especially by paid announcements.
"If the language of images, which acknowledges no boundaries, needed translation, if it possessed the complexity and potential flexibility to give things a name - a characteristics of natural languages - the problem of intemationaiization and globialization would be solved. However, as we all know, images are read according to blocks of meaning and are recognized by means of analogical mechanisms; and these prerogatives lay down the objective limitations of visual communications and its instrumental exploitation in the production of (generalized) thought."
Therefore, images that are able to be "decoded" (reread) by people in all industrialized geographical areas are those images that are anti-analogical interpretive. "The widespread possibility of anti-analogical interpretation will gradually produce a kind of cultural homologation on both an international and global level. The process of homologation has received considerable impetus from the technological images." "Technological images have become the real social experimenters on the basis of this new common language. The possibility for simultaneous broadcast as a means of visual communication is only one of the outcomes, (which has yet to be fully utilized interactively in Times Square or anywhere around the world). Visual information technology has been affected by means of what we could term an individual rapport between source and receiver (allowing for a private event to become more public and part of the urban fabric).
According to the ideas of globalization or internationalization to whom you are advertising to, from where you the advertiser is coming from, is not top priority. Even what you are advertising is generalized to allow for this process of cultural homologation. The idea of simultaneity affords this. It gives the advertiser a home base as an international connector.
One of the first examples toward a kind of cultural homologation occurred in Times Square when Sony located their jumbotron on the Times Tower. It allowed for the possibility of simultaneous broadcasting on an international and global level. The jumbotron is an inconspicuous advertisement for Sony. It presently acts as a displayer of many different kinds of live and prerecorded information, from political and social issues that transcend racial differences, native cultural issues, political ideologies, to traffic, weather reports, and pure entertainment events. It also calls to the public attention the desirable quality of Sony's capabilities in their industry of electronics so as to arouse a desire not only to buy its products but to also participate in its investments. Sony's jumbotron almost advertises without advertising.
(1) Sorkin, Michael. "Meeting Places". Progressive Architecture 4/1993 p. 1 06-7
Compression of Signs / Hyper-Space
What do the spatial compression of signs offer collectively?
"On television, commercial messages are separated by segmented programming and can get zapped by the remote control button. Along the highway, they occur in a linear sequence that recedes swiftly from view. In Times Square, on the other hand-whether experienced on foot or from a slow moving car or bus-spatial compression makes the messages almost simultaneous. In the kaleidoscopic barrage of imagery, the identity of the message's sender, still less the message, ceases to signify. Ultimately, the messages deplete each other's meaning, canceling each other out. As a system of hyper signification, Times Square becomes an ecstatic display of cacophonic and mutually negating communication vectors. Only the code itself-festive metalanguage of late capitalist hegemony-remains operative."(1)
In "The Growth of the Sign", the emphasis was that in order for products to reach broader markets, the multi-cultural markets, advertisers have to deal with cultural differences by searching to create new signs, void of associations, not only for the products base company but also for the products message; and inessence derive a new language of signs or a new multi-cultural culture. In the "Compression of Signs", Joan Ockman's observations derive from the same principals as in "The Growth of the Sign" only to add what happens when - "the identity of all the message's sender"(s) -i.e. a sender like Sony, "still less the message" - advertises without advertising and ceases to signify?
The example of Sony's initial means of visual communication through simultaneous broadcast can only grow into a codified and guided experience, similar to the interactive experience of the Internet -what we are calling a kind of Hyper-Space of global information exchange. The time/space sequence of these messages will constantly reinvent themselves, therefore calling for new flexible spatial relationships.
At the scale of the square, Joan Ockman declares "The Babel of signification, which ends up producing one giant signifier: Times Square, the Place."(1) The transformation of this place from the publishing center, into theater, into cinema, into "Sin City", into media circus, into hyper capitalism, and finally into the capitol of global information exchange explains its cultural significance. These transformations took hold in broad steps, but unlike most transitional zones in cities where places became programmed about a singularity, Times Square throughout its history and transformations, has retained elements of each transcending program. It is this overlapping stimuli, which has made Times Square a place of over signification and hyper-reality.
Joan Ockman declares there are two scenarios of development taking place. "One is what might be called the late-modern, left-intellectual, tragic scenario. In this reading, the crisis of signification engendered by the hyper-reality of the commercial messages, the crisis of authenticity provoked by the decontexturalization of historical meaning and the patronizing mythography of Main Street, and the crisis of public culture provoked by puerile entertainment values and puritanical sexual ones will inevitably lead to boredom, cynicism, and even belligerence."(1) The significance of place is rooted in history and negation of this paradigm can disrupt the value of a given place.
The second scenario of development "takes the collapse of meaning engendered by Times Square's frenzied carnival of excess communication, the radical shock of the shift from sin to sign - a shock perhaps as great as anything the avant-garde ever devised; Disney! Times Square!! - as potentially liberating"(1) The mesmerizing stimuli created by the overt consumerist spectacle overwhelms the possibility of sanitation. The hyper-information inundates the senses to the degree that the resultant hypnotic gaze induces sensual indulgence.
"Obscenity begins when there is no more spectacle, no more stage, no more theater, no more illusions, when everything becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication. We no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication."(2)
The plans for Times Square that are taking hold today are partly representatives of New York's practice of Real Estate markets dictating Architecture. The New 42nd Street Development, headed by Robert Stern, describes "the current plan as being the first in history that took a mandate legislative on vulgarity." And "when Disney came in because Stern brought in Eisner to see the deteriorating Amsterdam Theater, people began seeing the departure of past "vulgarities" and a new pure family entertainment-base plan." An attempt of a kind of "decontexturalization", as suggested in this first scenario.
In reality both scenarios existed at some point, at some level, but it was never all Disney as the second scenario suggests. "Disney is but one in a group of media giants that have settles here. Besides Conde Nast, publishers of the New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair and other glamorous tittles, the group includes Reuters, Bertelsmann, Billboard Publications and MTV, have settled here with Viacom, whose presence has history. Times Square has always connected all aspects of communication as a by part of culture and today with the large number of media giants that have, the process of cultural homologation can evolve. Whether intentional or unintentional we have already seen Times Square extend its media presence along Broadway with Time Warner/AOL taking Columbus Circle.
Rebecca Robertson who directed the 42nd Street Development Projects through the years, reminds us " that at any time when the market hit, that (current plan) would have been the plan that got built." The major proposals of 1982 for 42nd Street requested developers to invest in a huge merchandise mart, one of, which was designed with a rather massive tower by KPF Architects. Another proposal of the same period, most recognized was that of Philip Johnson and John Burgee which designed for classical corporate identified towers around the Four Corners of Times Tower, negating signage as element of the structures. "This current plan is surely preferable to the hulking quartet of nearly identical corporate towers originally planned. Unless it's not. For despite the great differences in the architecture, signage and market niche, the new Time Square is now fused with a sense of sameness of homogenized spectacle", the second scenario." In terms of the architecture that exists now they are good examples of adapting to a system of commercial building. The buildings are a layering of armatures for commercial signs, lets hope the sign messages grow.
(1) Ockman, Joan. "From Sin City to Sign City" A+U May 1999 p. 6-10
(2) Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication, Semiotext, NY, NY 1987. p.21.