Leni Schwendinger in Times Square

I was thrilled to receive a message from Dietrich Neumann, whose “Architecture of the Night” has inspired so many. He indicated that he had hoped to attend the Bryant Park, NYC LightWalk one year ago, but had been waylaid, and that now, very soon, he planned to bring his students to Times Square… and wouldn’t I take them on a LightWalk?

As serendipity would have it, I have been studying the Square, for the Light Projects role as lighting consultants for the Times Square Pedestrianization project on the Snohetta-led design team.

Times Square is only zone that I know of that has a minimum lighting/signage requirement which has resulted in the mandate of brighter is better.  Here are large scale panels of  light communicating in an ever-advancing, electronic graphic-design language.  The effect is awesome, that is, mesmerizing – a free drive-in movie on foot.

Some History

The billboards of  20th century Times Square were more dimensional, formed and handcrafted. Novelty is still an important part of the light signs, but the novelty resides in graphic code and the signs are flat or skinning the facades of buildings. This Artkraft Strauss “Vintage Times Square Signs” video from 1920’s to 1960’s illustrates the technological shifts in sign design.  And from the New York Times, 2006, the denouement; an auction of signs and design sketches; Neon Nostalgia From Times Square to Be Sold by Sign Maker.

“The days of the handcrafted neon spectacular are pretty much gone with the 20th century. We built all these one-of-a-kind, fantastic displays throughout the century, but now, in the 21st century, the medium is electronic: computer-controlled light-emitting diodes; big video screens; the big pictorials printed by giant drum printers on vinyl. The art — or craft or trade — of painting is gone.” — Tama Starr…the third generation of her family to run Artkraft Strauss.

The LightWalk

On November 20th a number of Professor Neumann’s students presented research into the history of Times Square lighting and architecture atop the tiered, red steps of TKTS/Duffy Square.

Then off we went, a group of about 20, into the thick crowds of a Saturday evening around 6:30 PM.  One of my first observations were the pigeons foraging at night – when had I last seen birds on the sidewalk in a city? This is definitely a side effect of vast quantities of light.

TimesSquare_reflections

Observations of light and shadow in Times Square fall into a few categories; panels of LED and bracketed sign light, reflections and “borrowed effects”, few private or darkened moments, and massive application of animated, colored light.  Private light is the largest contribution of brightness, street lighting is overshadowed (or over-brightened).

Advertising panelized light sources create dense blankets of light.  The key source of illumination are the billboards, both printed and LED direct-view.  The light is cast obliquely, as if side-lighting a dance performance on stage.

Reflections double the ad space in an eerie value-added move.  Reflections of pixelated light are re-pixelated by neighboring rows of windows.

Locating shadows: it is as if we, the visitors, are on-stage.  Cast shadows are noticeable on the ground plan and they are us… moving bodies.  Primary shadows (that which “stick” to the object and give it form) are found only by concentrated and tenacious observation.

Activities by street visitors include another media — cameras clicking, people posing, an altogether self reflective and reflexive, experience of light, commerce and ensuing happiness.

Times Square with Brown University Students

Quotable, in regards to the new, pedestrianized Times Square, now in conceptual design

Times Square, the globally recognized after-dark crossroads of the world will be completely transformed by our team. My ideas for the lighting of Times Square will take into account the walls of Times Square, the buildings that make the walls, their lighting, catalyzing the uses and activities of the new plaza, and integrating into our team’s approach to the architecture and landscape of tomorrow’s Times Square. – Leni Loves the Lights on the Great White Way, Architect’s Newspaper

We hope to redefine the role of light in the public space of Times Square for pedestrians. Times Square and the Great White Way, which is more Broadway and the theaters of Times Square, has a reputation for strolling. From the beginning of Times Square, there has been a legacy of social space and advertising. So, the rationale for Times Square has been continuous, but it’s also gotten overly-crowded. The differing objectives of cars and pedestrians has become rather adversarial.

Lighting has been mandated in Times Square. We have a minimum foot candle requirement. This is written as a regulatory guideline. It’s quite unusual — cities usually have maximum foot candle levels. We want pedestrians to stay and hang out, have fun. I hope that lighting will change from its role of entertaining and selling to enabling more down the earth activities we have yet to define. What kind of games can we play with light? What kinds of conversation areas can we create simply by defining boundaries with light? —Interview with Leni Schwendinger, Light Artist and Designer, American Society of Landscape Architects

Other Resources

Webcam at 43rd Street and Broadway

Here is another excellent resource, the book, “Times Square Spectacular; Lighting up Broadway“.

Dwell “As you Light It – Interview with Leni Schwendinger” (click through blog synopsis to video)

wwwNightSeeing.net is the website to follow global NightSeeing™ activities and to book a LightWalk