One of the stranger obituaries to lately appear in The New York Times marked the death of Richard Basciano, aged ninety-one and termed the “Times Square Sultan of Smut” for his “vast New York pornographic empire” of sex shops, peep shows, and X-rated theaters centered on the midtown Manhattan intersection that takes its name from the Newspaper of Record. This dubious valediction was a reminder of the proprietary attitude the Times has taken toward the city’s most renowned public space since 1905, when the daily journal moved its headquarters from Newspaper Row near City Hall to a newly built skyscraper on the triangular lot bounded by West 42nd Street, Seventh Avenue, and Broadway.
The architectural density of Times Square—which makes large-scale demolition there virtually impossible—put an end to sweeping master plans, as did economic reality, especially after the World Trade Center attack of 2001, when so much public funding was diverted into the agonizingly slow, shamefully mismanaged reconstruction of Ground Zero. Major private developers much prefer a vast tabula rasa such as Hudson Yards, the $20-billion mixed-use complex now being erected atop a twenty-eight-acre platform over the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks in far west Midtown, less than a half-mile from Times Square.
Snøhetta—a non-hierarchical, interdisciplinary practice completely unlike most big design offices, which reflect the corporate organization of their clients—began to attract widespread international attention with the opening of its Oslo Opera House in 2008. It was a scheme perhaps even more successful as populist urbanism than as an excellent music theater. An evident understanding of how people interact in public spaces—above all their desire to be seen as much as to see—made Snøhetta an obvious choice to revise Times Square. It was a stroke of luck for the city’s department of transportation and department of design and construction, who together hired Snøhetta for this $55-million commission—hardly a huge budget these days, in contrast to such recent public works excesses as Santiago Calatrava’s $4-billion World Trade Center Transportation Hub.