Time Square’s Social Truth

Ruskin begins ‘The Lamp of Truth’ by noting, “there is a marked likeness between the virtue of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits” He argues that architecture is a reflection of the society that built it. Is Time Square a true reflection of the values and aspirations of the society we live in?

Whereas Ruskin’s beliefs and the buildings he discussed were religious in nature, Time Square celebrates the ‘religion’ of capitalism. And like any religion, capitalism has its own rules and beliefs system. Times Square is the only neighborhood in New York with zoning laws requiring building owners to display illuminated signs. To not display billboards would be a crime against capitalism. But religion is also about community, as socializing and communal experiences are another way its ideals is re-enforced.

Time Square is an immense sluice of entertainment and commerce but also of humanity. The crowds that flock there illustrate our love of public spaces and people watching. And although this crowd consists mainly of strangers, depending on the day or event it becomes a kind of community. At the Metropolitan Opera Simulcasts, it is a community of opera enthusiasts and at the Jersey Shore premiere it consists of Jersey Shore fans.

Like Charle’s Moore’s discusses in ‘You Have to Pay for Public Life’, nobody believes that Disneyland’s mountain is real just like nobody believes the giant plastic M&M in Time’s Square is filled with chocolate, yet the experience of being in the space is a real and immensly exciting one.[1]

Photography is an integral part of how people experience Times Square. Almost everyone is snapping away on their camera or iPhone and most likely posting them to social networking sites to say, “I was here. I took part.” I watched in amazement as hoards of people, young and old, stood in the middle of the street taking photos of themselves on the Forever21 billboard. The billboard sits above a pedestrianized part of Broadway and features a virtual model, dressed in what I assume is a Forever21 dress, who interacts with the people below. The model takes a Polaroid photo of the crowd and brandishes it in front of her showing a close-up image. At times, she appears to pluck someone out of the crowd, kisses them or drops them in her bag. And although the billboard can be seen as some kind of strange commercialized surveillance camera, it also illustrates our own increasing obsession with documenting and sharing every part of our lives. People love to see themselves in Times Square and the billboard acts as a huge mirror. One can’t help but be reminded of Andy Warhol’s prediction that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” however in this case most people only get 15 seconds.

Although obviously concerned with promoting Forever21 it doesn’t directly coax you into that store. In fact, it does the opposite. The interaction extends how long someone looks at the billboard and encourages them to stay on the street. It is as if companies have property in Time’s Square to promote their brand and selling their products is not necessarily a main priority.

Having your image projected in Times Square relates is another way that Time Square attempts to make you feel like a celebrity. If someone goes into the Forever21 store, there are sensors that detect them causing the flash bulbs surrounding the threshold to go off, simulating dozens of paparazzi. Similarly, the TKTS booth 27 ruby-red steps rising 16 feet above the sidewalk are everyone’s personal red carpet to literally rise above everything to see and be seen.

The TKTS booth has more than doubled the amount of pedestrian space in the area. TV premieres are screened in the open air where the TKTS steps are transformed into a giant communal sofa where people gather to share in the collective excitement. These communal media experiences give Time Square a purpose and re-affirm it as real, social space. William Whyte refers to these kinds of events as ‘triangualtion’, external stimuli which provide linkage between strangers to talk to eachother as though they are not.[2] Eating and drinking are expected and encouraged as TV dinners are replaced by McDonalds takeout. You can look down on the lowbrow nature of Times Square all you want, but for many people it is a true and meaningful experience to. So, let them eat cake. Or fries. Or whatever they want.


[2] Whyte, William, ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, Project for Public Spaces Inc, 2001


[1] Moore, Charles, ‘You Have to Pay for the Public Life: Selected Essays of Charles W’. Moore, MIT Press, 2001


2 Responses to “Time Square’s Social Truth”

  1. 2 potenzmittel October 25, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Wow!! I love what you are doing! I need to relook at screen toaster! Informative and interesting post!!!keep it up..

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