Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats; the show has already begun. Fire up your cell phones and let someone know where you are: on a set of glowing glass bleachers, with a front-and-center view of Times Square. Directly in front, the statue of Father Duffy stands with his back to the audience, facing the proscenium like the stage manager in Our Town. Dusk blazes among the twinkling marquees and the palisade of glaring signs. You’re part of the razzmatazz, too—members of the ensemble perched on a glossy scarlet staircase to nowhere. The little raked red piazza slung over the shoulders of the new TKTS booth is a work of exuberant uselessness and brilliant urbanism. At once humble and flashy, it distills the theatrical urge that electrified architecture in the last decade.
The solid structure has the feel of a load-bearing hologram. After dark, it looks as though it were fabricated entirely of light. The truth is almost as crazy: Glass walls and glass beams support glass stairs protected by glass rails. The apparently brittle wedge is warmed by natural heat, piped from underground by a geothermal apparatus that hums in the window. The machinery is part of the magic.
New York has just experienced its most effervescent period of architectural ferment in decades, fed by a vision of the city as an arena for the performance art of spending money. Vast condo windows packaged the city as a suite of cinematic views and transformed apartments into dioramas of expensive lives. Celebrity architects costumed their buildings in façades so telegenic they might be auditioning for a car commercial. In the thirties, the philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin deplored the way Paris had created a dream world of shops and shoppers, a consumerist city of spectacle. In the last ten years, New York has embraced Benjamin’s nightmare, lustily equipping itself with architecture of commercial display. The century began with Trump World Tower, a bronze-glass icon of the entitled life that was born to be a location for The Apprentice. As the decade wanes, workers are touching up the makeup on Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue, whose spangled skin swirls toward the sunset in a burst of camera-ready glamour.
If the city provides both audience and stage, it also plays the hero of an open-ended drama, a picaresque tragicomedy of development. In the gnarled tale of the rebuilding at ground zero, a cast of characters worthy of commedia dell’arte paraded across the public’s consciousness: the grasping developer (played by Larry Silverstein), the vainglorious governor (George Pataki), the inspirational artiste (Daniel Libeskind), and the pragmatic architect (David Childs), plus a chorus of bureaucrats and visionaries. When Libeskind won the competition to draft a World Trade Center master plan, he beguiled the public with a fantastical set of pictures— a set design, really—that bore only tangential similarity to the real world. His glittering Valhalla triggered an appetite for theatrical urban visions. Developers detected that sudden craving and quickly turned expressive architecture from an idealistic dream into a consumer commodity. They wanted their buildings infused with a breath of awe, but they would settle for a quick hit of wow.
Meanwhile, another less grandiose morality play took place all across the city: the drama of gentrification. Masonry buildings were struck, glass ones raised, and in some areas it appeared as if the skyline had been winched up higher overnight. In parts of Brooklyn, crappy but pricey condos went up at the speed of a road show’s load-in. A new and youthful cast of residents transformed neighborhoods by dint of galleries and organic-coffee shops—then decided that change had gone far enough. Après moi, no more gentrification.
Our straitened period makes it easy to tut-tut this circus of excess and display. Certainly the pursuit of architectural novelty and ruthless disregard for history have done plenty of damage. Everybody has a favorite memory of a low brick block with a bar and a candy store that gave way to a glass behemoth. But the city thrived even as it rewrote itself, because its magnetic pull has always depended on its ability to nurture fantasy, to lend humdrum lives a sense of collective drama.
One man who understood this was the architect and stage designer Joseph Urban, whose six-story International Magazine Building first bedazzled passersby in 1928. (“At first survey, I feel it is perhaps a stunt,” hazarded The New Yorker’s critic.) Imperial columns support nothing but ceremonial urns, as pairs of sculpted extras in medieval garb stand at their feet. Urban built his blond concrete caprice at the behest of William Randolph Hearst, and had the Depression not intervened, he would have topped it with a flamboyant tower.