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When the City Became a Stage


In this newfound enthusiasm for architectural theatrics, staircases have been a surprising player. Until recently, they came mostly in utilitarian models like bare-concrete and fire-escape. Lately, though, a glamour and sociability have attached themselves to staircases like the one that runs through the heart of Thom Mayne’s academic building at Cooper Union, the wedge of bleachers facing the new glass lobby of Alice Tully Hall, the wave that wafts shoppers into the underground den of luxe at Rem Koolhaas’s Prada store, or the river of orange steel that flows through Thomas Heatherwick’s Longchamp store.

The urbanism of spectacle reached its height in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Rome, when piazzas were laid out for pageantry, with side streets for wings and backdrops of billowing stone. Three hundred years later, New York developed a similarly baroque sensibility—only here, spectacle requires no royal pomp or official sanction; it is continuous, commercial, and individual. Rome’s street theaters were built of stone. Ours are made of glass. And TKTS is the most open and democratic of these glass stages—admission is free, no auditions required, and the world is watching. Like so many recent buildings, it does triple duty as stage, gallery, and backdrop. It gratifies the narcissistic sense that each of us is starring in a real-time biopic. It is, in other words, totally New York—even though the idea emerged from a design competition won by the Australian firm Choi Ropiha. (Credit for the detailed design work goes to Perkins Eastman.)

Apple’s and TKTS’s small-scale assemblages of glass carry a heavy urbanistic load. Skyscrapers snap into focus around them, and the plazas look better defined for their presence. It turns out that the pack of new towers that has crowded onto the skyline is really just the chorus line. The real spectacular has unfolded closer to the sidewalk, where audience and performers constantly trade places, and where both sides can see the whites of each other’s eyes.


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