Time of the Signs

There are, in architecture, degrees of en-lightenment, and the first degree in Times Square as it has been reinvented over the last decade was the city’s requirement that signs – the bolder and louder the better – dominate the façades of new buildings, forming continuous walls of light. And indeed, some very mediocre Times Square buildings are rescued by big, brash signs that rain photons down on the district.

But when the architectural firm Platt Byard Dovell designed the New 42nd Street Studios, a ten-story barn of rehearsal space that opens this week, it pursued a more sophisticated interpretation of the guidelines mandating signs. The architects effectively argued that it is not really the billboards and marquees that quicken the pulse of the streetscape but the sense of energy emitted by the pulsating signs. They designed a façade that, like a Robert Wilson stage set, continuously transmutes into abstract fields of changing color. And they persuaded their clients, the nonprofit New 42nd Street Inc., to Just Say No to the huge revenues that signage yields in these parts in favor of creating a luminous structure alive with chromatic shifts.

The guidelines were rooted in Times Square’s century-old tradition of billboards and marquees, and in what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown learned, famously, from Las Vegas: that in American strip culture, architecture is often a matter of decorating big, vacant sheds with signage. Contrary to the Modernist ethic that buildings are defined by form and space revealed by natural light, these buildings are a matter of signs and illuminated symbols. The urban curtain call of 42nd Street and Times Square is partially based on these precedents and principles: Pools of energy attract people and catalyze animated public space.

Charles Platt and Ray Dovell, the design principals for the Studios, were proposing a higher degree of urban enlightenment. They have sidestepped the cloying nostalgia of buildings charted with historical references to the golden age of 42nd Street. The façade that will be turned on for the first time on June 21 at 9 p.m. brings a theater of architecture new to 42nd Street, one that transcends the kitsch populism of currently fashionable “entertainment architecture” that has cartoon figures frisking across façades. Working with lighting designer Anne Militello, of Vortexlighting, the architects created a façade that can be played like an instrument and which itself becomes a street performer.

Besides a marquee and two vertical signs, there are four main light features on the $29.6 million building. The hallucinatory rainbow on most of its skin results from computerized uplights reflecting off perforated stainless-steel fins crossing the front. Programmed to mix and shift colors in continuous play, the lights project onto blades that are silhouetted against a blue backdrop created by yet more lights washing an interior scrim. A 175-foot-tall wand of light stands west of the front, changing colors through a series of timed cross-fades. The “lightpipe” rises above a 32-by-32-foot square of translucent and reflective glass with dichroic fins that capture and refract light during the day.

New Yorkers are accustomed to the illuminated crowns of skyscrapers that reveal their height and architectural features, but the only other building in Manhattan that fuses light along its entire height is the recently completed LVMH Tower on West 57th Street, the work of French architect Christian de Portzamparc. Coincidentally, it adjoins the very buttoned-down, overly polite Chanel building – by Platt Byard Dovell. With their New 42nd Street Studios building, the Manhattan architects have come a long way: The building joins Portzamparc’s in breaking new ground, changing the state of architecture from solid to liquid, from a static mass to one whose appearance approaches fluidity.

Brilliant though the light show is at night, the building has not given up its day job. The architects conceived the façade as a collage of materials carefully chosen for both their function and their aesthetic place in a daylight composition. The perforated horizontal fins act as sun louvers for the south-facing glass façade. The light spire, designed in consultation with Manhattan glass artist James Carpenter, stands in front of a tall brick shaft housing the elevators and service core. By day, the light wall appears to be a high-tech design evolved from a factory kit of parts.

The building rises above its adjacent neighbors, revealing itself to be the most transparent of glass boxes. The glass wraps around the east side, and when the floors are occupied and the dancers kicking, passersby will literally get an inside view of the process of rehearsing a theatrical production. These working scenes behind Manhattan’s performance industries are framed by the gridded walls of a structure built of industrial materials with the clarity of a no-nonsense factory. The window walls offer a cross-sectional view of three floors of rehearsal space and two floors of offices. The New 42nd Street Inc. occupies the penthouse floor, and there is an entrance to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new American Airlines Theatre next door. The Studios also house the Duke on 42nd Street Theater, a 199-seat black box named for Doris Duke in recognition of a $3.5 million contribution made to the building by the Duke Foundation.

The views out from the rehearsal spaces are to dance for: Without the usual opaque glass panels either top or bottom, the floor-to-ceiling windows of the upper floors offer generous panoramas into drop-dead vistas within the surrounding architectural thicket. Equipped with sprung floors, ballet bars, adjustable theatrical lights, and operable windows, the dance studios provide highly functional work space.

In Manhattan, where space is money, these floors will help sustain an industry threatened by the stampede of office buildings precipitated by changes in zoning in the eighties that encouraged the colonization of the West Side. “There are very few affordable fringe areas left,” notes Cora Cahan, president of the New 42nd Street, “where working artists can pay their rent.” The New 42nd Street’s coup has been to provide protected rehearsal space at the epicenter of what has become a very high-rent district, so that the show can go on.

But the group also had the wisdom to understand the synergy between the arts, and it has clearly supported the architects’ pursuit of an original vision. For New York, this building is a fresh face. The architects may have designed only what is, in the end, a familiar glass box, but with their totally original use of light they infused it with new life. They’ve produced a serious piece of architecture with a lightness of being that soars above its mundane, regulations-approved surroundings.

Time of the Signs