Midtown 2013

Norway’s Snøhetta Builds A Times Square for New Yorkers, With a Touch of 1940s Noir

It’s hard to think of a New York neighborhood that has seen more constant and dramatic reincarnations than Times Square. Beneath the perpetual neon has been a rotation of music halls, peep shows, big-box chain restaurants, Toys “R” Us ferris wheels and, another rare constant, Broadway theaters.

But in good times and in bad—and which era you label good or bad is subjective—the Crossroads of the World has, for decades, been a place New Yorkers preferred to avoid.

Renderings of the Times Square Reconstruction project (Credit: DOT)

Renderings of the Times Square Reconstruction project (Credit: DOT)

The Department of Design and Construction, the Department of Transportation and the Norwegian architecture and design firm Snøhetta intend to change that. The city chose Snøhetta in 2011 to lead the Times Square Reconstruction project, which will streamline the congested streets with a stark, modern makeover and overhaul the aged, cluttered infrastructure.

“We took an antithetical approach,” said Craig Dykers, founder and senior partner at Snøhetta. “We created a calm, simple, direct solution. Our proposal was to provide balance back to Times Square rather than create more lights, more energy and more excitement.”

To do this, the firm proposed an austere public plaza consisting of stainless-steel bollards and granite slabs to redirect vehicular and foot traffic and to serve as benches. A dark monochromatic color scheme will introduce a minimalist touch to the gaudy neon bow tie.

“We’re trying to complement the atmosphere,” Mr. Dykers said. Snøhetta chose Times Square’s “film noir” period of the 1940s as the epoch to evoke. As building heights soared and billboards grew overwhelmingly large, the interplay of light and darkness was lost. “The balance has all been sucked into these huge marquees,” Mr. Dykers said. “Our approach was to provide a solid foundation from which you can see the excitement of the marquees again.”

A less romantic aspect of the redesign is the gutting of decades’ worth of cluttered lampposts, fire hydrants and trolley tracks that date back to 1915. “We’re cleaning out 200 years of redundant infrastructure,” Mr. Dykers said. “That’s where most of the money is going.” The project, whose first phase is slated to be unveiled between 42nd and 43rd Streets this summer, will cost $27 million.

Tim Tompkins, the president of the Times Square Alliance since 2002, is eager to see car and foot traffic eased. “It used to be you couldn’t get through Times Square without getting mugged,” Mr. Tompkins said. “By the time I came in, you couldn’t get through Times Square, period. We were victims of our own success.” Mr. Tompkins foresees “a profound improvement” to the district once the project is complete, hopefully in 2015.

DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who was hugely instrumental in the 2009 construction of pedestrian plazas in Times Square and the once-unthinkable elimination of cars on Broadway, notes that that earlier transformation led to “one of the largest local real estate booms in the world.”

A January report from Cushman & Wakefield said that asking rents for retail space in the Times Square bow tie more than doubled between 2011 and 2012, from $1,052 to $2,283 a square foot. The Reconstruction Project should only accelerate the growth, yet Ms. Sadik-Khan admires Snøhetta for its design philosophy rather than its plan’s potential effect on real estate prices.

“They understand the role that Times Square plays in the zeitgeist of the city,” she said.

For Mr. Dykers, that role defies Times Square’s status as an office and retail hub, and he’s confident that making the area more pleasant for tourists and New Yorkers won’t squeeze out whatever’s left of its colorful history.

“One hopes that there remains a diversity of Times Square,” Mr. Dykers said, “so it doesn’t gentrify to the point where there’s nothing but large, important companies.”

Follow Billy Gray on Twitter or via RSS. bgray@observer.com