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Sign of the times

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Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon By Lynne B Sagalyn.MIT Press, 2001. 638pp. £41.50 I

went for a walk in Times Square last month to see how it had changed in the year since I moved from New York City. There are now three enormous skyscrapers at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, where last January there were two holes in the ground and the partly completed Reuters building; and all three seem to take their slanted details straight from Philip Johnson's 'Deconstructive' scheme for Times Square in 1992.

The architecture is hardly thrilling, but what saves these buildings - and all the new construction on Times Square - are the spectacular signs that front their lower floors, updating the square's reputation as a compelling outdoor multimedia space.

Across from Fox and Fowle's Reuters, for example, an eight-story NASDAQ 'techno turret' sign projects constantly changing, colourful images on a 27 x 36m screen. It fronts the best piece of new architecture on the square - Frank Gehry's corporate dining room for Condé Nast - and sits above one of four new broadcast studios that open onto Broadway sidewalks.

Times Square seems to have been totally transformed since January 2001, but its redevelopment is a 20-year saga of ill-fated schemes, fractious opposition, continuous litigation, market fragility, collapsed property deals and postponed public benefit. This is the story of Times Square Roulette - a typical Manhattan narrative of real estate shenanigans, fraud, greed and corruption, which could read like a thriller.

Unfortunately, Lynne Sagalyn gives us sentences such as: 'They argued persuasively that the complexity of political action among the many competing constituent interests and the broad functional scope of services in cities made the achievement of development goals intensely problematic for city governments compared to their suburban counterparts.' If you appreciate the language of planning and 'cost benefit' analysis, then this is the book for you.

It is, however, insightful on the politics and economies of urban projects in New York. It describes in minute detail how the nation's largest redevelopment scheme sought to make West 42nd Street safe for corporate investment by eliminating 'the deviant subculture of Times Square'. In the process it created a corridor for the city's newest engines of economic growth - headquarters for the global media industry, entertainment, and tourism.

Sagalyn is careful to present a balanced view of the battles that raged for so long. Her main protagonists are, on the one hand, those who feel the square's new development is taking the authentic urban grittiness from the city (see the two pictures); and, on the other, those who favour safe 'middle-class' values of Disney family entertainment, suburban shopping and more commercial office space.

Her view is so balanced that one wishes she would say something controversial, or put some passion into her story. This is a subject which screams out for insight and conviction, but the author seems unable to connect the dots between culture, society aesthetics, and politics. Is it too much to expect a director of the Real Estate programme at Columbia University to be familiar with the Frankfurt School?

But if you can make it through the book's 638 pages, you will understand why New York has so few architectural masterpieces, yet remains a compelling urban stage-set all the same. It describes how and why New Yorkers fight to retain buildings that are not masterpieces, but are integral to making the city a powerful urban experience. Here is a place where every land-use decision and building proposal is fought over by myriad actors - one real estate contract between the city and a property developer ran to 7000 pages.

The section 'No Press from the Press' reveals the true power of the city's aesthetic police, particularly those critics who write for the New York Times. It details how Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp operate on the level of aesthetics, and thus have little real effect on the outcome on the city's urban design, which is largely determined on hard-headed economic grounds. In fact, while these critics rail against the aesthetics of new Times Square architecture, the newspaper (itself a major landowner in the square), through its editorial pages, fights its own, more successful battle to see the area developed as it wishes.

I have spent a good portion of my life involved in urban issues in New York, and know many of the protagonists in the story, so I enjoyed reading Sagalyn's text. But I cannot imagine who else MIT Press thinks will want to read Roulette.

William Menking is an architectural historian

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