The Times Square That Could’ve Been

A new exhibition showcases a skyscraper design competition that had been lost to history.


These days the most contentious debate in Times Square pits cops against superheroes, as street performers dressed as characters like Spider-Man and Minnie Mouse have clashed with police over their right to accept donations. Thirty years ago, a far loftier Times Square debate consumed the city, as developers and architects wrestled with preservationists and theater owners over the question of how build skyward and reduce crime while preserving the neighborhood’s frenetic energy and cultural heritage.


A new exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum in lower Manhattan brings that debate to life through its rediscovery of submissions from a 1984 “ideas competition,” which was organized by the Municipal Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts after critics blasted plans for four skyscrapers near the intersection of 42nd Street, Broadway, and Seventh Avenue.

The panned design that sparked the competition

Inspired by the $10,000 prize, the lure of publicity, and perhaps the bragging rights, over 565 submissions poured in from architects around the world.

“With its costumed corporate towers and high-rise hotels, Times Square today–though constructed from the late 1990s–had its genetic code written in the 1980s,” the curators write.

The resulting exhibition includes over 20 boards, which display visions that range from postmodern literalism–one design features a “monumental” big apple, hovering above the square–to futurism at its most tribal, with a muscular totem pole of a tower bisected by a floating sphere. In one board, light bulbs cover the old Times Tower, with the idea that Broadway stars could be depicted at a scale befitting their fame.

“While the entries show a wide diversity, they all make clear the deep, almost passionate commitment of architects to Times Square’s traditional, almost honky-tonk, identity,” critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times that September.


But if gathering entries proved easy in 1984, three decades later it was much harder for museum director and curator Carol Willis, along with her team, to track down the submitted designs. Their breakthrough: an issue of the architectural quarterly Oculus, preserved by one of the competition’s winners. From there, curators were able to find many of the 30- by 40-inch boards that had scattered to attics and storage closets across the country.

One of the boards recovered by the Skyscraper Museum

None of the designs came to fruition, but with their nod to Times Square’s love of spectacle they helped usher in a set of skyscrapers that effectively wrap the public space in a glowing embrace. Once upon a time, city planners feared that stodgy corporate towers would dim those theater district lights of their outsize personality; as a stroll through the heart of Broadway can attest, they needn’t have worried.

“Times Square, 1984: The Postmodern Moment” will run through January 18.

[h/t New York Times]

About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.