Even before Broadway’s new TKTS Booth was completed in 2007, Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins told The New York Times its twenty-seven glass risers would be “the Spanish Steps on steroids,” referring to one of Rome’s most frequented—and photographed—gathering areas. Ascribing such an iconic status to a yet-to-be completed structure said a lot about its potential to be a social anchor for the revamped Father Duffy Square, and the following decade proved Tompkins right as TKTS has become a tourist destination, not only for discounted theater tickets but also as a place to sit down and experience the swirl of energy that passes through Times Square in New York City. Such is the power of design to bring people together in a meaningful and memorable location, says Co-CEO and Executive Director Nicholas Leahy, who led the TKTS project for Perkins Eastman.
Father Duffy Square existed for decades as a patch of concrete—devoid of seating—with the Duffy statue and a “temporary” TKTS trailer over an underground restroom. The new structure transports visitors right into the heart of the urban scene where they can sit in groups, people-watch, stand, eat, and socialize. The steps offer a sense of safety in being elevated with a wide vista of the Times Square surroundings. Sitting on the steps offers “a moment of calm, like sitting in the eye of a sensorial storm, shielded from over exposure, yet fully immersed,” Leahy says. The booth also offers different degrees of visibility and interaction with people and activities: One may choose to speak to a stranger next to them, for instance, or simply watch the passing of what urban activist Jane Jacobs called a “sidewalk ballet.”
All that activity went away with the onset of COVID-19. In fact, a portion of the TKTS structure can be seen in the background of an image of an empty Times Square that accompanied James Altucher’s essay in the New York Post last August called “New York City is dead forever.” A powerful statement, but is it true? Are meaningful public places—on scales ranging from citywide to individual buildings and interior spaces—really dead as many of us continue to work from home and conduct our meetings online? The Perkins Eastman Design Research team conducted more than two dozen interviews to capture not only the importance of placemaking, but why it will survive the pandemic and continue to be key for planners, architects, and designers as they pursue projects of every size and scale. The team published its findings in “The Subtle Art of Placemaking,” a white paper that explores the attributes that make a space a “place” and establishes a vocabulary for design teams and stakeholders to express it.