Beyond Buildings


In the Empire of the Sign

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Blade Runner is getting closer. Times Square, which already looked like the set for that 1982 movie, just stretched its neon tentacles down to the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42th Street and 8th Avenue, where a new screen completely obscures the building’s Brutalist architecture with excerpts from, at least in a trial run, the latest and worst sci-fi flick, Transformers One Too Many.


I actually liked the original Port Authority building, despite the fact that it was a Frankenstein monster of Miesian modernism and brick-and concrete panels hunkering underneath a multilevel bus parking area surrounded by steel X-Braces. I admired it even though that structure, built between 1950 and 1979 in phases by a series of anonymous architects, each time without any consideration for human use, was rather nasty. I liked the direct ramp up from the tunnel behind it, which lets you sweep into the city, getting glimpses of skyscrapers, slide into the building, slot into a parking space, get off the bus and instantly descend into the maelstrom of Manhattan. I even had a fondness for the, shall we say robust, appearance that this two-block behemoth presented to its mixed up surroundings.


Now the Terminal has become, like more and more of our buildings, just a backdrop for a giant screen that wraps around its most visible corner, turning what was an object into a void out of which messages do not so much appear, as they slither, slide, expand, and explode onto our retina. Perhaps what galls me most is that these images, at least in the tests presented by the media company GKD Media Mesh, are so much slicker not just than the Bus Terminal, but than any of the new buildings around Times Square pretending to architecture.


Grand Central Station. Courtesy: Barewalls.


As if this was not enough, news comes that on the other end of 42nd Street, in Grand Central Station, the revamp of the “retail mix” that has turned this baroque people mover into a suburban shopping mall with nice bones, will include, on the balcony overlooking the main concourse, an Apple store. It will no doubt be slick, a paragon of reductive strategies tending towards nothingness and selling lots of gadgets. At least the restaurants and bars that have been trying to occupy this perch for the last decade were engines for people watching, which is almost as good people moving. The Apple store will be just another place for acquisition, and will thus further mark the triumph of commercialism over every aspect of our environment.


I will probably shop there. And I will enjoy myself in a way I never did when I tried to while away elastic moments of time waiting for my train. Grand Central Station has become a much more useful and enjoyable part of the urban fabric, in the same way that the Port Authority’s wrap-around post-Jumbotron will make what was a dark mass come alive. Cities are the headquarters of the Empire of Signs and essentially, beyond all the talk of dense living and working, marketplaces. So, this is our destiny, and we will all go happy, buying our way into urban heaven.


Only my guilty architecture consciousness troubles me, for some reason.Is that memory I have of seeing the Acropolis as a child really mine, or was it implanted ...




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.