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Just Steps Away

Date: Sep 18, 2008


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"Meet me at the red steps."

Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? It's a phrase that's likely to become a common refrain for visitors to Times Square, as well as everyday New Yorkers, as they make their way to the city's newest signature landmark: a bigger, better Duffy Square, complete with 24 red glass steps that will light up at night, which will open to the public on Oct. 16.

The striking but reverential design, and the unprecedented views of midtown Manhattan it will make possible, are not the only unique attractions of the new Duffy Square. There's also the new, improved TKTS Discount Booth, nestled under the slope of the stairs.

The result of a design competition and cooperation between the Times Square Alliance, the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) and the Coalition for Father Duffy, the new Duffy Square has been speeding to completion in recent months at the north end of the "bowtie," the term for the criss-crossing intersections of 7th Avenue and Broadway in the mid-40s. Huge glass pieces from Steyr, Austria have been laid across the north-facing front of the TKTS booth, a fiberglass structure that evokes a boat—not least because it was fashioned by a boat-builder from Rhode Island. Copper piping will deliver temperature control of the LED-lit steps.

The design originated with an international contest held by the Van Alen Institute in 1999. From more than 625 entries, a jury of experts from the fields of theatre, design and architecture singled out the bold, clean, colorful design by a pair of young Australians, John Choi and Tai Ropiha. Their concept drawing of a glowing red staircase was then transformed by the architects at the New York firm of Perkins Eastman into the most complex all-glass structure in the world.

"One of our big challenges was that this was a design competition, and most winning designs don't actually get built," says Victoria Bailey, TDF Executive Director (pictured above on the red steps). Perkins Eastman was a crucial part of turning the winning concept into a reality. Though TDF is not the sole driver of the new landmark's makeover, the new design does seem to consciously evoke theatricality: The sloping red steps, Bailey points out, resemble an amphitheatre, though she says the competition winners "claim they weren't inspired by anything theatrical."

The vocabulary of the steps, Bailey explains, is expressly designed to fit the setting.

"They glow like Times Square, so they speak the same language," Bailey says. "But they don't flash. There's a kind of stillness; it's a little calmer than the surroundings. And it provides a respectful setting for Father Duffy." A statue of Duffy—the historic chaplain of the Fighting 69th and the priest at nearby Holy Cross parish—was temporarily relocated during most of construction, but has recently returned to its original plinth in anticipation of the site's completion.

A frequently cited touchstone for the new Duffy Square is the famous refurbishment of Central Park's Bethesda Fountain in 1980-81.

"When they revitalized that, people understood how long-term change could be effective in the park," Bailey says. "I think the new Duffy Square will do the same for the whole bowtie. It will be our new public icon."

On Oct. 16, New York will finally see for itself.