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Darkhorses Win International Competition for TKTS Booth

Two darkhorses from Sidney, Australia won the prize in an international competition to create a new TKTS booth for Times Square. Sidney architects John Choi, 28, and Tai Ropiha, 36, designed a bright red grand staircase which will rise from the base of the statue of Father Duffy, for whom the TKTS traffic island is named, to a height of 16 feet. The TKTS logo will be emblazoned in bold black letters about 5 ft. high on the structure's north and south sides. Sales booths will be tucked in beneath the high end of the stairs, and after buying their tickets theatergoers will be able to sit on the steps looking out at the spectacle which is Times Square.

Choi and Ropiha, who visited NYC only once before returning last month to claim $5,000 in prize money, said they based their impressions of Times Square on films, magazines and television coverage of New Year's Eve celebrations. "We were reacting to the visual buzz," said Mr. Roipha, "and tried to create a strong singular image in contrast."

What was the jury looking for? "Something that had cleverness, visual economy and force," explained Jack Goldstein, executive director of the Theater Development Fund which operates TKTS and sponsored the competition. TDF was also looking for more booths as well as better working conditions for the sales staff within (They're even thinking about adding a public toilet). Construction, to begin later this year, is expected to cost around $2 million all to be raised by the Fund.

The competition, the largest ever in NYC history, drew 683 entries from 31 countries: ranging from a booth conceived as twin green crystals to a 3D rendering of Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie." 40 top designs are currently on exhibition at the Van Alen Institute (30 West 22nd Street) while 200 more can be seen at the Urban Center (457 Madison between 50th and 51st). "There wasn't much room for an entirely radical solution," said Raymond Gastil, executive director of the the Van Alen Institute which organized the competition. "But the entries say a lot about the raw energy and talent that's out there."

Even the Coalition for Father Duffy which inundated the Mayor's office with over 7,000 postcards - "This is Duffy Square, it isn't TKTS Square," said the Coaltion head Maj. Gen. Joseph S. Healey. "You can't dump him from center stage and put him in the cheap balcony seats. It isn't fair." -was mollified by Choi and Ropiha's design.

But what about the existing TKTS booth - that wonderful, ramshackle, pipe-and-canvas construction which has come to represent Broadway theater to an entire generation since its inception 26 years ago? David W. Dunlap wrote in the New York Times (7/8/99): "The competition seems to doom one more facet of Broadway's architectural past, which has been chipped away piece by piece in recent years until very little remains of what was once a splendidly pungent esthetic amalgam, made of dozens of incongrous icons layered one on top of the other."

Dunlap went on to point out that the old TKTS booth was the product of that moment in the early 70's when Broadway was desperate for resuscitation and the city nearly broke. Under Mayor Lindsay, the Office of Midtown Planning and Development lent a city-owned trailer to TDF to be used as a booth for selling half-price tickets on the day of a performance.

Bound to a budget of only $ 5,000, architects John Schiff and Robert Mayers came up with the idea of renting pipes by the month from the R. C. Mugler scaffolding company in the Bronx. With these pipes, they extended the structure outwards - then streched translucent plastic through and around the pipes and painted "TKTS" in large Helvetica letters across. To keep the whole thing from blowing away, they lashed it to four rough concrete anchors at each corner.

The TKTS booth was an overnight and abiding success. More than 36.5 million tickets have been sold there since it went up. It won a design award in 1973 from the New York Society of Architects, a Bard Award in 1975 from the City Club for merit in civic architecture and has been called "a classic of early 70's design" and "the beginning of scaffold-like, high-tech, tensilt structures. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has referred to it as one of the "symbols of the renaissance" of New York City. Ron Silver who chaired the NYC 2000 millenium committee called it "Times Square's centerpiece."

But while preservation advocates believe a case could have been made for granting the booth landmark status, it would not have been eligible till turning 30 in 2003. And it probably would not have stood up that long. Even Mr. Schiff admits the booth was always meant to be temporary.

Kati Sounds Off:

There's a lot of talk in this town about "the community" and the arts are by no means exempt. Take the theater. In a recent issue of American Theater magazine, Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theater Communications Group, sang the praises of "community-specific [eg Latino, Asian-American, gay/lesbian] theatres" which, he claims, "speak to a unique need many have for communal celebration, for empowerment, for safe places to come together in an all-too-often hostile world."

Well, maybe. But it's also true that you gotta have a gimmick to get funded and one of the easiest gimmicks to have is community service/specificity. Meanwhile the proliferation of community-specific companies has led to a balkanization of the larger theater community - at least at its not-for-profit edges - as well as to a sort of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of cultural identity: an acceptance which is ultimately impoverishing both intellectually and imaginatively.

This is not to say there aren't scores of wonderful counter-examples - Pan Asian Rep, the Irish Rep, the Negro Ensemble Theater, the Puerto Rican Travelling Theater Company - to name a few. Nor that at one point the flowering of community-specific theaters did not serve a very necessary, corrective function.But as an overall trend, it's gone too far.

Kati Kormendi is a freelance writer and actress; the former Artistic Director of the Magellan Project, a multiarts theater; and the creator of The Serpent's Eye an online eco-art gallery. She has written for Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, and Talking Leaves magazine.

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