by Shailaja Tripathi Nov 09, 2020
Entering its 13th year in 2021, the Times Square Design Competition witnessed the winning installation of Love Letters designed by Soft-Firm as a symbol of the unyielding spirit of New York and its people. The interdisciplinary New York design practice is represented by Lexi Tsien and Talitha Liu.
For the last 12 years, Times Square Arts (public art programme of the Times Square Alliance) has held this competition on the themes of love in the month of February. But in response to the trials and tribulations that the COVID-19 brought in 2020, Times Square Arts along with design firm Reddymade, founded by award-winning architect Suchi Reddy, expanded on the themes of this program to include broader notions of interdependence, collective resilience, and inclusivity.
For the first time in the competition’s history, a material constraint was introduced: plywood. This material holds a special significance as in the year 2020 it signalled unrest and uncertainty throughout the city as business districts in New York as well as across USA used plywood to board up their storefronts due to the lockdowns enforced during the pandemic or protect them from vandalism during several protests, or both.
Based on the theme ‘Love in Our Times’, and placed in heart of the iconic Times Square, the Love Letters installation is designed to facilitate multiple levels of public participation and draws from the building facades of New York City. Plywood becomes a material of public engagement and mimics a scrolling storefront. The installation has four integrated spaces within one folding surface, creating a sense of separation and adjacency at the same time. Plywood panels and mirrors have been used alternately to allow the surface to shift and show the visual landscape of the brightly lit Times Square. The north-South elevation of the installation is sheared on a plane that reflects the TKTS booth below the Red Steps of the Square. This automatically creates a view corridor, which holds together the two bronze statues of Chaplain Francis P Duffy and George M Cohan. A safety net has also been interwoven within the plywood to act as a “poetic armature for an outdoor respite that is visually captivating”.
People can become a part of the installation by tying a wish, a memento, an artefact or a love lock onto the netted underlay. The plywood storefront surface becomes a blank canvas for people to layer their own meanings to the installation and over time the structure becomes a memorial of the time it was made for and a beacon of hope and solidarity.
When viewed from the top, the installation presents itself in the shape of two hearts. The structure has multiple and safely distant seating sections within it, giving the visitors an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere and take in the visual delights of the Times Square.
Soft-Firm is excited to win the 13th annual Times Square Arts Design Competition at a time “when love, solidarity, and justice have come into focus as essential for the health and resilience of our communities”. “Love Letters is at once an offering to the public in the beating heart of New York, and a repository for the wishes of its citizens and activists. The form of Love Letters is two interlocked hearts, creating a socially distant urban amphitheatre with four programmed chambers — the soapbox, loveseat, chapel, and wishing well. The materials — plywood, dichroic film, and safety net — speak to the process of construction and renewal,” they said.
In praise of the installation, Times Square Arts Director Jean Cooney mentioned, “Love Letters represents the collective resilience of our city in the face of unending challenges, which we certainly couldn’t continue to confront without love and without one another. Soft-Firm has poetically transformed plywood — which has become a marker of fear and defensiveness across the landscape of our country — and repurposed it into something unexpected: a platform for creative expressions of love, inclusivity, and hope”.
On this Valentine’s Day, Love Letters took centrestage at the Times Square with activities such as socially distanced and safe weddings, surprise proposals, and virtual vow renewal ceremonies, with only few in attendance, took place.
Reddymade founder Suchi Reddy called Soft-Firm’s winning proposal “a poetic exploration of the transformations that 2020 wrought on our understanding of our communities,” while adding that “Love Letters is a beautiful architectonic expression of the line dividing our private and communal selves, explored through the new significance that plywood as a material has acquired in our collective psyche”.
The installation, which was unveiled on February 10, 2021, and will remain on view until March 10, invites public to participate in the endeavour by leaving their own love letters within the sculpture.