Targeted Publics and Sony Plaza
Sony is about communication, dealing with people—music, movies, video … they wanted to dispel the elitist image and engage the building with the ground and make it participatory.
—Charles Gwathmey, architect in charge of Sony Plaza design
Directly across the street from the former IBM building is one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in Manhattan, the former headquarters of AT&T. The tower’s stature (at 648 feet, more than 200 feet taller than IBM) and unique “broken pediment” style roof give it a distinctive and controversial presence. New York Times architectural critic Paul Goldberger called the building “one of the most startling skyscrapers of the last generation,”1 while others commented that its roof was “more appropriate for a piece of furniture.”2 Love it or hate it, the tower remains unmistakable, even in midtown’s competitive skyline (Figure 5.1).
Built in 1984, Johnson’s marble-clad tower presented an image of stability and solidness for AT&T in the years immediately following the now-infamous antitrust suit.3 AT&T chose Johnson because he was the most recognized architect in America. Johnson achieved his iconic status in part because of the unique qualities of his buildings,4 his reputation as a New York design powerbroker, and his own imitable look (versions of his perfectly round black spectacles are still donned by architecture students worldwide).5 The importance to AT&T of a high-profile architect is highlighted by Johnson’s comments on the way his firm was selected for the job.6 He claims he did not even read the request for proposals that AT&T sent to his office: “[t]oo many irrelevant questions, I told them that when they called up. But we got the job anyway.”7
The new AT&T headquarters rose stories above its neighbor, IBM. At the time, both AT&T and IBM produced computers, and both would soon be providing long-distance telephone services. An article in the Economist announcing the construction of the AT&T headquarters commented that “[s]tage sets are going up in midtown for America’s biggest ever clash of corporate titans,” adding that not only would AT&T be able to “look down on
AT&T was able to create such a giant tower and reap the benefits of its prominence because of bonuses they received by providing two types of POPS: open-air pedestrian arcades on the northern and southern sides, and a covered pedestrian space running between the main building and a three-story annex (Figures 5.2 and 5.3). The covered pedestrian space was purportedly patterned after the Galleria in Milan. As in the IBM Atrium, the AT&T pedestrian space had movable tables and chairs, landscaping, and kiosks, but for the first time in the bonus program, the POPS at AT&T also included a science museum that was free and open to the public. The science museum, called AT&T Infoquest, was “dedicated to a multi-media presentation using the historic achievements in communications science and the latest technological advancement developed by Bell Laboratories as a core of the presentation.”10 The City Planning Commission considered the museum to be an important part of AT&T’s special permit because the museum would increase pedestrian traffic and encourage use of the space.11 A description of Infoquest in the New York Blue Guide from the museum’s later years12 said, this “hands-on museum of technology … should delight the technophile, young or old.”13 Infoquest had exhibitions on microchips, computers, and communications technology. Some exhibits were designed as games with which children could “direct their own rock video, manipulate a robot or program a computer to respond to voice commands.”14
When AT&T reshuffled its office holdings in 1992, it leased the building to Sony. With Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects, Sony undertook a major redesign of the building’s interior, including the open-air arcade, transforming the building to match Sony’s carefully crafted corporate brand.15 The transformation included a complete restructuring of the building’s POPS. A 1993 New York Times article described the refurbishment of the AT&T Building and its transformation into a Sony icon: “Mr. Schulhof is redesigning the building’s entire interior, with one goal in mind: Give the world at large a visible taste of what Sony’s all about.”16 At the time, Microsoft, Nike, and Sony were leading the world in corporate branding, emphasizing marketing over production, image over object. As Naomi Klein has argued, branding requires an “endless parade of brand extensions, continued renewed imagery for marketing and, most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand’s idea of itself.”17 With its combination of skyline presence, Madison Avenue address, highly visible retail space, interior public space, and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab—Sony’s version of Infoquest—Sony’s new complex promised to be a potent brand booster.
Public Space Calculus
In order to make changes to the existing AT&T bonus spaces, Sony had to clear their plans with the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission. Correspondence, testimony, and discussion from the City Planning Commission’s public meeting reveal conflicting values toward public space: what should happen there, how it should relate to activities such as shopping and entertainment, and how corporate values relate to public values. Sony’s proposal was controversial. It involved an overall loss of about 33 percent of publicly accessible square footage. The original 14,102 square feet of exterior open arcade was reduced to 3,542 square feet, because the rest was enclosed and converted to indoor retail space. The covered pedestrian space was increased from 5,625 square feet to 9,731 square feet (Figure 5.4).19 Sony successfully argued that the original arcade space was inhospitable, windy, and cold and that the newly designed public areas, though significantly smaller, would have amenities that, according to planning
Paul Goldberger praised the proposed arcade’s new relationship to the street saying, “a solid facade with storefronts is better on Madison Avenue than the present open facade broken up by columns.” He wrote positively about the plaza and its location within the building: “public space belongs off the Avenue, in the glass-roofed arcade, which even now is a far more successful space than the one in front.” He also saw the overall reduction of publicly accessible space due to its transfer to private retail use as a fair trade:
Somewhere there are people who like the A.T.&T. space as it is, but I doubt there are many. I would trade 18,947 feet of fair-to-middling space, which is what the building now has, for 10,220 feet of inviting and usable space any day. And if this important work of architecture ends up with an improved look in the bargain, so much the better.20
Open space advocates of this city are troubled by the lack of debate over Sony’s proposed filling in of almost 9,000 square feet of public open space… . What is even more alarming to us is that space given to the public in exchange for increased floor area is being removed from the public realm without discussion beyond convoluted zoning formulas which bring us to the startling conclusion that less does equal more.23
Charles Gwathmey, the architect hired by Sony to design the new arcade, argued that retail was part of a “tradition of strollers and people hanging around” and that “that kind of shopping, is very much about the public domain and about participation, and that’s clear.”24 Philip Johnson, the AT&T Building’s architect, argued in favor of the changes, saying the Sony proposal would increase retail along Madison Avenue and that the “shopping feeling” there was important to “respect[ing] the uses of the public.”25 Johnson even compared his arcade to the IBM Plaza across the street:
our arcade … has proven to be a bit dark … I go across to my friendly competitor’s, Mr. Barnes’ building, the IBM, and I have a
friendly cup of coffee, in friendly surroundings in a friendly atmosphere, with friendly trees around me. I think that’s one of the ideal public spaces around. The sign is too small, but it didn’t keep me out and I’m a pretty trashy person.26
The sign Johnson referred to is the one announcing the fact that the IBM Atrium is open to the public. His contention that he felt free to walk in and enjoy a “friendly cup of coffee” even though he is a “pretty trashy person” was not only flippant, considering the number of New Yorkers who have experienced exclusion from spaces, but also oddly prophetic, given the events that would unfold in the redesigned Sony Plaza.
Even if members of the New York Planning Commission had their doubts as to whether the proposed Sony spaces would be of equal or greater public benefit when compared to the existing arcade and covered pedestrian space, they would have had little recourse to stop the changes. The zoning resolution that sets out the POPS program has strict calculations regarding the benefit of different kinds of spaces, and Sony had done its math. At the hearing, Michael Silverman, a representative for Sony, more or less “sealed the deal” by laying out the land-use calculations in order to argue that no special permit was needed for the changes. Silverman responded to planning commission concerns that the new spaces would not be as “public” by referring to the Zoning Resolution. He pointed out that “The Zoning Resolution … does not have a term called public space. It speaks of arcade; it speaks of plaza; it speaks of covered pedestrian space and other things.”27 His argument laid out the Sony proposal against the numeric formulas of the bonus program. He noted that the new Sony spaces, because of the amenities they would provide, would result in an even higher bonus than before.28 He argued that the commission legally had to allow the changes. He also pointed out that the proposed spaces would nearly double the amount of climate-controlled pedestrian space, “which has been judged by you as legislators to have a great utility to the public by virtue of the fact that you give it a bonus rate that is almost four times higher than that for an arcade.” He added that the proposed changes were not only developed within the confines of the bonus program, but also that the spaces were qualitatively better than Johnson’s bonus spaces because they were “year-round spaces … more usable by the public.”29
While Silverman didn’t come out and say that the commission would open itself up to litigation if they tried to block the Sony project, his message was clear. Sony’s plan met the requirements set out in the Zoning Resolution,
Inside Sony Plaza
Today the Sony Plaza is considered one of the best POPS produced through the bonus program in part because of the number of its “public amenities.”30 Like the IBM Atrium, Sony Plaza is accessible from the street, its major spaces occur on one level, and it includes movable tables, chairs, and plantings. As at both Trump Tower and the IBM Atrium, you can get coffee and something quick to eat at Sony Plaza. As at Trump Tower, the public restroom and telephones at Sony Plaza are difficult to find but they exist. And because of the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, the plaza is often animated by the voices of groups of youngsters waiting in line.
As a result of the reconfiguration, Sony Plaza includes an intense mix of public space and commercial space in an interior setting. Sony Plaza is linked to a Sony store, where visitors can buy a piece of the Sony image at prices ranging from around $15 for a CD by a Sony-contracted artist to around $15,000 for a Sony home entertainment center. It is not simply that the public space exists next to the retail space; rather, in the case of Sony Plaza the public space is surrounded by private spaces. Because the plaza is nested within the building, the plaza’s walls are also the exterior walls for Sony meeting rooms and the Sony Wonder Technology Lab.
The materials used in the design of Sony Plaza tie its image to that of Sony’s corporate spaces. The plaza’s walls are covered in the same pinkish-colored granite used for the building’s exterior, but the walls on the western side are pierced by curved and rectangular glass bays, through which one can glimpse a hip-looking board room or the neon-lit entrance to Sony Wonder or a flat-screen video monitor announcing the presence of Sony Wonder. On the eastern side, the bottom half of the walls are clear windows to Starbucks and the Sony store, but the upper walls are covered with banners, some with abstract techno-style drawings and some simply stating “Sony.” To the far northern end of the plaza is the Sony Wonder Technology Lab’s exposed, bright yellow elevator. While there are no trees within the space, there are tall pyramidal topiaries of ivy. The furnishings in the space—tables, chairs, and trash receptacles—are all made of shiny aluminum. The message of the
Sony Plaza is perhaps most used and liveliest during the run-up to the December holidays. The giant topiary cones are covered in tiers of curling red and hot pink ribbons, their bases covered in upholstered red velvet fabric that complements the red “Sony” in the Sony Wonder sign. The floors are illuminated by hot pink, red, and yellow patterns of snowflakes projected from the ceiling trusses. A giant, white, translucent “tree” is banded with aluminum and framed by a red velvet curtain suspended from black steel trusses (exposed trusses in silver, black, and white factor large in the design of the plaza, the Sony store, Starbucks, and Sony Wonder, creating a minimalist-techno look). The cold weather brings people into the plaza that may otherwise have been outside. One Saturday morning there were five concurrent games of chess being played, with many onlookers. On such wintry days during the holiday season, it would seem that Johnson’s description of the IBM Atrium as a place for a “friendly cup of coffee, in friendly surroundings in a friendly atmosphere, with friendly trees around me” could be used to describe Sony Plaza.
“BB, Am I Pretty?” Public Museums and Target Markets
Perhaps the friendliest person at Sony Plaza is not a person at all but a robot named BB (Figure 5.5). Part mayor of the space and part entertainer, BB greets visitors from the plaza’s south entrance and chats with them as they wait in line to enter Sony Wonder.31 BB is portly and wears a loose-fitting (if you can call molded plastic “loose”) white lab jacket over a blue button-down shirt with tie. He has a small antenna-like protrusion coming out of his bright yellow helmet/head. He sports a pocket protector with two bright, cartoonish pens. The cogs and wires that operate his eyes and jaw are visible. BB is able to turn his body and head to face whoever speaks to him, and is able to lower his eyes when he converses. BB looks like the perfect technosidekick: nonthreatening, a little goofy, and innocent. But BB is a carefully choreographed marketing machine, as is Sony Wonder.32
At Sony, debates over the new plaza’s design included concerns that the space would become a physical advertisement for its corporate patron.33 Sony’s use of the plaza as a physical advertisement is much more nuanced and arguably more insidious than Donald Trump’s use of Trump Tower. It involves a carefully choreographed aesthetic experience, one based on classic design themes: inside and outside, and insider and outsider. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, branding involves a kind of seduction that takes place in “a venue that is part shopping center, part amusement park, part multimedia extravaganza—an advertisement more potent and evocative than a hundred billboards.”34 The goal of the branded environment is to go beyond advertising’s goals of having people equate a product with a positive feeling, to create instead a “lived reality.”
The fact that a corporation as branding-savvy as Sony would develop and build a public space cum sales machine is hardly surprising. What is surprising is that the main marketing mechanism is an “amenity” required by Sony’s contract with the city: Sony’s version of AT&T Infoquest. Arguably Infoquest was also a kind of museum advertisement with exhibits that were set up to “delight the young technophile.”35 However, AT&T was not marketing to kids. For Sony, kids ages four to seventeen are a valuable market.
As the sequel to AT&T’s Infoquest, Sony Wonder is a required portion of its contract with the New York City Planning Department. But even if it is open to the public for free, Sony Wonder is also undeniably a marketing machine that draws thousands of visitors from Sony’s key demographics— in particular, children ages four to seventeen. The Sony Wonder Technology Lab is a branding environment designed to initiate kids into the Sony community. On my first visit to Sony Plaza, I asked a Sony employee what Sony Wonder was all about. He replied, “It’s a museum.” “A museum of what,” I asked? Without any hint of irony, he replied, “of Sony products.” This is not how the museum is described either by Sony or by the New York City Planning Department, both of which refer to Sony Wonder as a “public museum of technology.”
While children are transformed in Sony Plaza into Sony insiders, others are pushed out. As children line up to see the Sony spectacle, guards circle past the rows of tables and chairs ready to enforce the plaza’s codes of conduct (Figure 5.6). These codes of conduct target people who are homeless by prohibiting otherwise legal behaviors. Attempts by homeless advocates to challenge Sony on their exclusive management practices reveal the inability of our legal system to protect those most reliant on our public spaces for their daily lives. Denying access to certain publics and transforming others into consumers threatens the relationship between physical public spaces and active public forums. For homeless people, it becomes impossible to be present in the space at all, let alone to gather with peers in order to formulate positions regarding shared public lives. For children, it becomes impossible to recognize oneself and one’s peers as part of a public and not simply as shoppers.
The riddling and watching continues until groups are called into the entrance, where, at the time of one visit, a sign read: “Have a Sony Wonderful Holiday!” Once inside, you visit the counter, give your zip code, and receive a swipe card. You see a set of video displays behind the ticket counter that shows what BB sees through his video-camera eyes. Next, visitors ride in the
Before you can move between various spaces in the museum, you must run your swipe card through readers that are positioned at each threshold. As a result, Sony can record how long you lingered in each section and the exhibit can respond to your presence in each section. Your face appears on video screens next to footage of Jimmy Carter at Camp David (a la Forrest Gump), and your voice is heard in a display about music recording. Visitors are thus inserted into the Sony experience, becoming part of the organization, entwined in its history and world history at the same time. The sequence is organized chronologically, starting with and moving along through the videocassette recorder, the personal computer, and the compact disc player. All examples depicting the evolution of technology bear the Sony logo. The educational content of the displays is almost nonexistent. The stage labeled “radio” has only a sign that says “radio” and an example of an old radio and sounds that might be coming from it. The lesson is that the history of Sony is the history of technology.39
The highlight of this part of the exhibit, aside from seeing yourself on-screen, is seeing how BB works. It is as if the “man behind the curtain” has been revealed. BB is controlled by a Sony employee who watches and listens to plaza visitors who are talking to BB. The employee answers their questions and moves BB to make “eye contact.” A sheet on the employee’s workstation has a list of appropriate songs and possible answers to questions. Museum visitors can watch people in the plaza interact with the robot— people who, because they have not had the entire Sony Wonder experience, are still “out of the loop,” not privy to Sony insider knowledge. It was just after passing by the BB control station and going down a ramp that included a multitude of screens showing clips of a young Frank Sinatra,40 JFK, and the original “Sony Boy” that a door, not previously visible because it was a black door flush against a black wall, opened. A smiling young Sony employee stepped right in front of me. One of the museum employees had noticed that I was taking a lot of pictures and she wondered why. Was I from the press? Did I know that I could not publish pictures from Sony Wonder for profit? I explained that I taught design and was photographing the space for class. Where did I teach? Did I have a business card? After several questions, I broke free from the conversation and continued through the museum.
The Sony space embodies the trade-offs of linking commercial spaces and public spaces, particularly because children are involved and because of the sophistication of the Sony sales machine. A recent article published in Nation explores the importance of children—or, more specifically, the more than $28 billion of their own money and the $600 billion of their parents’ money—to advertisers.42 In order to successfully market to kids, advertisers are turning to psychologists: almost every kid-focused advertising team has at least one psychologist. That companies use child psychologists to develop more sophisticated marketing campaigns for kids is not all that shocking; it points to the importance of kids as a market. In 1999 the amount of money spent on advertising and marketing to kids reached $12 billion, “leaving kids bombarded with more than 40,000 manipulative ads a year on TV alone.”43 The Nation article goes on to discuss the cognitive abilities of children and children’s inability to understand “persuasive intent.” Sony Wonder is a valuable space of brand dissemination (Figure 5.8).
While children are courted at Sony Plaza, there are other members of the public that Sony would rather never visit: those who cannot purchase music, movies, or video. On top of every table in the plaza are little placards that look almost like menus but are instead codes of conduct. Sony (and several other interior-space managers) has been illegally enforcing codes of conduct in the plaza and has been discriminating against and allegedly mistreating homeless persons. The codes read: “To ensure the public’s use and enjoyment of Sony Plaza, the following are prohibited: Sleeping, loitering or disorderly conduct, Smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages, Shopping carts, obstructions or unattended packages, Gambling or promoting gaming, Crowding or blocking doorways or walkways, Playing of loud music, radios or stereos, Obscene language or gestures, Running, skating or bicycling, Bringing in pets or animals other than animals assisting the physically challenged, Creating any conditions that unreasonably pose a health or safety risk or disturb others.”
Whether Sony has made attempts to enforce their codes of conduct, the codes themselves parallel the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) definition of criminalization of homelessness:
practices of local jurisdictions in legislating against basic life-sustaining activities such as sleeping, sitting, or storing personal belongings in places where people are forced to exist without shelter. In addition, “criminalization” can include the selective enforcement of other laws like loitering or public intoxication against people who appear to be experiencing homelessness.45
The criminalization of homeless people is not something unique to Sony Plaza but is pervasive both in privately owned and publicly owned spaces in Manhattan, particularly in interior spaces with climate control. It is not within the scope of this chapter to discuss the overwhelming range of issues facing people who have no access to the private realm.46 Nor has enough research
Attempts at litigating for access to public space highlight the fact that legal aspects of public space are complex. There is not legal right to be in public space. In fact there is no legal definition of public space at all. Rather, the concept of the public forum, as it relates to civil liberties such as free speech, and state transportation laws regarding the management of public thoroughfares form the basis for much of the litigation surrounding the use of public space in New York City.
Lawyers like Martin and Siegel face several problems with legally challenging codes of conduct. First, until the codes are enforced—that is, until someone is forcibly removed from the space—there is no dispute. Without a dispute, there is no ruling. But to say that access is not limited without enforcement is incorrect. Sony and the Department of City Planning are using our culture’s everyday conception of how the law is enforced to enforce standards of conduct. Second, developing cases is time-consuming. Because plaintiffs are homeless, it is difficult to maintain contact, particularly since some cases can take several years to develop and move through the courts. Even collecting statements is difficult. As is often the case in challenges to the neoliberal city, treating the effects does little to treat the causes:
While this litigation has led to important victories and captured the public’s attention (though not always its wholehearted support), it remains only a part of the picture. Suing over the right to emergency shelter or the right to panhandle on streets or sleep in parks is critical to many homeless people, but it does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, such as the crisis of affordable housing, decreasing income and public benefit levels, and lack of access to other needed services.47
If the 1975 and 1999 changes to the bonus program have led to a stringent accounting of physical elements in the spaces down to the number of trash receptacles, they did not raise the issue of ongoing problems of ensuring public access in privately owned public spaces. While each bonus space is required to list on a sign in the public space the amenities it must provide according to its contract, the Zoning Resolution says nothing regarding the owner’s ability to manage public use of the space.
City Planning has taken the position that an owner may prescribe “reasonable” rules of conduct. In determining the definition of reasonable, the Department has looked at the rules of conduct applicable in City-owned parks for general guidance. Thus, for example, the Department has considered a dog leash requirement, a ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages, or a prohibition on sleeping in an indoor space to be reasonable… . On the other hand, suggestions by owners that they be allowed to exclude “undesirable” persons on some basis other than improper conduct, or to set limits on the amount of time a member of the public may sit in or otherwise use a space, have been considered unreasonable.48
Who determines the rules for conduct in public spaces? Is it strictly up to the owner to set them according to its own preferences as a property owner, or does the Zoning Resolution’s definition of a residential plaza as an open area for “public use” carry with it some notion of public rights as well? Under either view, reasonable rules and reasonable conduct are the touchstones.49
“Reasonable” to Sony and the New York City Planning Department includes rules that would, if enforced, be illegal. Put differently, anything that constitutes legal behavior outside Sony Plaza is also legal behavior within Sony Plaza. Sony does not “grant” access. All the rights and privileges due to individuals in public spaces must also be guaranteed in privately owned public spaces.50 Any codes of conduct developed by private owners, sit upon the rights one has outside of the space. They are “brought in” as it were. But as the Sony case shows, litigating against codes of conduct is difficult and costly.51
The actual “value”—that is, in dollars and cents—of interior public spaces can be found in the negotiations around bonus spaces between the Department of City Planning and the owners of POPS. Certain kinds of public spaces are simply worth more than others. Amenities considered more valuable yield more in the exchange. Sony’s ability to convert larger portions of a formerly public space into private retail space hinged on the fact that square foot for square foot a smaller climate-controlled space yielded the same bonus allowance as a large space that was open to the elements. Sony was
The accounting process that weighs the value of amenities in POPS serves an important function. It gives the Department of City Planning the ability to weigh against the bonus it will receive, the investment that the corporation is making in the development and management of a POPS space. What the Sony case shows, however, is that the public is not a monolithic entity with uniform needs and desires. Therefore, public amenities are not equally necessary or desirable. On an individual basis, a warm place to sit for an hour for someone without a home is worth much more than it is to someone taking a break from the office or from shopping. Furthermore, to a corporation such as Sony, the public is not uniform. Arguably, during the holiday shopping season it is in the best interest of Sony to remove from the space people who look as if they are homeless, in order to make sure that potential shoppers feel as comfortable as possible. Perhaps the biggest problem is not in the actual accounting of the POPS program but the very idea that a single corporation with a billion-dollar name to protect could ever be the provider and manager of a physical public space when its members, in the corporation’s eyes, are anything but equal.
Of course, homeless people face issues of criminalization and inequity whether they are in a privately owned public space or a publicly owned public space. What the Sony case reminds us of is that, as a country, we are a long way from the socioeconomic parity necessary for functioning public spheres. The distance between Sony’s branding ideal as fed to kids at the Wonder Lab and the actual lives of many New Yorkers who are poor or homeless marks a divide in American society that underlies not only public spaces but also democracy itself. At a time when nonprofit programs that aid the homeless are under threat of having their federal funding cut if they also have programs that help homeless people register to vote, the links between public spheres and public spaces and the rights to be in a space and to participate in democratic life become all the more apparent, and the importance
What if the POPS program’s accounting system was changed to reflect a different set of public “needs”? What if New Yorkers decided that providing shelter to those without access to private space was more important than a place for people to drink coffee and enjoy a break from shopping? Would Sony, in return for bonus incentives, transform the plaza into a shelter? What if Sony simply bought out of the program and that buy-out money was directed toward social programs that sought to bridge the gap between rich and poor? Does New York need another “friendly place to have a friendly cup of coffee”? These questions are, of course, for New Yorkers to decide, not Sony.