The central gallery of the Palace of Versailles is no ordinary room. It was designed, furnished and decorated to become a luxurious, excessive statement of Louis XIV’s unmatched political supremacy, the salle des visites of the world’s most powerful leader. It boasted lavish silver furniture and dramatic, heroic stuccoed ceilings – the central panel of which read Le roi governe par lui-même, or the king governs alone.
The Hall of Mirrors, as it became known, was built as an architectural expression of power. A power not only expressed in depiction, but also in reflection: the room’s most remarkable feature was its seventeen mirrored arches, each made up of twenty-one mirrors. Reflecting the arcaded windows that open to the royal balcony and gardens, these arches bring the palace’s theatrical surroundings from outside to inside. But they mirrored first the king’s family, ministers, secretaries, clerics, ambassadors, courtesans, lovers and conspirers. Everyone who was, or wanted to be someone, aspired to see and be seen at the most public of rooms of the whole kingdom of France.
During the following decades, this became the venue for the celebration of marriages, balls and other public royal functions until the brutal fall of Louis XVI in 1789. From then on, this epicenter of absolute power was no longer a reflection of the opulence, intrigue and decadence of the Ancien Régime, but was to be part of a new world, celebrated in the streets of Paris, other enlightened capitals of Europe and the New United States of America.
The absolute law and might of the king surrendered to the three unshakable principles of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood. We, the people, would never again let these truths escape from our hands: if truth is power, we were no longer dependent on a god-appointed ruler to tell us what to believe in. We were to create a new world, where all men were free and equal. Under this faith, we would create states, build, rebuild or reinvent cities, and fight whoever opposed our version of universal truth.
As such, the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918 in no other place than Hall of Mirrors, ending a world war and an age of empires. A new world order had began, and its new center was found far from Versailles: no other place would capture the world’s belief in freedom, enterprise and individual achievement than New York City. Only here the sky was the limit of our ambitions. We would build New York to be our new paradigm of human endeavour. So in 1945 we celebrated again the end of another World War, in a new gallery of power: New York’s Times Square.
This crossroads of money, power, dreams and expectations became known throughout the 20th century as the city’s beating heart. Even at its most derelict, decadent times, it never ceased to be a reflection of the society that shaped it, a democratic, capitalist society ruled not by absolute rulers, but by the masses. Not by despotic decrees, but by exchanges of power and money.
The colors, shapes, images and messages of Times Square are expressions of that society: they have filled the pages, screens and imaginations of generations, who have longed for decades to come and find their own reflections in this epicenter of mainstream. This global salle des visites is the epitome of the commercial brand as the lowest common denominator of truth, the consumer as its blind believer, and of urban experience as commodity.
Brands have been made to reflect us as a society, to express our values, beliefs and aspirations. As such, they are today stronger than religious symbols, ideological values and political rhetoric. They are also the faces of corporations, amorphous entities often more powerful than nations themselves. So in a city where edifices of power are named after the companies that erect them, recognition, reputation and awe are no longer achieved through masonry, steel or glass.
Times Square has been designed, furnished and decorated to become the ultimate urban, corporate, Hall of Mirrors: ever-changing shop signs, theater marquees, billboards, mechanically or electronically moving pictures clad the buildings to catch our eye and demand our natural reaction: seek our own likeness, and buy it. But do we know today who’s selling us – the crowds of free citizens of consumption – the Technicolor version of a 21st century urban environment we came to see? If in Versailles the one, absolute truth was impossible to avoid in every surface, will we ever know who hides behind the mirrors on the façades of this urban oddity, named after an unsacred, unelected, commercial organ of truth that has long left its building?
This text was written for Karrie Jacobs‘ Urban Curation course. For this assignment, Jacobs had us read “The Lamp of Truth” by John Ruskin, in “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”, and Marshall Berman’s “A Times Square for the New Millennium: Life on the Cleaned Up Boulevard” article from “Dissent Magazine” (Winter 2006). After which we walked around the neighborhood as a group, looking at the layers of architectural and urban planning history, Jacobs asked us to write a brief essay (750 words) on the meaning of truth in the 21st century urban environment.