Soft–Firm’s Love Letters named winner of the 2021 Times Square Design Competition

Love At The Crossroads

Soft–Firm’s Love Letters named winner of the 2021 Times Square Design Competition

Love Letters will be on view in Times Square February 10 through March 10. (Soft–Firm/Courtesy Times Square Arts)

Times Square Arts has announced that Love Letters, a billet-doux-ready interactive public art installation to be realized in plywood, safety net, and dichroic film, is the winner of the 13th annual Times Square Design Competition. The project team includes Lexi Tsien and Talitha Liu, founding members of the interdisciplinary New York design practice Soft­–Firm, along with junior designer Tanvi Marina Rao with fabrication by Pink Sparrow and contributions from Barry Cordage and Layr.

Subtitled “Love in Our Times,” this year’s competition—hosted by Times Square Arts, curated by Reddymade, and developed in consultation with worthless studios—will once again bring an affection-evoking ephemeral work of architecture to the heart of Midtown Manhattan. In past years, the competition was known as the Times Square Valentine Heart Design competition, a more explicit nod to the winning, love-celebrating pavilions that were accessible to the public on and around the most amorous day of the calendar year.

Love Letters will be unveiled on February 10 and remain on view through March 10. And like in past years, the installation will serve as the backdrop to a multitude of weddings, surprise proposals, and vow renewal ceremonies that will likely unfold in a more distanced manner than has been the norm.

The “Wishing Well” section of Love Letters. (Soft–Firm/Courtesy Times Square Arts)

That said, the world has changed dramatically since last year’s winning installation, Heart Squared from MODU and Eric Forman Studios, graced Father Duffy Square between West 46th and 47th Streets. At a time when New York City and the rest of the country continue to grapple with unthinkable loss and seismic social and political upheavals, Love Letters is intended to serve as a beacon of togetherness that invites the public to participate in the communal act of benevolent note-leaving.

Reminiscent of the (sometimes ruinous) love lock rite and ancient votive offerings (or more locally, Subway Therapy at Union Square station or the 9/11 Tiles for America project in the West Village), Love Letters will transform from a sculptural plywood blank canvas into a constantly evolving public repository of missives, mementos, and colored wish ribbons that can be tied to the netted underlay of Soft–Firm’s sloping, snaking structure by passersby.

“I think the love lock was really the first thing we caught on to with the lock being a symbol of safety and security but also fortitude,” Tsien explained to AN. “The idea was to soften that into a ribbon. And there’s a way that the ribbon speaks to the form of the plywood itself that in a way softens things.”

model view of a public art installation
(Soft–Firm/Courtesy Times Square Arts)

“It’s also a great way to feel like someone has been there [at the installation] before you because you visually see the thing that they left behind,” added Liu. “It’s kind of a distanced way of being with other people.”

Comprised of plywood panels and mirrored windows, the curious form of Love Letters, which will incorporate a quartet of integrated programmed spaces—the Soap Box, the Loveseat, the Chapel, and the Wishing Well—into a single folding surface, fully reveals itself from viewed from above (including from the TKTS booth-topping Red Steps) where it resembles the shape of two intertwined hearts.

Given the times, the tokens that can be affixed to the structure’s safety net (a “material sympathetic to the language of rebuilding” as noted by Soft–Firm) aren’t anticipated to be straight-up valentines or other desirous dispatches although they certainly can be. Short remembrances of lost loved ones, notes of gratitude, letters of protest, and amity-extending gestures are all also welcomed.

oblique view of heart-shaped art installation
(Soft–Firm/Courtesy Times Square Arts)

“The idea of love is a bold and radical gesture in this increasingly divisive moment, and it felt important to use our public space and this design challenge as a platform for creative expressions of hope, togetherness, and intimacy,” said Jean Cooney, director of Times Square Arts, the public art program of the Times Square Alliance. “With Love Letters, Soft-Firm poetically transforms plywood, which has become this visual signal of fear and defensiveness across our cities, and repurposes it into a statement of love.”

Worth noting is that for this year’s Times Square Design Competition, Times Square Arts and Reddymade (the winner of the 2019 competition) not only expanded the previously more romance-equated theme to include “broader notions of interdependence, collective resilience, and inclusivity” but also set a material constraint for the first time in the history of the program: Plywood. As mentioned by Cooney, plywood has gained a new ubiquity on the streetscapes of New York City and beyond over the past ten or so turbulent months.

illustation of public art installation at night in times square
(Soft–Firm/Courtesy Times Square Arts)

“The material came with its own meaning that we just kind of ran with: thinking about plywood and storefronts and enclosures during pandemic times, and thinking about ways to engage with that not just as an aesthetic, but also people bringing their own meanings to it,” said Liu.

Beyond the leaving of heartfelt mementos and tying of ribbons, Tsien and Liu also hope Love Letters becomes a socially-distanced hub of activity when installed. “I think that the programming of the Soap Box, the Loveseat, the Chapel, and the Wishing Well all speak to the main motivations but they aren’t prescribed, they’re just suggested,” said Tsien. “We want the sculpture to be used as much as possible.”

“It’s not going to be—and it’s not trying to be—a pristine, perfect object,” added Tsien. “It’s really about everyone’s voices being in there.”