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He’ll Take Manhattan

Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan

by Rem Koolhaas
Oxford University Press, 263 pp., $35.00

New York—synonym for big, great, astounding, miraculous! New York—mecca which lures the brightest minds, the most brilliant writers, the most masterful artisans to its gates! New York—what visions of magnitude, variety and power the name New York conjures up for human comprehension. Buildings that house whole cities in themselves, such as the Empire State, Graybar, Chrysler, Lincoln and a score of others, keep going up in almost every part of the huge city.”

So begins a volume entitled New York—The Wonder City, by W. Parker Chase, a promotional encyclopedia published in 1932. It is naïve and quaint, but its message is not altogether different from the polemic which Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch-born architect and former script writer who now practices architecture in London, offers nearly half a century later. This is a book which takes its place in the long line of works by Europeans, from Dickens to Le Corbusier, who, for all their sophistication, seem stunned by New York’s energy. Delirious New York celebrates bigness and power and drama and congestion, all of which, in Koolhaas’s view, are crucial to the city’s identity. Congestion is in fact the very key—it is the excitement and tension of crowding that are the leitmotifs for everything about New York, Koolhaas believes, inspiring both New York’s physical form and the way of life of its inhabitants.

To Koolhaas, Manhattan represents “the one urbanistic ideology that has fed, from its conception, on the splendors and miseries of the metropolitan condition—hyper-density—without once losing faith in it as the basis for a desirable modern culture. Manhattan’s architecture is a paradigm for the exploitation of congestion” (italics his).

Koolhaas believes that Manhattan has never really understood its own nature, and that it is his mission to explain it to us. He even refers to himself—alas, without irony—as “Manhattan’s ghost-writer.” The gospel of Manhattan’s “culture of congestion,” as Koolhaas calls it, must be spread quickly, he feels, for we may already be doomed to another kind of city, a city of sterile boxes without any of the wild and mad power of Manhattan in its heyday.

New York was once a glorious, hysterical, narcissistic place, the argument goes (the hyperbolic language of The Wonder City is proof of that), but the magic was lost, somewhere around the 1950s, to the increasingly powerful forces of European modernism. Modern European architecture—i.e., the International Style—was profoundly rational, Koolhaas correctly observes. It sought a universal style that would be a straight-forward expression of technology and function. Koolhaas suggests that the “delirious” architecture of New York, on the other hand, was irrational—fantasy was more important to the designers of New York’s great early skyscrapers than any sort of principles of structural honesty or form following function. Koolhaas sets up styles as characters in a drama: New York is a flamboyant city whose architectural spirit is threatened by the powers of sober rationalism.

The notion of fantasy as crucial to the making of New York’s image is as vital to his ideas as the notion of congestion. He asserts, in fact, that Coney Island was “the foetal Manhattan,” the true model for Manhattan. It was in the magical towers of Luna Park and Dreamland, in the blocks and blocks of dazzling, glowing minarets and campaniles and domes by the sea, he writes, that New York’s skyscraper architects found their real inspiration.

It is a charming, romantic notion. If only it were true. Koolhaas gives us a great deal of intriguing information about Coney Island—I did not know, for instance, that Dreamland had a huge model of Venice, large enough for gondolas to glide through, or that its promoters built an incubator for babies. But he fails to offer convincing evidence that Coney Island did in fact affect skyscraper design. Indeed, Dreamland, the most extravagant of all of Coney Island’s fantasies, did not even open until 1903, by which time Manhattan’s skyscrapers were well on their way to achieving a collective identity—an identity which, to be fair, was indeed more flamboyant and theatrical than that of skyscrapers in other large cities. But if anything formed the basis for the imagery of New York’s early skyscrapers, it was not Coney Island as a fantasy place, but the city’s own tradition of earnest and energetic historical cribbing. In Chicago, John Wellborn Root and Louis Sullivan sought a rational and serious expression of modern technology in its skyscrapers. In New York architects sought, rather, to dazzle by picking a bit of the twelfth century here, a bit of the fifteenth century there, seeking to legitimize the city’s social strivings by declaring a history it did not truly possess.

Koolhaas analyzes the New York skyscraper in detail. He offers as its crucial elements the replication of floor area on level after level, the use of the tower to produce an image (here the similarity to Coney Island, if not the causal connection, becomes clear), and the placement of the building on its own full-block site, apart from other structures and standing alone as an island, a private world, on Manhattan’s grid. Early skyscrapers like the immense, boxy Equitable Building of 1915 by Ernest R. Graham, which has a stone bulk rising thirty-nine stories without setback on a block-long site (causing such an outcry that it led to the passage of the nation’s first zoning laws), fulfill Koolhaas’s first condition, the mere replication of floor after floor of space. Slender towers like the 1909 Metropolitan Life Insurance Company campanile by Napoleon Le Brun have the second quality. All are present in Cass Gilbert’s great Woolworth Building of 1913.

But even Woolworth does not represent the full potential of “Manhattanism,” as Koolhaas calls his theory. It “is only a partial realization of the potential of the Skyscraper [capitals his]. It is a masterpiece merely of materialism; none of the programmatic promises of the new type are exploited. The Woolworth is filled, from top to bottom, by business.”

To work as an element in the “culture of congestion,” a skyscraper must fulfill W. Parker Chase’s conditions as well—it must “house whole cities.” Koolhaas’s ideal is the city of massive, powerful, exuberant towers mixing all kinds of function, all kinds of human experience, so as to permit us “to exist in a world totally fabricated by man; i.e., to live inside fantasy.” Rockefeller Center comes closest to achieving Koolhaas’s dream, and it is highly praised here, as is Raymond Hood, whose design ideas gave direction to the large consortium of architects responsible for the Center, and who is as much of a hero as this book has. Celebrated as well are the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Downtown Athletic Club, both structures which combine a variety of uses—eating, sleeping, playing, working—into the skyscraper form.

Koolhaas has sharp observations on the Waldorf, and is snidely amusing on the Athletic Club. Of the hotel, completed in 1932 to the designs of Schultze & Weaver, he notes that the building is a complete world unto itself, a place that offers not only a variety of activities but also a variety of cultures, each accessible by a walk into one of the restaurants or nightclubs. He sometimes takes this notion of experiencing other cultures rather too literally—a Scandinavian restaurant hardly makes its diners think they are Norsemen. Koolhaas himself sees it as a game, but ignores how cheap such marketing of exotic food and atmosphere can be. He has not forgotten his early career in film writing: “In the thirties…the ‘Hotel’ becomes Hollywood’s favorite subject. A Hotel is a plot—a cybernetic universe with its own laws generating random but fortuitous collisions between human beings who would never have met elsewhere…. By taking a room in the hotel, a guest buys his way into an ever-expanding script, acquiring the right to use all the decors and to exploit the prefabricated opportunities to interact with all the other ‘stars.’ ”

The Downtown Athletic Club is harder to romanticize. For Koolhaas, all of its mixed functions have a harsher purpose: to take men away from the world of stocks and bonds and train them in “the bewitchment of the Metropolis” to become greater physical beings, self-made strongmen who need neither work nor women. And Koolhaas is amusing when he turns to the WASP male culture of Wall Street: “an incubator for adults, an instrument that permits the members—too impatient to await the outcome of evolution—to reach new strata of maturity by transforming themselves into new beings…. The Downtown Athletic Club is a machine for metropolitan bachelors whose ultimate ‘peak’ condition has lifted them beyond the reach of fertile brides.”

Rockefeller Center, the Waldorf, and the Downtown Athletic Club represented the high point of the culture of congestion, the most fully realized examples of the intense merging of lives and places into the physical shell of a flamboyant and tall structure. It was downhill from there, according to Koolhaas, although Wallace K. Harrison, the longtime senior partner of Harrison & Abramovitz and the one architect of the Rockefeller Center team who survives, is presented as a noble striver toward more complex, ornate, and dense architecture throughout the 1950s. But Harrison loses, in the end: the three nearly identical, banal skyscrapers his firm completed in the early 1970s on Sixth Avenue, the Exxon Building, the McGraw-Hill Building, and the Celanese Building, are the ultimate triumph of the rational. Koolhaas’s glorious drama is over, ended in defeat; the city that is left is ordered and dull and altogether lacking in passion.

Delirious New York is a morality play masquerading as architectural history. This is too bad, really, because the right and noble side—the exuberant towers of a prewar Manhattan—is worth praising. Indeed, what Koolhaas admires is almost always worth admiring and what he damns is almost always worth damning. The problem is that so much else goes with Koolhaas’s judgments. Setting the story of Manhattan into the frame of a struggle between the forces of irrationality (good) and the forces of rationality (evil) has led Koolhaas to be so selective in his facts as to make the book virtually useless as history, and what we are left with is merely polemic. And polemics are always more effective when they attack the future, where nothing can be proven, than when they turn backward and tangle with scholarship.

Koolhaas’s attitude toward Wallace K. Harrison is a case in point. He calls Harrison “Manhattan’s last genius of the possible” and celebrates his influence on Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, and numerous other projects. To Koolhaas, Harrison is an ambivalent figure—a Hamlet—torn between the desire to fulfill the Koolhaasian principles of irrational, joyous congestion, and the desire to surrender to the evil forces of rationality. Would that Harrison, the architect of Nelson Rockefeller’s Albany Mall among other projects, were so tragic, or even so complex—instead of simply a thoughtful, well-intentioned businessman-architect, a man who has made compromises throughout his long career, an architect who chose to play the politics of his profession. He has been not so much torn by conflicting ideologies as indifferent to them, preferring to reflect prevailing fashions.

Indeed, Harrison was never a strong designer—others made the preliminary sketches while he administered and organized and refined, and thus, for him, there was no conflict in moving from the powerful drama of Rockefeller Center to the prissy classicism of Lincoln Center to the utter sterility of the new Sixth Avenue.

Koolhaas treats congestion as if it were something invented by and for New York, and he even writes that the urban planners of the 1920s, who proposed multi-level streets to separate automobile and pedestrian traffic, in fact did not really want to relieve congestion at all: “[Their] true ambition is to escalate it to such intensity that it generates—as in a quantum leap—a completely new condition, where congestion becomes increasingly positive…. They know instinctively that it would be suicide to solve Manhattan’s problems, that they exist by the grace of these problems, that it is their duty to make its problems, if anything, forever insurmountable.”

If Koolhaas were talking about the fallacy of professional expertise, or even about the nature of bureaucracy, this would be a wise and witty comment. But he is describing the work of Harvey Wiley Corbett, an architect and member of the Rockefeller Center planning team, whose visionary schemes were surely earnest ones. If they could be faulted for anything, it is a certain innocence, not the cynical assurance that Koolhaas ascribes to them.

Congestion is a magical concept here, but it is never fully explained. In his belief that vitality is a product of density, Koolhaas aligns himself with what has, by now, become conventional urban theory. Jane Jacobs would doubtless agree when Koolhaas tells us that “only congestion can generate the modernized automotive Venice,” but he ignores the fact that Los Angeles and Houston, both cities of startling vitality, are places of relatively low density, their population spread widely across the landscape. Houston in particular seems today to have all of the aggressiveness and self-pride Koolhaas ascribes to New York, and does so with relatively little conventional congestion at all.

Electronic communication seems to be changing the significance of physical proximity—people in Greenwich or Dallas or San Diego can do some kinds of business with each other as easily as people who occupied adjacent suites in the Chrysler Building could in the 1930s. Congestion today thus may have other implications—since it is no longer as necessary for people to live and work on top of each other, they may do so now because they, like Koolhaas, find congestion culturally stimulating (one cannot deny that this conviction is one of the major factors contributing to what vitality New York does have today) or because they are too poor to live any other way.

Koolhaas ignores the negative meaning of congestion for the poor, just as he ignores the implications electronic technology has for the forms of cities. On the other hand, there are a number of observations in this book that are intelligent, and not a few that are also fresh—though Koolhaas’s insistent hyperbole and exclusive use of the present tense often undermine them. Koolhaas is right, for example, in believing that the grid plan of streets is crucial to Manhattan’s identity; it holds this irrational city in check, providing a subtly rational counterpoint to the city’s mad impulses. But does that make the 1811 plan in which the grid was laid out “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization”? And if, as Koolhaas says, “subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is [the grid’s] true ambition,” it hardly follows that the grid “makes the history of architecture and all previous lessons of urbanism irrelevant.”

This last remark suggests the thesis, so often promoted by other romantic historians of Manhattan, that everything in New York was directed toward the new, toward the obliteration of everything old in favor of things that had never existed before. But it was never so simple: culture was never seen to begin with a truly fresh slate, even in the ruthlessly energetic New York of the early twentieth century, which was so passionately committed to growth. Koolhaas himself quotes from Benjamin de Casseres’s Mirrors of New York: “We take from you what we need and we hurl back in your face what we do not need. Stone by stone we shall remove the Alhambra, the Kremlin and the Louvre and build them anew on the banks of the Hudson.” This more accurately reflects the attitude toward history that existed in the early years of this century—New York wanted history desperately, but without any of the ideological baggage that came along with it.

The notion was, in effect, to use architecture as a way of owning the past as no other culture had done before. The Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century, immersed in moral fervor as it was, was more dominated by the Gothic style than a style on its own; in twentieth-century New York, freedom from the ideologies of these different styles had been achieved not by abandoning them all to modernism, as Le Corbusier urged, but by taking them, and using them freely, hedonistically even, with scant regard for their original meanings. A Roman bath for a train station, a Gothic crown for an office building, a Georgian manor for an apartment house—how better, in the absence of confidence in any indigenous tradition, to assert the superiority of one’s own culture over all the others, now made architectural captives? Visual pleasure was the goal, and history was seen as a vast smorgasbord, each style there for the picking.

This is not entirely inconsistent with Koolhaas’s view; his very point is to prove that New York was hedonistic. But he errs in seeing this hedonism as central to the city’s physical development. The city’s image in the early decades of this century was one of consummate theatricality, but this was always balanced by hard-headed, no-nonsense business. Skyscraper tops in New York may have been flamboyant—one could never imagine the Chrysler Building in Chicago, the city of rational skyscrapers—but they sat on top of straightforward rentable space. There was nothing hedonistic about the Equitable Building which Koolhaas so much admires—it was a cynical attempt to get a lot of rentable space onto a small amount of land, no different in intention, really, from the boring glass boxes that line Third Avenue today.

One might argue that it was the huge hulk of Graham’s thirty-nine-story Equitable, not the tower of Woolworth or the magic of Coney Island, that was the true model for the Manhattan of the years that followed. It may well be that no other city could have produced such brilliant creations as the Woolworth Building and the Chrysler Building, but far more of the cityscape of Manhattan is taken up by mediocre structures notable largely for the zeal with which their designers sought to realize the greatest possible rental income. The theatricality of New York was a veneer, and a thin one at that; behind it came layer upon layer of ordinary, even oppressive, speculator-built buildings. It was these, alas, that held the stronger claim to being the true New York.

Koolhaas’s acknowledgment of the rest of New York is so brief as to invite quotation in full: “A blueprint does not predict the cracks that will develop in the future; it describes an ideal state that can only be approximated. In the same way this book describes a theoretical Manhattan, a Manhattan as conjecture, of which the present city is the compromised and imperfect realization” (italics his).

A lawyer writing liability disclaimers could not get his client off the hook more neatly: if there is not enough evidence to support the theory, he is saying, well, just remember that the world is imperfect and full of compromises, and that the theory is true anyway. Not only is this not good scholarship, it is barely even good polemic.

There is, however, an enormous amount of useful information here, even if it is often twisted to be made compatible with Koolhaas’s “manifesto.” Much of it is visual—there are superb photographs of early skyscrapers, and a truly remarkable array of documents of unbuilt projects, such as the early scheme by Wallace Harrison joining all of Lincoln Center’s buildings by a common curvilinear lobby (I do not believe that this has ever been published), a fine set of illustrations of the early versions of Rockefeller Center, and a 1906 proposal by Theodore Starrett for a 100-story building. There are also splendid color plates of the projects which Koolhaas and his associates have done to encourage Manhattan to return to its irrational ways, and these are often quite beautiful and powerful.

The best is “The City of the Captive Globe,” a metaphorical Manhattan in which countless architectural styles, and much of architectural history, sit on a granite base, each piece filling its own private block of the grid and turning the city literally into a gallery of the history of architecture. Finally there are Madelon Vriesendorp’s exquisite and witty drawings of skyscrapers as living beings, one of which, a view of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in bed together, adorns the cover. All of the illustrations in the book suggest a Manhattan of great beauty and drama, and one cannot escape the feeling that the pictures make Koolhaas’s point far better than do his words.

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