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 …

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