Reviewed by Carrie Bayley
“Manhattan is the arena for the terminal stage of western civilisation... a mountain range of evidence without manifesto”, Koolhaas observes, and so begins his retroactive manifesto, a scripted chronology of the stages of Manhattanism, its’ permutations and lasting legacies; notably the culture of congestion, Manhattans own “metropolitan urbanism” and revolutionary lifestyle. Through his optimistic narrative “Delirious New York”, Koolhaas, a former screenwriter, sets about investigating the underlying and ironic truths of Manhattan, from the first signs of architecturally applicable technologies, through the great crash and to the present day, 1978. Through a pragmatic approach in understanding external factors and a series of case studies, he documents the reoccurring elements and themes in New York’s development and decline that make it “a theatre of progress” and “the capital of perpetual crisis”. This focuses in particular on the skyscraper as a product of the physical manifestation of Manhattanism on the grid, along with the relationship between this density-focused architecture and the culture of congestion.
At a time where New York had gained a reputation as “a graffiti-covered, crime-ridden relic of history”, Koolhaas, then the recent founder of OMA and visiting lecturer at Eisenman’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, begins to assess and promote what it took to make the capital of invention the ideal precedent and, therefore, what it would take to regain its rightful place on the world stage. He is reconstructing the “perfect Manhattan” so that it’s monumental successes and failures become more evident and it is by selecting New York as the focus of his first major work that Koolhaas sets a foundation for his career.
Split into five distinct “blocks”, an anthology covering “Coney Island, The Skyscraper, Rockefeller Center … Europeans ” and a fictional appendix, each with further component parts, the book acknowledges its affiliation with the Manhattan grid as “a collection of blocks whose proximity and juxtaposition reinforce their separate meanings”. In 1807-1811 “the final and conclusive” plan for Manhattan was made, resulting in the 2028 blocks of the grid to which Koolhaas pays a particular critical focus, labelling it an “artificial domain planned for nonexistent clients in anticipation”, a negative symbol of the short-sightedness of commercial interests with no regard for interaction between fragments or spontaneity. It is with an ever-growing population in a “metropolis of rigid chaos” that the skyscraper then becomes inevitable, forcing an upward extrusion of the grid to maximise profit, often without regard for the art of designing buildings. With the introduction of the 1916 zoning law comes a level of control on the cities scale explosion, without being too restrictive and therefore unintentionally providing a basis for intelligent architectural invention. “The metropolis needs/deserves its own specialized architecture”. When, through his work and with several other architects, Hugh Ferris investigates, but doesn’t solve, the true issues of Manhattan, focusing on the unexplored potential of zoning law, he famously creates the first concrete image of the “mega village” and later the “Ferrisian Void”. “Manhattanism is conceived in Ferriss’ womb”.
From Manhatta to Manhattan, the continuous experiment begins with its discovery by the Dutch in 1609, a link with the Europeans that continues through the rise and fall of the enterprise. “Manhattan is a theater of progress...the cyclical restatement of a single theme: creation and destruction irrevocably interlocked”, a quote which applies to many other scenarios throughout the text. An overview of Manhattans answer to the Crystal Palace introduces the reader to invention as a public spectacle, isolated from direct confrontation with reality. This is further explored in the section “Coney island: the technology of the fantastic”, a resort for the testing of ideas, social experimentation and surrealism in the form of reality. “ A resort implies the presence, not too far away, of a reservoir of people existing under conditions that require to escape occasionally to recover their equilibrium” and to survive as a place offering contrast from the reality shortage in the city, Coney contrasts the natural with the supernatural. To give an idea of scale, the infrastructure and communications networks contained within Luna Park are far superior and more energy consuming that most contemporary American cities. When the centennial tower arrives “it also offers an additional direction of escape: mass ascension”.
Through the accidental and planned inventions of its three parks, infrastructure is created to meet the demands of it’s overtaxed system and, becoming less popular the more people it attracts, Coney island develops bizarre and outrageous technologies, concepts and urban scenarios that eventually become applied in a normal context as the focus shifts to Manhattan. This establishes an urbanism based on the technology of the fantastic- defining completely new relationships between site, program, form and technology. As it is sent crashing back to reality after fire, that even its well-practised fire-fighter cast can’t extinguish, Coney meets its downfall. More ironically, it is proposed that the land should be turned into a public park, becoming a model for the modern Manhattan of grass, exactly what it was providing an alternative to. But the precedent doesn’t work second time around, the testing ground has to adapt with the times. Where Coney Island is the testing ground for the skyscraper, Manhattan then continues to be a testing ground for urbanism. And who is to argue that Manhattan wasn’t the inventor of these things? If not, Koolhaas is very convincing.
The inception of the culture of congestion and the technologies developed, notably the elevator and steel, facilitate the rise of the Manhattan skyscraper, “born in instalments between 1900 and 1910”. This represents the meeting of three breakthroughs, “the reproduction of the world”, “the annexation of the tower” and “the block alone”, each defined separately by Koolhaas “before they were integrated into a ‘glorious whole’”. As the demand for office space rises in an emerging metropolis with a restrictive grid, created there is a need for the production of an unlimited number of virgin sites in a single location, each with it’s own destiny outside of the control of the architect. Koolhaas describes the “ideal performance of the skyscraper” in its initial stages as a concept, existing in 1909, as 84 disconnected virgin sites stacked on top of each other- “a new form of unknowable urbanism”. As models of this descent manifest themselves within the grid, so presents itself one of Manhattans most intense themes- “a city in a building”. As the concept of the 100th floor approaches and the skyscraper becomes even more the product of an architecture by economy and with it comes what Koolhaas terms “Lobotomy”, that is, “less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity”, a container for undetermined interior activity rather than the expression of that externally, a still relevant scenario characterising today’s urban fabric. At the point where the 1916 zoning law is introduced, the culture of congestion becomes an enterprise, an indication of the culture of the 21st century. “Congestion itself is the essential condition for realising each of these metaphors in the reality of the grid”.
Koolhaas explains a “summary of the phases of Manhattans urbanism, featuring all the strategies, theorems, paradigms and ambitions that sustain the inexorable progress of Manhattanism”. Portrayed in the creation of the Waldorf Astoria hotel and the Empire State building, “a skyscraper surpassing in height anything ever constructed by man”, is the conversion from virgin site to skyscraper in 150 years, an example of what he terms an auto monument. The problem at the beginning is simply that it isn’t a skyscraper and should become one in order to reap the financial harvest permitted by the 1916 law. There is no room for nostalgia. The Empire State is the last manifestation of Manhattanism as pure and thoughtless process, the climax of subconscious Manhattan and the first example of what was to come.
Through a description of the life of the Rockefeller Center we begin to understand Koolhaas’ intentions. By this point, he has introduced key characters and themes which are optimised in the creation of the Rockefeller Center, a city within a city exemplifying the financial viability of the skyscraper and representing congestion on all possible levels. As a hybrid building, the building isn’t assigned a hierarchy, nor does it follow a specific typology, but parts of the mountain are assigned to necessary functions, what Koolhaas terms the “the vertical schism, which creates the freedom to stack such disparate activities directly on top of each other without any concern for their symbolic compatibility”. To fit a brief “the center must combine the maximum of congestion with the maximum of light and space”, an achievable target given the great depression of the 1930’s which represented time to think, “an enforced break in the frenzy of production”, and for the principals of the center to become more idealistic than commercial. It is described as “a masterpiece without a genius”, a result of the work of the associated architects, formed in part during the crash and proof for Koolhaas of the advantages of architecture by committee. “There is at least one idea for each of its 250million dollars”. “Rockefeller Center is the fulfilment of the promise of Manhattan. All paradoxes have been resolved. From now on the metropolis is perfect.”. It promises a significant contribution to the city planning of an unfolding future.
The end is marked with the invasion of the Europeans who come to “reclaim” Manhattan and adapt it to their own needs. “A tourist returns from foreign unrecognisable” and so did the skyscraper once it had been to Europe”. Through a bizarre cross fertilization of misunderstood rhetoric, American pragmatism and European idealism have exchanged ethos”. A particular emphasis on Dali and Le Corbusier represents Koolhaas’ apparent aversion to Le Corbusier. Where Dali does not attempt to tamper “with its physique”, Le Corbusier “proposes literally to destroy it” and in doing so first attempts to disprove the existence of the city as machine before he can create his own alternative where there is no place for the technology of the fantastic only business, the result being the anti skyscraper. After a “worldwide journey of paranoia” Corbusier brings the Radiant city, a theoretical metropolis in search of location and the anti Manhattan, to New York. But the scheme possesses no metaphor and by proposing to literally solves congestion and kills it, so creating the urban non event New York’s own planners have always avoided, a result of excluding of the factors that have built the Ferissian mountain. In the late thirties Manhattanism is waning. Post-war architecture is the accountants’ revenge on pre-war businessmen’s dreams. The formula “technology + cardboard = reality” created in the early days of Coney Island has retuned to haunt Manhattan, the result being not “peeling white paint but disintegrating curtain walls of the cheap skyscraper”. “Through its amnesia, Manhattan no longer supports an infinite number of superimposed and unpredictable activates on a single site; it has regressed back to the clarity and predictability of univalence- to the known.”
In a fictional conclusion, Koolhaas demonstrates a series of four ironic, speculative and hypothetical projects for New York which encompass all the themes in the book and are “an interpretation of the same material”. With the story of the pool, the last metaphor raises its head, representing the new influx of designers escaping to the freedom of New York but who will inevitably find it destroyed when they present themselves as scriptwriters for the New York stage.
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