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The author is an architect and the self-confessed ‘ghostwriter’ of the retroactive manifesto of Manhattan. The book is not only a manifesto that deconstructs the built urban fabric of the city in reverse but is also a kind of psychoanalytical report on its delirium. Interestingly this book is a nod to the field of urban manifestos by architects like Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and many others. But since it is a retrospective account it in fact challenges the notion of the Modernist Manifesto which sets out to inform the future. Koolhaas achieved significant fame with this book and it has since become necessary reading in various urban design studies curriculum. He also continued to exploit this entry into the genre of architect- author to experiment with other book forms like the architectural monograph with his SMLXL which continues to occupy a significant place in architecture theory.


As an architect Koolhaas uses the built form as the central object of study for the city of New York. He is interested in the history of how the urban form of Manhattan came to be but not as a result of deliberate design but rather as a result of capitalistic opportunism. Prior to becoming an architect, the author was also a script writer, and the book also reads like a psychological thriller in the film noir genre and within the milieu of architectural artefacts and technological fantasy. The writing conflates many different forms of creating a text and in that sense the book can be studied through the many aspects of Koolhaas’ professional interests as well. History is used here as a device that binds the narrative and moves it along rather than as the central object.

Koolhaas begins the history all the way back with the Dutch colonisation of the native Indian lands and the tale of the success of opportunism versus deliberate human endeavour begins with Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Island. The Dutch colonisers set out to create “New Amsterdam” in the image of the original Amsterdam and here Koolhaas sets up the second tension that continuously recurs in the book- the opposition of nature and what is man-made. He suggests that since land in the Netherlands was entirely man-made and scarce, the limited imagination of the coloniser enforces this kidnapped construct of positioning the man-made in opposition to nature even on the colony. This he further examines in the creation of Central Park where nature is tamed within the urban grid and also the gardens atop the Rockerfeller center which serve to improve real estate value. Koolhaas also refers to the ‘air rights’ and the access to the sky on higher floors as technologically enabled access to nature. This he calls “systematic conversion of nature into a technical service” (Koolhaas, 1994, p. 35). The third opposition to reappear in the book several times is the typological binary that Koolhaas sets up between ‘the Needle’ and ‘the Globe’. All built-form in Manhattan subscribes to either one or the other.

The narrative in the book develops chronologically beginning in ‘prehistory’. Structurally the chapters take the form of the blocks of Manhattan that they look to investigate. In the words of the author “this book is a simulacrum for Manhattan’s Grid” (Koolhaas, 1994, p. 11). Koolhaas is using key architectural projects as source material as well as juxtaposing them against historical events like ‘the Great Depression’ of 1929, the speculative land politics that result from the creation of the grid, the establishing of development rights and regulations that can help maximise built-form, to technological inventions like the elevator, electrification and climate control that begin as spectacle. Through these he establishes the key points of the manifesto such as Program, the Culture of Congestion and Manhattan’s ability to invent the Modern rather than import it. Simultaneously he also involves the key local architects and developers like Raymond Hood, Harvey Wiley Corbett, Hugh Ferris, Wallace K. Harrison, Andrew Reinhard, as well the likes of Europeans like Le Corbusier and Dali.


While each of the above had their designs on the city, the author establishes very early on in the book that the city is captive to its grid and all imagination becomes an exercise in understanding how to occupy it effectively. The Grid becomes the first instrument with which the city invites financial involvement and capitalist speculation on its land. The book picks up pace in the second section on Coney Island that Koolhaas suggests is the incubator or the ‘fetal Manhattan’ where the mix of technology and building is exploited as fantasy and the same is then applied in the city as banality. Further along he establishes the various forms of the skyscraper as the second instrument for Capital to work with. The skyscraper makes its appearance as a result of the experimentation on Coney Island, only to be perfected through many iterations on the mainland. Koolhaas suggests that Program becomes the most useful way with which anyone can intervene in the grid. This he explains through key projects like the Downtown Athletic club, Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State, Waldorf Astoria hotel, the Rockefeller Center and others. Each tower that presents itself in the historical narrative is examined as case study of whether it subscribes to the form of the needle or the globe and whether the architectural envelope is a result of what Koolhaas calls “the Vertical Schism” or the “Lobotomy”.


Finally Koolhaas’ account stops the chronology abruptly and doesn’t venture too far into the present. Instead he chooses to end the book with speculative diagrams and ideas for projects. Within the book and its analysis the author also conceals a manifesto for a model of urbanism to come. In that sense not only is the book using case studies to unravel the manifesto the book is also offering itself as a case study for future projects or future urbanism for the author who is also a practicing architect but also for every reader.

Conclusion

The cities these books are set in form the primary and unique protagonists and the historical projects of the books are also embedded in the aura of these cities. The ways the authors approach the books also arises from how they read the cities through their individual professional biases. Cities are a very complex creation of the physical and material but also the immaterial in the form of its stories, myths and a certain culture or air that defines the city, helps identify it or enables one to identify with it. Cities are a product of their unique geographies, topographies and ‘Development Control Regulations’, but the city doesn’t only exist in that form it also exists in the mind and in the imagination and both these books seek to explode this imagination of the city they deal with. History becomes an interesting device then that assumes the place of the narrator in these texts.


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Text: Ekta Idnany Photos: © Sahil Latheef


Dalrymple is a Journalist and a Historian is a visitor to Delhi and the book is as much a chronicle of his year spent in the city as a text on its history. The book is simultaneously an autobiographical account of his research on the city as a historian and a travel guide book. As he moves in a chronologically reverse direction from his present day, each subsequent period is established through the multiple imperialist regimes that established their capitals in Delhi. Dalrymple is trying to unravel Delhi as a city made up of many cities that existed in the various periods and its many different lived realities. Through the book he appears in search of survivors of every era in the architecture (Lutyen’s Delhi, the settlement of Trilokpuri, Chandni Chowk Havelis, The Tughlaqabad Tomb, Fraser’s house etc), the people (Balwinder Singh, Marion and Joe Fowler, the Hijras), the practices (calligraphy, cock-fighting, Unani medicine), the experts (Dr Jaffrey, Dr BB Lal) and the written accounts (Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire, Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali, Muraqqa’-e-Dehli by Kuli Khan and many others).

There is an overriding pattern in each chapter, beginning with the author’s personal discovery – a stroll through a monument or a precinct followed by interviews of survivors and practices that become a link to the past. These accounts are interspersed with explanations from the various literary sources that Dalrymple can access which range from translated Persian texts to Bernier’s accounts which provides for reporting and gossip about the Mughal court, to Ibn Battuta’s accounts of his stay in Delhi. Dalrymple also finds himself personally intertwined in the narrative through the discovery of his wife’s Scottish, East India Company employed ancestor, William Fraser’s personal letters which become a first-hand literary resource in the book.

But it is the author’s journey of discovery that becomes the agent to move the book along, told as a narrative account of his research and chronologically faithful to the year he spends doing the research in Delhi. In one sense, City of Djinns is a post-colonial text - A historical account of the National Capital of Delhi. Dalrymple’s fondness for Delhi is palpable and he seems in awe of the city, while at the same time trying to be factually truthful and scholarly in his writing. Through its varied literary sources that range from other historical travelogues and memoirs, literary fiction and translations the book is clearly making several inter-textual references. Further his use of monuments as a material text that embodies history as well as oral histories also makes the book a post-modernist text. The book also has interesting examples of micro-histories within the larger history, for example the history of the Eunuchs and the change in perception about them from the times of the Mahabharata to the Mughal period.

Dalrymple is also interested in how power plays out within the physical and cultural space of a city through the various survivors (monuments and people) he encounters. The past, for the survivors of those that were ever in power, is always idyllic. The book encounters all the pasts simultaneously in the author’s present and it becomes his job to interpret the nostalgia. As one meets the survivors living in the shadow of the once powerful past through the relatively fast paced narrative of the book, in some sense time collapses for the reader. Through the chapters the narrative unravels the patterns of epochal similarities, even though there are radical differences that dominate the major narrative of each era. Dalrymple himself can be accused of indulging in the nostalgia of the Imperialist in his account of the British period.

As a British man himself, he is a descendant of the coloniser and he comes at the subject with an outsider’s point of view often expressed in his account of things like Indian weddings or the bride’s role in an Islamic Nikaah. He never actually expresses the baggage of the coloniser, even when he reveals his wife’s ancestors to be active participants in the British colonial army. Yet his bias does come through in his accounts of the benevolent Fraser and his loyal natives. Or his favourable opinion on the more a bumbler- less a bigot Lutyen’s Capitol in comparison to Nehru’s Capitol in Chandigarh. In City of Djinn’s Delhi always stays exotic for Dalrymple despite the year he spends in the city. This also squarely puts the book in a way into Western writing on the Orient, which perhaps suggests that the book is intended for a Western reader. It is also possible to speculate that the author is casting himself in the role of his colonial ancestors by emulating their documentation of the colony. As a chronicler of Delhi’s history Dalrymple is trying to preserve its monuments and lost culture from being lost, saving the city from its present and future. Dalrymple even asks such a question of one of his interviewees when he asks her “Do you think British rule was justified?” (Dalrymple, 1993, p. 80).

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Text: Ekta Idnany Photos: © Sahil Latheef

  • Ekta Idnany

Updated: Jul 5

Series Introduction:


We hope this blog post finds you well. Though the tough times are continuing and it seems like there's still a long way to go before we can resume our journeys, we decided to try different ways to go on sojourns. We bring you a series of posts on writings on cities by reviewing books that are particularly about cities. Starting here we revisit two cities and fantastic works that have been around for a while. As a way to inaugurate this series we bring you our thoughts on City of Djinns by William Dalrymple and Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas. This introduction will follow with two separate posts on each of the books.



‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ (CD) by William Dalrymple and ‘Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan’ (DNY) by Rem Koolhaas are both books about the cities mentioned in their respective titles. While both books could be shelved as studies on the city, they also intersect with the specific disciplines that their respective authors are associated with. CD is a historical exploration of the city of Delhi at the intersection of the city and travel writing. Dalrymple is generally considered a historian however his book ‘In Xanadu: A Quest’ that preceded CD is categorised as travel writing. CD while not strictly travel writing is also often catalogued as travel writing or travel memoir. DNY occurs at the intersection of architecture + urban studies and history. Koolhaas, its author, is an architect but prior to that was a journalist and film script writer. Koolhaas also shot to fame with this book and it has since become necessary reading for students of architecture and urban design studies. Both Dalrymple and Koolhaas are not only making an impact on city studies through their books but also to culture studies and postmodern literature.



The titles of the two books are very relevant to what is in the books. In CD the author is looking at the city of Delhi as if it is inhabited by the spectres (Djinns) of history. The basic story is about the author’s discovery of the history of Delhi which takes on the form of a stream of consciousness memoir as well. DNY is labelled as a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan, New York as if to look at the city as a deliberate project that couldn’t have been designed any better than as it has been through opportunism. Since the title of the book indicates that the city is in a state of ‘delirium’, the writing takes on that exact quality as if the author is performing psychotherapy on the city. Staccato sentences follow one another, the tense confusing the reader about whether one is reading about the past, present or future. Facts are presented in almost fairy tale like way. The Illustrations in the book, found and those created by Madelon Vriesendorp for the book are particularly fantastical and surrealistic. Through both books the authors are attempting to take the reader into the psycho-social space that the city occupies in one’s mind as much as looking at how one occupies the physical space of the city.

Text: Ekta Idnany Photos: © Sahil Latheef


* This text was first written as course work for Ekta's PhD coursework

at CEPT University in April 2021.