Reflections: Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978) by Rem Koolhaas
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.
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.
Text: Ekta Idnany Photos: © Sahil Latheef