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Rem Koolhaas: Delirious New York : A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978)

Friday, February 3, 2012



Reviewed by Laura Minca

Delirious New York – A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan represents an insightful evaluation of Manhattan as an urban and architectural test-ground, a laboratory for the invention and implementation of the fundamental theories and visions that determined the metropolitan life style reach its current mythical status. In 1978 when the book was released, the confidence in Manhattan was shattered by a period of financial turmoil.
A reminder of its past glory was promptly needed, and Koolhaas had the answer: a ‘retroactive’ manifesto celebrating carefully selected stages in its evolution ever since its discovery in 1609 up to the present day.

Referring to himself as ‘Manhattan’s Ghost Writer’, Koolhaas closely observes the Metropolis’s relentless metamorphosis: from ‘an unformulated theory’ as an initial response to the instinctual vanity imposed by the Grid’s blocks, to the cathartic realization that ‘the culture of congestion’ is a cure as opposed to a malady. As a result, all those attempting to provide antidotes to its mega-polis status end up absorbed in the vortex of its ambition and speed. The remarkable thing about New York is precisely its cannibalistic tendencies to ingest its past in order to give birth to the future.

Koolhaas pays tribute to the physical delineation of the grid by implementing it into the structure of the book on a metaphorical level and referring to it as - ‘a collection of blocks whose proximity and juxtaposition reinforce their separate meanings.’ What the five different ‘blocks’ underpin through their temporal and spatial leaps is that individuality and segregation can lead to a symbiotic level of coherence - ‘Prehistory’, ‘Coney Island’, ‘The Skyscraper’, ’The Rockfeller Centre’, ‘Europeans’ are part of a whole portraying an glorified Manhattan in order for its accomplishments and imperfections to become yet more apparent.

The first chapter – ‘Prehistory’ - delves into the stringent need to mythologize the story of a glorious past suitable for a triumphant present. The author focuses on an ‘embryonic’ Manhattan, starting with its discovery in 1609 and the subsequent transplant of a utopian Europe - a radical procedure which Koolhaas labels as ‘a theatre of progress’, a perpetual domination of barbarism by refinement through ruthless eradication of past evidence. Thus, the concept of ‘lobotomy’ gets ingrained into Manhattan’s subconscious, becoming the leitmotif in its further stages of evolution. The implementation of the Grid in 1811 indicates the same amnesic behaviour, the same indifference to the existing topography driven by an insatiable need of spatial control, of dominating the irregular – in this case, rough nature.

However, the apparent success of this two-dimensional discipline in taming a primitive plan by imposing its utilitarian aims, will fail on a three-dimensional level. The strategy of thought behind the Grid’s configuration was labeled by Koolhaas as a ‘negative symbol of the shortsightedness of commercial interests’ which trades the element of design and creativity for convenience. This subjugation can only instigate and fuel the vertical ego of each block, and generate, finally, a three-dimensional anarchy.

The reader is subsequently introduced to Manhattan’s first volumetric experimentations, with the antithetical, yet complementary tandem: the needle and globe, referred to as ‘an archetypal contrast that will appear and re-appear throughout Manhattan’s ever-new reincarnations’. London’s Crystal Palace and the Latting Observatory are the incipient, crude answers to the insatiable need for innovation as spectacle, for liberation through the avoidance of the Real.


The discovery of vertical ascension technologies such as the elevator sparks within Manhattan’s inhabitants a sense geographical self-consciousness and provides the island with an additional means of escape: ‘mass ascension ’. As Manhattan evolves from a city to a metropolis, the need for Pleasure becomes imperative. Koolhaas focuses his study on Coney Island - ‘an incubator for Manhattan’s incipient mythology’,’ the finish line for a weekly exodus’ – as the perfect environment for social experimentation, for the implementation of the ‘technology of the fantastic’. In order to survive as a resort and provide unlimited means of temporary release as the antidote to the frantic urban life-style, Coney greets the reservoir of people flooding its beaches with an over-dose of hyper-real, mutating into the opposite of Nature. The Artificial becomes the main attraction, counter-acting the metropolitan theatricality with the ostentatious and finally, the grotesque. As Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland materialize, each more flamboyant than its precursor, Coney needs to keep feeding its visitors their weekly dose of super-natural by introducing a series of outlandish scenarios and mechanisms that will later shape Manhattan itself. Excess is the lead word and, if ‘Coney Island is the World’, then everything is deemed to eventually implode and return to basics. The Sodoman fire is nature’s way of purifying the ground the human being mutilated for its own superficial, ‘innocent’ pleasures as labeled by Koolhaas. The cycle of life is complete: after creation, evolution and extinction comes rebirth - Coney Island is redeveloped as a series of parks and promenades.

After a period of technological breakthroughs, the elevator meets the steel frame, making way for an utopian theorem, formulated in 1909 - an expression of the ambitions lingering in the collective subconscious - according to which ‘any given site can now be multiplied ad infinitum to produce the proliferation of floor space called Skyscraper’. Each of these artificial sites is defined independently from all the other, treated as a virgin territory with its own destiny which can accommodate any desired activity. The Skyscraper promotes unity in form but fracture in meaning, in programmatic cohesion, becoming a ‘stack of individual privacies’. As Koolhaas explains, the Skyscraper represents the meeting of three urbanistic revelations: ‘the reproduction of the world’, ‘the annexation of the tower’ and ‘the block alone’, each individually analyzed by the author and subsequently integrated into a ‘glorious whole’.


As the culture of congestion intensifies, so does the latent need for escape and spectacle, a void hunting the collective subconscious caused by Coney’s sudden extinction. However, the restrictions imposed by the grid’s delineation, generate a vertical race, won in 1911 by the 100th floor building -‘a mammoth structure, towering into the clouds and containing within its walls the cultural, commercial and industrial activities of a great city’ – the Hybrid is born.

Furthermore, the infinite interchange of programmatic layers within a neutralizing shell pinned down by Koolhaas as ‘Architectural Lobotomy’ means ‘less and less surface has to represent more and more interior activity’. The segregation of form from function, of the container from the contained as well as the extrapolation of this procedure on the internal realm of the building – ‘the vertical schism’ – generate a collection of islands within an island, of ‘cities within a city’, each rivaling for recognition and individuality. The ‘Forest of Towers’ tested in Luna Park by Thompson has been successfully transplanted to Manhattan in both aesthetics and spirit.

The introduction of the 1916 Zoning Law emerges at a moment when awareness is raised upon Manhattan’s frenzied growth pattern which cannot be disciplined anymore by the rigorous grid. Consequently, a series of ideologies follow, experimenting with the control of chaos. Through his acclaimed renders, Ferris unconsciously develops an innovative formula aiming to manage the vertical explosion by prioritizing natural light and ventilation, promoting ‘the city’s infinite growth without endangering its legibility, intimacy or coherence’. By taking his conceptual experimentations and variations on the Zoning Law to a further scale, Ferris produces the first concrete image of the final assembly - the ‘Mega-Village’ as Manhattan’s inevitable destiny and ‘The Ferrisian Void’ – ‘an architectural womb that gives birth to the consecutive stages of the Skyscraper in a sequence of sometimes overlapping pregnancies, and that promises to generate ever-new ones.’ The dream of never-ending creation of endless realities continues.




Koolhaas focuses in the next chapter on the cannibalistic instinct as the epitome of Manhattan’s evolutionary approach ‘featuring all the strategies, theorems, paradigms and ambitions that sustain the inexorable progress of Manhattanism’. By closely following the reincarnations of the Waldorf-Astoria and the Empire State Building, a summary of the phases of Manhattan’s urbanism in a period of 150 years unfolds. What will destruct the hotel is the ‘paradoxical tradition of the last word’ it had zealously pursued and which eventually translates into it not being a Skyscraper. Regeneration is imperative and the site is ready to add another layer to its invisible archaeology. The Waldorf-Astoria is demolished and replaced by ‘a skyscraper surpassing in height anything ever constructed by man’ – The Empire State Building referred to as ‘the last manifestation of Manhattanism as a pure and thoughtless process, the climax of the subconscious Manhattan’.

The Rockfeller Centre represents the conscious phase of the collective experiment, ‘a masterpiece without a genius’ as a result of all key ideologies, strategies and theorems Koolhaas has introduced the reader to by this point. One of these is Raymond Hood’s ‘City of Towers’, disputing the 1916 Zoning Law - which cannot control the bulk of Manhattan’s buildings, but only their shape - by proposing larger sites within the same block to be reorganized into various configurations. By expanding the concept to greater areas of the metropolis, Hood plans a gradual metamorphosis into ‘The City under the Single Roof’ and consequently ‘The City within a City’ by strategically inserting the so-called ‘Mountains’ as confluence nodes that exceed the limitations of a single block and that, through their colossal size – ‘absorb and interiorize all traffic’.

Thus, the paradox of solving congestion by generating more congestion arises. In 1929, the Crash brings along a climate of uncertainty that simplifies the expectations to be met by The Rockfeller Centre, solidifying its conceptual integrity and theoretical clarity. From ‘a financially reasonable enterprise’ it becomes purely speculative - a collection of ideologically separate projects that meet on the same site, ‘exposing an archaeology of architectural philosophies’.

‘The Metropolis is perfect’. This is the sentence that concludes Rockfeller’s success and that synthesizes the calm before the storm, i.e. the European invasion.

Ever since its discovery, Manhattan has been treated as ‘an urban canvas, exposed to a constant bombardment of projections, misrepresentations, transplantations and grafts’.
Koolhaas chooses to follow in this final chapter two protagonists of the era on their quest to reclaim, impose on and appropriate Manhattan: Dali and Le Corbusier - Surrealism vs. Modernism. They are both consumed by an ardent obsession for Manhattan and plan to conquer it: Dali by interpretative appropriation and Le Corbusier by proposing to literally destroy it. If Dali keeps the metropolis physically intact, Corbusier delves even deeper into his fixation by searching validity for his New City through the actual eradication of New York.
Koolhaas is restless in detailing Corbusier’s character as the villain that, haunted by its own victims and paranoiac tendencies, creates The Radiant City as a final blow aimed to annihilate the essence that lays at New York’s restless expansion – congestion. As a result,’ He creates an urban non-event that New York’s own planners have always avoided’. Redemption through Modernism is a tactic that lastly turns against its own creator.

The author dedicates the appendix to his own vision on how the Metropolis should continue its experimentation and reinterpretation of the Culture of Congestion by embracing its modernist ethos and its retroactive revelations. Furthermore, he encloses four speculative proposals – ‘The City of the Captive Globe’, ‘Hotel Sphinx’, ‘New Welfare Island’ and ‘Welfare Palace Hotel’ - as ‘a fictional conclusion’ meant to concentrate the essence of the product Manhattan has become , a ’conscious doctrine whose pertinence is no longer limited to the island of its invention’.

The book is a compelling read, a strategic collection of episodes belonging to a complex and particularly dense historical past. Nevertheless, it concludes on a predictable note, representative for most theoretical books: a New York grounded in the reality of facts, buried under a ‘mountain of evidence’ sets the foundation for Koolhaas’s archaeological reverie and subsequently his scenarios for impossible fantasies.

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