Monday, September 5, 2011

Delirious New York, Koolhaas

KOOLHAAS, Rem, Delirious New York, Monacelli Press, New York, 1994, 320 pp.
I certainly recommend reading 'Delirious New York' to everyone. After a short prehistory, Koolhaas starts with a chapter on Coney Island, the most southern part of the borough of Brooklyn. Here we discover an urbanized place with amusement and spectacle as its only goals: "... the potential of technology for the support and production of fantasy ...". Koolhaas paints Coney Island with its 'technology of the fantastic' as the embryonic experiment, in Brooklyn, essential for the development of Manhattan.

In contrary with Coney Island, Manhattan seems a more rationalized version of Coney Island: "... To support the alibi of 'business', the incipient tradition of Fantastic Technology is disguised as pragmatic technology. ... Suppressing their irrational potential, they now become merely the agents of banal changes such as improving illumination levels, temperatures, humidity, communications, etc., all to facilitate the processes of business. ..." (p. 87).

The Grid and its implications
The Manhattan Grid was already established in 1811. Central Park was only added in 1853. It's a system of 12 avenues, 155 street and 2028 blocks. The contrast of built and unbuilt hardly exists when the grid is created: "... the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent. ..." (p. 19).

Commissioners' Grid without Central Park
The Grid is a prediction of the future and an instrument to facilitate the real estate development: "... right angled houses are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in ..." (p. 19). The Commissioners provide a space for an much greater population than living there at the moment. It's a conceptual speculation. 

But this sole commercial interest, implies a new devastating program for the topography and the nature of the island: "... in its indifference to topography, to what exists, it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality. The plotting of its streets and blocks announces that the subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is its true ambition. ..." (p. 20).

Since Manhattan is an island, the maximum number of blocks is limited and therefore any horizontal expansion is excluded. The maximum size of each block prevents any other development of new horizontal typologies and hinders any non-rectangular shape: "... But then that liberating impulse surrenders to the implacable logic of the Grid; the free form is forced back uncomfortably to the conformity of the rectangle. ... " (p. 289). The 1916 Zoning Law describes the invisible envelopes that define the maximum boundaries of a block on each plot of the Grid. A future with the Skyscraper becomes real. 

'Manhattanism' delivers a series of fantastic episodes of concepts and realisations, like the 'Downtown Athletic Club', the 'Empire State Building', Corbett's 'Very modernized Venice', the 'Rockefeller Center', etc. in Koolhaas' theoretical Manhattan. These are episodes of simultaneous existence of different programs on a single site. Nevertheless, the design of the Grid itself is not even questioned once in those episodes, because it's the Grid that made all the different and conflicting episodes possible:  

"... The Grid is the neutralizing agent that structures these episodes. Within the network of its rectilinearity, movement becomes ideological navigation between the conflicting claims and promises of each block. ... " (p. 104).

"... The Grid assures every structure it accommodates exactly the same treatment - the same amount of 'dignity'. ..." (p. 197).

Unfortunately, in the end, Modernism has had its influence and 'Manhattanism' is unlearned. The Skyscrapers become simple extrusions of the site. Manhattan no longer supports infinite unpredictable superimposed activities on a single site. Yet the Grid remains, acting as a frame, firmly constraining every 'episode'.

Brooklyn and its Grid
Learning from Manhattan? Some attributes of the Manhattan Grid might be applicable to the Grid of Brooklyn. This Grid might also subjugate nature and topography. It might facilitate real estate development. It might prevent any development, larger than the size of a block. It might make non-rectangular shapes feel uncomfortable. It might imply 'equality' between each of the blocks and therefore it might act as an 'neutralizing agent' for differences.

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