Rem Koolhaas has perhaps been one of the most influential architects of the Post-Modern Era. With Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) being one of the most profound and followed architecture firms throughout the world, it is safe to say that the impact and style of OMA has left an everlasting impact on the Architecture community: students and professionals. Koolhaas in far more basic terminology can perhaps be labeled as the architect who has a way with words.
With a background in screenwriting and an upbringing in a family of journalists, Koolhaas has also grown to be a renowned Architectural and Urban Theorist; whose some of the most well-known texts include: S, M, L, XL (1995), and Junkspace (2013); however, his most profound written work till date, has been that of Delirious New York (1978): his first text.
Termed as a Retroactive Manifesto by Rem Koolhaas, the book is a database; mapping the history of the most famous city in the world, and how its architecture has grown and influenced its world image. Koolhaas in the beginning points out the inherent flaws in manifestos: a lack of evidence; and states that New York is filled with a mountain of evidence, but has no manifesto recording its progress and history, thereby his motivation to pursue the creation of this very text.
Broken down into various phases of growth into the city we now know as New York; the entire book is categorized into chapters that cover different segments or blocks, covering facts about the city of New York: this narrative method emulates the planning strategy of New York; like the way the city is laid out in blocks, so are the chapters in the book.
From Manhattan to Coney Island, as well as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Centre; Rem Koolhaas covers an urbanistic perspective and the life-cycle trajectory regarding each major area in the city of New York. From conceptualization to planning, along with the emergence of certain structures, which are now synonymous with the cultural identity of New York. The manifesto can proficiently provide a story-like narrative to a non-fictional, historic excerpt about the architecture and design of the most active city in the world. Despite its inception dating back in 1978, the content matter of the book stays relevant, 43 years later; and gives a comprehensive account of the making of the city we now know as New York.
Starting from the prehistory chapter; Koolhaas develops a historical account of how Manhattan came to be. From its 24-dollar purchase to Peter Minuit in 1626, to the conceptualization and implementation of New Amsterdam; a blueprint for a framework of a utopian Europe. Koolhaas lays out the facts chronologically while giving his perspectives either admonishing it or supporting it.
“The land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural, the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent.” — Rem Koolhaas
The above line describes Koolhaas’ perception of the planning strategy for Manhattan: The Gridiron method. Through his flair for the written word, Koolhaas has laid positive and negative views towards each component of conceptualization in the making of Manhattan. While the grid-iron simplified plot sales from a real estate perspective; it obliterated the horizontal aspect of certain spaces; fixing the dimensionality in 2 dimensions; thereby, allowing the only form of expansion to be vertical; leading to what Koolhaas calls: The Culture of Congestion.
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Moving towards Coney Island; Koolhaas states how the area is a fetal Manhattan; wherein, ‘strategies and mechanisms that later shape Manhattan are tested in the laboratory of Coney Island before they finally leap toward the larger island.’ An arena of experimentation, Coney Island grows into an Escape for the Manhattan Residents, who visit the island during summers as a way to get away from the hustle of city life. He marks the growth of various centers of entertainment on the island, from the Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. A constant state of competence between people towards developing architecture of entertainment in Coney Island.
The focus gradually shifts towards the trajectory of Architectural developments in Manhattan. The integration of the skyscraper paradigm; with special emphasis on the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Empire State Building. Rem Koolhaas also mentions the Downtown Athletic Club, consisting of a hybrid of functions in close proximity on a single floorplate. The induction of Skyscrapers is attributed to the conical spike buildings that first existed in Luna Park in Coney Island; thereby further exclaiming as to how Coney Island is a microcosm of Manhattan. From examples of Rockefeller Centre to the Radio City Music Hall; and the final culmination of European Influences by Le Corbusier. Koolhaas is able to lay down the timeline of New York efficiently.
“Rockefeller Center is the most mature demonstration of Manhattanism’s unspoken theory of the simultaneous existence of different programs on a single site, connected only by the common data of elevators, service cores, columns and external envelope.” — Rem Koolhaas
During these insightful journeys through the making of Manhattan’s history, Koolhaas emphasizes his duty to modernity. He focuses on Manhattan’s ability to re-invent the ‘modern’ typology a fitting parallel to Corbusier’s European Ideologies. He focuses on how the city’s buildings are not advocated as architectural masterpieces, but the tools for reinventing lifestyle in the city.
The Appendix provides a non-canonical conclusion to what New York would have been, by giving a plethora of evidence on unbuilt projects. The second coming of Manhattanism, this time as an explicit doctrine that can claim its place among contemporary urbanisms. Impressive documentation of original materials and unpublished projects provides evidence for this architectural manifesto.
Key Takeaways from the book
With concise and humongous information, the book is equally consisting of visually appealing graphics; some original and some taken from reference. The comprehensive account of New York City’s timeline fused with Koolhaas’ flair for writing; creates a unique piece of text which has the reader engrossed in a sea of data, which might have otherwise seemed uninteresting.
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Rem Koolhaas is efficiently able to break down such a diverse and comprehensive history into phase-wise chronological sub-parts entailing information regarding the various components in the city of New York. He can create a gradual transition from history to city planning and finally, into the architecture occurring in New York.
The book is a great guide and an interesting read for readers from various fields of discipline. Whether an individual is a student of architecture, urban planning, history, or just an avid reader; the narrative style will engross its reader into the history of what we now call, the city of New York.
Harvard Graduate School of Design. (n.d.). Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. [online] Available at: https://www.gsd.harvard.edu/publication/delirious-new-york-a-retroactive-manifesto-for-manhattan-1/.
Review Architecture. (n.d.). 25: Delirious New York. [online] Available at: http://www.reviewarchitecture.com/reviews/deliriousnewyork.
EAMONN CANNIFFE (2010). Rem Koolhaas: Delirious New York: A Retrospective Manifesto for Manhattan (1978). [online] Blogspot.com. Available at: http://architectureandurbanism.blogspot.com/2010/05/rem-koolhaas-delirious-new-york.html
Koolhaas, R. (1978). Delirious New York. 2nd Edition. USA. The Monacelli Press