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Delirious New York, 40 years later

Martino Stierli–

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. The book, which has been in print continuously and is one of the best-selling architecture titles of the past 40 years, not only made its author instantly famous; it is also considered one of the most important contributions to architectural theory in the second half of the 20th century (along with titles such as Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Aldo Rossi’s The Architecture of the City, both from 1966, and Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas from 1972). Delirious New York epitomized a turn to theory and signaled that architects do not need to have built projects in order to be taken seriously as protagonists in the discipline. In Delirious New York, Koolhaas took on the role of a historian in order to tell the story of the birth of the modern metropolis—New York—on the basis of its built manifestations. His literary account of the pragmatic building culture of super-capitalist Manhattan was intended as a polemic against the “official” historiography of modern architecture, which had neglected such “compromised” achievements by focusing unilaterally on the utopian projects of the avant-garde and its most inventive authors.

Cover of Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York (1978).

Nevertheless, and perhaps paradoxically, Koolhaas’s “retroactive manifesto” is deeply invested with the historical avant-garde and its methodologies. Whereas the treatise has mainly been regarded as quintessential reading in urban theory, in my new book Montage and the Metropolis, I situate the book in the long history of montage-thinking in 20th century avant-garde art and architecture, within which Delirious New York acts as a grand finale. It is also an affirmation of architecture “in the expanded field” in the age of (mass) media. Koolhaas proposes that the architect be the ghostwriter of the modern city. In Delirious New York, he acts as a storyteller (or historiographer) who revives the latent knowledge that haunts the modern conscious. The task of the architect is to cull and distill, through the process of writing, the hidden meaning of the metropolis and the rules and structural principles upon which its architectural form is founded. If Foucault saw the architect as a psychiatric warden charged with disciplining society, and if Le Corbusier saw the architect as a surgeon who operates on the organism of the city, then Delirious New York suggests that even more than a ghostwriter, the architect is an analyst or therapist: one who renders visible the dreams of modern society about its spatial equivalent, the metropolis.

Delirious New York is a piece of written architecture. For its author, writing is not a secondary activity subordinate to building, but the opposite: before turning to architecture, Koolhaas first trained as a screenwriter and then worked as a journalist, and the text for Delirious New York preceded any built project. Writing (on) architecture is for Koolhaas not an explanatory/reflexive activity in retrospect, but a generative activity indispensable for design. What interests him is not so much the performative aspect of writing but the fundamentally textual nature of an architectural project. In his view, the architect is an intellectual figure involved in discourse rather than an artist who is primarily concerned with finding or giving form. In other words, Koolhaas privileges the conceptual over the artistic.

Building and writing are thus related due to their conceptual dimension. This affinity is also expressed in the structure of Delirious New York. Each chapter is made up of a large number of short paragraphs, all of which are headed by a single word. In the section on Coney Island, for instance, a successive reading of these headings leads to a quasi-Dadaist chain of terms and associations: MODEL—STRIP—CONNECTION—TRACKS—TOWER—FLOTSAM—BRIDGE—TRAJECTORY—ELECTRICITY—CYLINDERS—HORSES—FORMULA—ASTRONAUTS—THEORY—INFRASTRUCTURE, and so forth. The structure of the text is similar to that of an encyclopedia or a dictionary, where unrelated concepts are presented side by side spatially—though Delirious New York does without alphabetical order (while Koolhaas’s later manifesto, S,M,L,XL [1995], references and parodies such traditional systems of the organization and storing of knowledge by including an alphabetical list of terms that runs throughout the entire book).

Globe Tower, Coney Island (second version), from Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1994)

Hence, the composition of the text rests not on a continuous narrative but on the harsh juxtaposition of self-contained, autonomous blocks of text. Koolhaas has characterized this structure as a purposeful attempt to visualize, through the form of the text, the urban texture of the typical Manhattan street grid. The text defies continuous narration; instead, it rests on the unmediated montage of individual, autonomous units of meaning. Appropriately, in this manner the text achieves a syntactic dimension and meaning beyond its individual morphological elements. Unlike in a linguistic understanding of syntax, however, these morphological elements in the city are not inflected, but form unmediated gaps. It is through these gaps that meaning in the sense of urban diversity and plurality is produced. Just like Manhattan, Delirious New York itself becomes an artifact whose meaning resides precisely in the dialectical structure according to which it is organized. This structural principle is of a genuinely architectural nature, since it correlates with the internal logic of the modern metropolis.

Delirious New York repeatedly points out that Manhattan’s syntax is the montage principle. Each city block strives to be “a City within a City,” and this ambition “makes the Metropolis a collection of architectural city-states, all potentially at war with each other.” This warfare is not destructive. Instead, it is the engine for the production of meaning grounded not in uniformity, but in density and heterogeneity (and their ostentatious display). Koolhaas visualized this urban fundamental in exaggerated fashion with the 1972 project “The City of the Captive Globe,” co-authored by Zoe Zenghelis. Just like Manhattan, his fictional city is structured by a grid of orthogonal streets that separate the individual blocks with their individualistic buildings, appearing as physically and ideologically unrelated islands floating aboveground. These buildings represent Koolhaas’s most important self-proclaimed intellectual sources, among them Dalí’s Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1935), El Lissitzky’s Lenin Tribune (1920), Wallace Harrison’s Trylon and Perisphere for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (1925).

Yet the intellectual engagement of Delirious New York goes further and beyond these visual references to avant-garde architecture. The proposed methodology of constructing urban history from the material residues of urban culture is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project on nineteenth-century Paris. Hence, in Montage and the Metropolis I argue that Delirious New York is indebted to a substantial degree to Benjamin’s conception of (urban) historiography, and, moreover, that both works are fundamentally structured by the principle of montage in their respective historiographical approaches. Both Benjamin and Koolhaas were searching for an “other,” alternate model of writing (urban) history. This model saw the urban fabric of the respective metropolis (Paris or New York) as the realization of a collective unconscious, as écriture automatique on an urban scale. Benjamin read Paris as a comprehensive archive of phenomena and things, a gigantic accumulation of material traces and residues that had to be accessed and decoded in order to become intelligible (again). This process of rendering history’s processes conscious was necessary in order to understand history: “From this epoch spring the arcades and the interiors, the exhibition-halls and the dioramas. They are residues of a dream-world. The utilization of dream-elements in waking is the textbook example of dialectical thought. Hence dialectical thought is the organ of historical awakening. Every epoch not only dreams the next, but while dreaming impels it towards wakefulness.” Benjamin’s analysis of the characteristic architectural typologies of the metropolis of the nineteenth century (such as arcades, exhibition halls, stations, and so on) was thus not an end in itself, but the base upon which to construe a theory of modernity within the scope of dialectical materialism. Koolhaas, while sharing with Benjamin the notion of a metropolitan unconscious that had to be brought to the level of awareness through a process of historiography, was pursuing a different political agenda. His take on capitalist forces behind the manifestations of the modern metropolis is not critical, but ironically or even cynically affirmative: through the exaggerated glorification of the forces of mere physical and economic power and their literary aestheticization.

Delirious New York is an attempt at developing a new form of the historiography of the city whose structural principle is montage. Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project led the way in representing the material history of modernity on the basis of a montage of fragments. In the 1970s, when Delirious New York was conceived, the distrust in modernity’s “master narratives” (as Jean-François Lyotard called them in his seminal report on postmodernism first published in 1979) became a key philosophical issue. By basing a historiographical account of (architectural) modernity on the concept of montage rather than on linear narration, and by allowing the resulting image of the city to include anonymous structures, the “unconscious” products of capital alongside the conscious products of art, he undertook a critical reassessment of received modernist master narratives. Ironically, Koolhaas’s irreverent perspective went on to be installed as a new hegemonic discourse and methodology for the study of the contemporary city.

A comparison of Delirious New York with S,M,L,XL, written almost twenty years later, shows the continued development of these trends. The focus is simultaneously widened, so that instead of one quintessential metropolis we now have the “generic city” repeated across the globe, and turned inward, in that the book is fundamentally a survey of OMA’s own projects and a meditation on what it means to be an architect. Meanwhile, with the introduction of the digital camera to the market in the mid-1990s, the “flood of images” threatens to overwhelm the text, a condition that S,M,L,XL reproduces and performs, page by page. In S,M,L,XL, the need for new forms of organization is answered parodically. There is the sublimely banal ranking of buildings and projects from smallest to biggest; running through the margins, in the manner of a dictionary, is an alphabetical list of terms adjoined with passages of text illustrating their usage, which may be considered an alphabetized variation of the literary montage form of the cento.

The digital revolution has forever changed the possibility of montage as a meaningful tool for the exploration of the conditions of a modern spatiality. While the digital image has radically facilitated the combination of pictorial elements into new, virtual images, this logic of instantaneous combination and reassembly has at the same time led to the demise of the gaps, the spaces in between, as productive forces in the generation of meaning through active involvement of a critical audience (a process that was, as a matter of fact and as we have seen, initiated long before the advent of the digital age). As much as montage may be seen as a precursor to digital rendering practices, the underlying pictorial, and, by extension, urban politics could not be more radically opposed. As the conditions of technology and urbanism continue to change, it is inevitable that montage will become, or has already become, a principle that cannot adequately represent them. Rather than attempting to pinpoint this crisis in montage’s history, it is perhaps adequate for our present purpose to bear in mind that the crisis has been gradual and cumulative. Nevertheless, montage may continue to be used productively in isolated situations, side by side with new modes of the critical investigation of the built space we inhabit, long after its era has passed.

Martino Stierli is Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, don’t miss a book launch event for Montage and the Metropolis at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House on October 1st.  More information about the event is available HERE.

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