Excerpts from “Delirious New York”: Part I

Below are my excerpts from Rem Koolhaas’ book on Urbanism (more specifically, Manhattanism) and Architecture, “Delirious New York”. Part I covers Introduction, Prehistory and Coney Island: The Technology of the Fantastic. Bolding the words is for ease of my own understanding.


Page 18

In 1807 Simeon deWitt, Governeur Morris and John Rutherford are commissioned to design the model that will regulate the “final and  conclusive” occupancy of Manhattan. Four years later they propose – above the demarcation that separates the known from the unknowable part of the city – 12 avenues running north-south and 155 streets running east-west.

With that simple action they describe a city of 13 x 156 = 2,028 blocks (excluding topographical accidents): a matrix that captures, at the same time, all remaining territory and all future activity on the island. The Manhattan Grid.


Page 20

All blocks are the same; their equivalence invalidates, at once, all the systems of articulation and differentiation that have guided the design of traditional cities. The Grid makes the history of architecture and all previous lessons of urbanism irrelevant. It forces Manhattan’s builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another.

The Grid’s two-dimensional discipline also creates undreamt-of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy. The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.

With its imposition, Manhattan is forever immunized against any (further) totalitarian intervention. In the single block – the largest possible area that can fall under architectural control – it develops a maximum unit of urbanistic Ego.


Page 21

Central Park is not only the major recreational facility of Manhattan but also the record of its progress: a taxidermic preservation of nature that exhibits forever the drama of culture outdistancing nature. Like the Grid, it is a colossal leap of faith; the contrast it describes – between the built and the unbuilt – hardly exists at the time of its creation.


Page 25

Manhattan’s Crystal Palace contains, like all early Exhibitions, an implausible juxtaposition of the demented production of useless Victorian items celebrating (now that machines can mimic the techniques of uniqueness) the democratization of the object; at the same time it is a Pandora’s box of genuinely new and revolutionary techniques and inventions, all of which eventually will be turned loose on the island even though they are strictly incompatible.


Page 25-26

…the elevator.

It is presented to the public as a theatrical spectacle.

Elisha Otis, the inventor, mounts a platform that ascends – the major part, it seems, of the demonstration. But when it has reached its highest level, an assistant presents Otis with a dagger on a velvet cushion.

The inventor takes the knife, seemingly to attach the crucial element of his own invention: the cable that has hoisted the platform upward and that now prevents its fall. Otis cuts the cable; it snaps.

Nothing happens, to platform or inventor.

Invisible safety catches – the essence of Otis’ brilliance – prevent the platform from rejoining the surface of the earth.

Thus Otis introduces an invention in urban theatricality: the anticlimax as denouement, the non-event as triumph.

Like the elevator, each technological invention is pregnant with a double image: contained in its success is the specter of its possible failure.

The means of averting that phantom disaster are almost as important as the original invention itself.

Otis has introduced a theme that can be a leitmotiv of the island’s future development: Manhattan is an accumulation of possible disaster that never happen.


Page 42

Thompson has designed and built the appearance, the exterior, of a magic city. But most of his needles are too narrow to have an interior, not hollow enough to accommodate function. Like Tilyou he is finally unable or unwilling to use his private realm, with all its metaphorical potential, for the design of culture.

Luna Park suffers from the self-defeating laws that govern entertainment: it can only skirt the surface of myth, only hint at the anxieties accumulated in the collective unconscious.


Page 49

Lilliputia, the Midget City: if Dreamland is a laboratory for Manhattan, Midget City is a laboratory for Dreamland.


Page 53

…The Blue Dome of Creation…

…End of the World…

…The Circus…

The three spectacles unfold simultaneously in apparent independence, but their stages are connected by underground passages so that the casts, human and animal, can shuffle freely between them. An exit from one performance allows reappearance seconds later in another, and so on.

The three theaters – architecturally separate on the surface – form, through invisible connections, one histrionic cluster, prototype of a new model of theatrical economy where an infinite number of simultaneous performances can be given by a single rotating cast, each play both isolated from and intertwined with all the others.

Reynold’s triple arena is thus a precise metaphor of life in the Metropolis, whose inhabitants are a single cast performing an infinite number of plays.

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