Backward and Upward: Rem Koolhaas on the Rise of N.Y.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


A Retroactive Manifesto

for Manhattan

By Rem Koolhaas

Monacelli Press. 1994 reissue. $35.

Among the many ways in which architect Rem Koolhaas is a rarity is that he really can write. Most architects who think they can, can't. But Koolhaas has an original mind, an acute eye, a compelling way with words and a compulsion to get them down on paper. (He writes in bed, he has said, in longhand.) "Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan," published in 1978, is his first and in many ways his best book. (The 1994 edition by the Monacelli Press is $35. Because it is about 35 percent smaller than the original, some of the illustrations are a bit difficult to decipher.) What keeps the book in print, in addition to the author's subsequent fame as an architect, is the zest and unpredictability of its arguments.

Everybody knows that, when it comes to Manhattan, the big architectural story is the skyscraper. But Koolhaas expands the formulaic explanation -- the elevator plus steel frame construction plus money equals tall buildings -- to include elements of fantasy, fluke and unconscious desire. He probably is the only person ever to seriously propose, for instance, that Coney Island's early history as an entertainment mecca for the masses happens to be an important precursor to Manhattan's "culture of congestion." Although this may be a flawed proposition -- Disneyland is a more logical descendant -- Koolhaas argues the point with great passion and wit.

And so it continues in this delightful and, indeed, rather delirious book. It adds a great deal to our understanding of Manhattan's phenomenal upward growth through much of the 20th century, but whether the ending is happy or sad is hard to say. At the book's heart is Koolhaas's impassioned, almost utopian belief in "poetic density" -- the potential of every block in the Manhattan grid to support "an infinite number of superimposed and unpredictable activities." Architects in the post-World War II era, the author believes, lost this rich sense of possibility. But, Koolhaas implies, someday, somehow, the belief can be revived.

-- Benjamin Forgey, architecture critic

© 2005 The Washington Post Company