Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Performative Urbanism - Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York

Delirious New York
This chapter will review and analyze Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978) – a book with an engaging review of modern architecture and urbanism. In this book, Koolhaas presents the city as world of the ‘fantastic’, disguised as the pragmatic, and termed the city as the Rosetta Stone of the 20th century. Manhattan, the main subject of discussion of the book was viewed as a world of illusion that was brought to life and became a factory of man-made experience. This condition had caused the real and the natural condition of the city to ceased to exist, lacking a sense of the real.

From Modernity to Performative Modernity
Throughout the 1970s, intense hostility toward the modernist approaches in architecture and urban planning provided motivation for a reengagement with architectural history, and stressed out upon an articulation of architecture as a system of communication. The parallel framing of architecture as a communicative system was influenced by methods from other disciplines, such as semiotics and structuralist linguistics. However, Delirious New York was written by depicting the architecture of Manhattan not in linguistic or representational terms, but as a kind of a performative drive.

In this context, Koolhaas’ processes of understanding the city were done through the analyzing of the block grid that is Manhattan. The block grid was conceived in 1807, breaking Coney Island into 2028 blocks, totally indifferent to topography. Manhattan was basically formed by the imposition of the mental over the real. The city form was a result of overlying the grids, shifted out of the real into the fantastic with the advent of the skyscrapers. This had made Manhattan became lobotomized, in the words of Koolhaas. The external image of the city representing the illusion of what a proper and monumental urban structure should be, while the internal being entirely divorced from the external, and being only what it was – be it fantasy or the mundane of everyday life.

Performative Driven Urbanism – The Culture of Congestion
Delirious New York was represented as the ‘popular’ American modernism – a modernism of unselfconscious density, which in Koolhaas’ view, the culture of congestion. What keeps Manhattan running is congestion, a world constantly on the edge of total gridlock. This is the similar phenomenon that Bandung is also facing currently. The simultaneous explosion of human density and invasion of new technologies, together with unregulated forces of capitalism and politics surpasses established urban planning and architecture theories. In the case of Manhattan, Koolhaas coined the term ‘Manhattanism’ – which is the undeclared modern phenomena that exceeds both the rationality of Le Corbusier’s machine age modernism and the irrationality of Salvador Dali’s paranoid-critical surrealism.

The reason Le Corbusier could not conquer Manhattan is that his urban form removed the congestion phenomena of the city, replacing it with an ideal city form to live in. This congestion, similar to what Bandung is facing today, forces the city to be divorced from reality – into a more speculative world filled with people with unique human desires. These desires were also caused by the systemization of the efficient city, which lack inspiration and surrender individuality to the automatism of a synthetic routine of living in the city.

Delirious New York as an Inductive Research
Koolhaas’ research on Manhattan operates predominantly in an inductive mode, involving the extraction of general principles (theories) from observation of specific phenomena (facts). His approach was in opposition to the deduction method, which is the testing of general principles through the production of specific phenomena. If the modernist manifesto was intended to be read according to logic of rationalist deduction, Delirious New York is a reversal to it. The research attempt to recuperate an alternative to the rationalist’ modernism through a parallactic historiography, in which the object of study is being reframed by the point of view assumed by a repositioned subject. This method led to the blurring of roles, which plays out in the book structure and way of writing.

This generative mode of polemical architectural research, directed toward theorizing urban phenomena outside of the architectural profession was, perhaps made famous by the work of Robert VenturiDenise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour’s Learning From Las Vegas (1972). My research for the thesis follows the similar approach of both Delirious New York and Learning From Las Vegas, looking to contemporary explosive locations of urban growth and transformation that are driven by the global and local market economy and socio-political factors, rather that the dictates of architects and planners.

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