I am reading Delirious New York by Rem Koolhaas and writing a series of posts about the book. This is the first one.

“The city no longer exists except as a cultural ghost for tourists.”

-Marshall McLuhan

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan believed that the speed and scope of television and radio were making cities obsolete. In making this prediction, McLuhan struck a rare false note—this was one of his pronouncements that does not seem like a prophetic lightning bolt 40 years later. Today, far from obsolete, cities have become more important than they ever were, although McLuhan was not exactly wrong either: Tourism and culture have become more important functions of cities relative to traditional roles like manufacturing, at least in advanced economies, and cities are nothing like they used to be.

In the United States, New York typically serves as the rebuttal to “death of the city” pronouncements that focus on the sprawl landscapes of Los Angeles, Houston, and Las Vegas. Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, published in 1978, sidesteps that debate altogether by reframing the question. To Koolhaas, New York is both singular and universal—like no other city on Earth but also the most telling manifestation of the modern psyche. He announces early in his “retroactive manifesto” that New York is the key to understanding the 20th century—its “Rosetta Stone”—in all of the freakish extremes it embodies. Koolhaas has built a distinguished career upon the belief that the world of today and tomorrow will be increasingly urban, and this was the book that launched that career in an energy flash of oblique, McLuhanesque prose.

Delirious New York begins with Vico’s statement that “Since the world of nations is made by men, it is inside their minds that its principles should be sought.” Manhattan, like all cities, is a product of the collective will of its inhabitants, and Koolhaas posits that New York has served as a laboratory for a new kind of living: “The entire city became a factory of man-made experience, where the real and the natural ceased to exist.” Manhattan would become the proving ground for a Culture of Congestion. Every development in New York’s early history, for Koolhaas, fits this narrative. The grid plan, laid out across Manhattan in 1811, subdivided the island into a series of uniform blocks that ignored and overruled any of the landscape’s natural contours, creating a two-dimensional basis for unprecedented three-dimensional growth. Even Central Park was anything but natural, a reconstituted and engineered “system of nature.” An explosion of new technologies in the 19th century, including the elevator, would further enable New York’s exploitation of density.

A friend recently reminded me of a great BLDGBLOG post from 2007, which describes Manhattanites’ recurring dreams about finding secret rooms within their apartments (seriously, read it). In such a crowded city, the fantasy of having more space is an ever-present unconscious wish. In a way, this is the end product of the Culture of Congestion that our predecessors intentionally built, and a reversal of Vico’s observation. The world is made by men, but the principles inside their heads are the results of the environments they create as much as antecedents to those environments. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we shape our cities, and then our cities shape us.