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Deus Ex New York

- A late book review on Delirious New York

Critic: John McMorrough

“…Manhattan as a city not of matter but of light, traveling along the cosmic curve of reality” (Koolhaas 283). Taken from one of the last pages of Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas’ mythic reflection on the last breathing moments of Manhattanism could also be used to describe his writing style; a streaming flow of consciousness that bends all typical and temporal tendencies of storytelling. Both Manhattan and Rem explore the experimental urban environment in a way that creates artificial experiences and highlights the potential of modern lifestyle. Rem’s role as Manhattan’s interpreter (and at times, unlikely twin) displays his idiosyncratic writing style and methods that stitch together a continuum of New York that doesn’t fit the typical mold of a timeline, but rather, reconstructs the “chapters of time” into related bits that skip each other in line or cut ahead and behind others. By doing so, Rem esoterically represents sundry relationships in a way that gives the reader agency over the material (as opposed to reading a standard manual of New York that plainly goes from point A to point B ad infinitum) and allows the reader to distill their own interpretation, free from bias or the distinctive constraints of time and space.

While now it is perceived as an enthralling period review of modern architecture and urbanism, Delirious New York carried more weight and significance in 1978 when it acted as a wakeup call, a beacon of hope in the architectural landscape. It was, “…written during a period of financial crisis, with the city government narrowly avoiding bankruptcy through a substantial federal loan. At a time when confidence in the city is at an all-time low, Koolhaas [promoted] Manhattan as a prototype of the modern metropolis, a collaboration of visionaries that strive to make life in the city a ‘deeply irrational experience’”. Delirious New York came at a crucial moment in time where Manhattan had just run an exhausting marathon and needed help from its supporters to sit down, rest, reflect. Too much had happened too fast, and its architecture and users became lightheaded from the sheer amount of activity that was made in such a short amount of time. Rem gave it a second wind, a chance to breathe before urging it to push forward and embrace its own fantasy, as irrational and unorthodox as its inception was.

However, despite its great success and status, does the subject matter work because of its content or its context? Who is the protagonist in Delirious New York, Manhattan or Rem? I believe the two form a symbiotic relationship that urge and encourage each other to perform at the top of their abilities. Without a historically and contextually rich city, the book would have fallen on deaf ears or would only become noticed and recognized by a very small audience. Likewise, if the city hadn’t been reconstructed by the trained, curious, manic mind of a historian and designer, the fluid, wondrous culture of congestion in New York City would have fallen into the deep recesses of time and not brought to the surface for the masses to enjoy. Both parties complement and respect each other, creating a unique and complicated model that couldn’t be appropriated or mimicked by others for others. The egg and its chicken, the container and its contained, the content and its context in this instance, act as a multiplicitious body that is impervious to reduction as a single structure. It continually and fluidly adapts itself to the reader, filling the capacity of their intuition and imagination like the, “…mouse-gray liquid with the substance of vomit” (Koolhaas 248) that is concrete, slowly filling up the extents of its reinforcement until it is as solid as the earth.

A common theme of addition or progression arises throughout the book and seems to act as the connective tissue that defines and connects the collective experimentation and aggregation through different periods, as moments throughout New York’s history show. For example, Coney Island, a fetal site for experimentation and one of the first chapters in the book, influences almost every following chapter. Mention of Radio City Music Hall and its apparatus is paired with the idea that its vaudeville traditions are a mutated version of Coney Island’s. A banquet in the Waldorf Astoria utilizes a cow as a centerpiece, harkening back to the, “…Inexhaustible Cow on Coney Island: stiff and lifeless, but effective in its production of an endless flow of milk” (Koolhaas 150).  History repeats itself, though sometimes stuttering. Today we are seeing a somewhat familiar revitalization in Manhattan’s bloodstream through the integration of newer, brighter, and bigger “Fantastic Technologies” (432 Park Ave and Hudson Yards, for instance) that are inhabiting New York and infecting its citizens with new modes of living and working, new sights to wander/wonder. Manhattan’s hunger is insatiable, and it perpetually demands (perhaps not of its own free will but through the expectations its users set on themselves to live up to its iconography) energy. It is never satisfied, because its people aren’t.

Like a deus ex machina, the seemingly unsolvable problem of Manhattanism has been salvaged by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely figure; Rem Koolhaas. Rem turned back the curtain of Manhattan to reveal its true colors once he realized that theories and proposals are rooted in the period they are conceived, and therefore doomed to never escape its destiny. So, utilizing the rhizomatic relationships between the grid, blocks, zoning, congestion, structures, people, art, etc., he documented his grand tour of New York through the ages with vivid imagery and captivating script before ending it with a cliff hanger. Rather than give a poor attempt at wrapping his text and journey in a nice bow, recognizing that it’s at risk to be criticized for being conclusive and leaving no other room for interpretation aside from closure, Rem proposes attitudes and methodologies. The focus isn’t on the grand finale, as Manhattan will never properly fade or end. Instead, approaches are instilled that offer refreshing attitudes and perspectives in the reader that they then carry onto their future endeavors, creating a timeless feedback loop.


Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: a Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The Monacelli Press, 1994.
Watson, Emma. “Rem Koolhaas: Delirious New York: A Retrospective Manifesto for Manhattan (1978).” Architecture + Urbanism, 24 May 2010, architectureandurbanism.blogspot.com/2010/05/rem-koolhaas-delirious-new-york.html.

| marnieto@umich.edu