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The Birth Of Manhattan? A 'Delirious' Story

My son Alexis, who is an architect, gave me Delirious New York years ago. I had the flu, so I took to my bed and read the book, delirious much of the time and fascinated all of the time. I kept bursting from the bedroom, raving, "Listen to this" or "Look at this," or "This is hilarious" or "This is brilliant!"

Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York is all of that. It combines a singular history of the city with a lively and sometimes outrageous "retroactive manifesto" about architecture and city planning. The result is a highly idiosyncratic work of art in which text works intimately with illustration, and many types of writing dance together.

For Koolhaas, the driving force behind the creation of Manhattan is "an unformulated theory" that he calls Manhattanism. What else? When and where does he claim Manhattanism began? Around 1906, on Coney Island, "a Metropolis of the Irrational," where the strategies and mechanisms that later shaped Manhattan were tested ... before they finally leaped toward the larger island.

"Coney Island," he declares, was "a fetal Manhattan," where modern culture discovered its desire "to live inside a fantasy" in a fabricated, fully urban environment that was the product of compression and density.

Some of the book's illustrations are so richly detailed that I examine them with a magnifying glass — and the effort is rewarded. Take the map showing the original grid. In 1807, more than 200 years ago, a commission imposed on Manhattan island a grid of 12 avenues running north-south and 155 streets running east-west. There it is on the map: The Grid — the skeleton of today's Manhattan. It's virtually the same as you would see it on a map today; it just happens to be mostly empty.

Manhattan's collective experiment in urbanism is controlled chaos. Koolhaas gives us charcoal drawings by Hugh Ferris dating from the 1920s that predict the Manhattan that would result from chaotic profit-driven growth controlled by the grid and the 1916 zoning law. It is a Manhattan of towering skyscrapers with dramatic setbacks and nearly limitless central towers, the epitome of Manhattanism.

In a book stuffed to bursting with oddballs, eccentrics and visionaries, the heroes are "the people" of New York who have carried on "a subterranean collective dialogue" about the new forms that life in the city would assume. They — we — have made the city what it is. The villains are officials and planners and Utopian architects who have largely been excluded in the population's headlong rush toward the future, and who resent it.

Whenever I meet someone who hasn't read Delirious New York, I recommend it and then, at home, realize that I was actually recommending it to myself, for rereading. I'll take my copy from the shelf, begin flipping through it, become entranced by its riches and its eccentricities, and end up reading it, or at least wandering through it, again. I never put it down without having been inspired by it — delirious, perhaps; fascinated, definitely.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Kraft