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Architecture and the city

“He’s going to end up, on the dirty boulevard,
he’s going out, to the dirty boulevard,
he’s going down, to the dirty boulevard”

Lou Reed, Dirty Blvd, in New York, 1989

In the 20th century New York was the metropolis par excellence. A metropolis is by its very nature a place of continual transformation where nothing stands still and everything rushes on. Change is the only constant feature and everything becomes a commodity. Walter Benjamin said this of Paris but the underlying concept can quite happily be extended to New York, the city that never sleeps, a parallel world fuelled by its own energy, ever-growing, devouring every resource and energy. Feeding off itself and the human flesh of its citizens - willing prisoners of this glittering dream - New York became the image of modernity.
Although not very American for other Americans, for us New York was synonymous with America for practically the whole of the twentieth century.
In his very acute book “Delirious New York”, Rem Koolhaas illustrates several of the central issues around the city’s development: the huge horizontal but also vertical grid accompanied by the various versions of regulations governing building heights, whose overall stability allowed a perfect mix of laissez-faire and robust rules to curb the most wayward market anarchy but at the same time allow the city’s almost physiological drive toward incessant growth.
For the collective imagination has always coupled New York with growth. Every building toppled released an aura of money and the knowledge that in its place a new, taller building would go up. The steam issuing from the subway manholes was always mixed with the smell of ceaseless activity where people of all colours, races, religions, habits and odours came together caught up in the relentless forward thrust of development.
Development was impetuous but also tragic, dirty and uncouth....

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