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Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan

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Since its original publication in 1978, Delirious New York has attained mythic status. Back in print in a newly designed edition, this influential cultural, architectural, and social history of New York is even more popular, selling out its first printing on publication. Rem Koolhaas's celebration and analysis of New York depicts the city as a metaphor for the incredible variety of human behavior. At the end of the nineteenth century, population, information, and technology explosions made Manhattan a laboratory for the invention and testing of a metropolitan lifestyle - "the culture of congestion" - and its architecture. "Manhattan," he writes, "is the 20th century's Rosetta Stone . . . occupied by architectural mutations (Central Park, the Skyscraper), utopian fragments (Rockefeller Center, the U.N. Building), and irrational phenomena (Radio City Music Hall)." Koolhaas interprets and reinterprets the dynamic relationship between architecture and culture in a number of telling episodes of New York's history, including the imposition of the Manhattan grid, the creation of Coney Island, and the development of the skyscraper. Delirious New York is also packed with intriguing and fun facts and illustrated with witty watercolors and quirky archival drawings, photographs, postcards, and maps. The spirit of this visionary investigation of Manhattan equals the energy of the city itself.

320 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1978

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About the author

Rem Koolhaas

134 books256 followers
Remmert Lucas Koolhaas (born 17 November 1944) is a Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist and "Professor in Practice of Architecture and Urban Design" at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, USA. Koolhaas studied at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy in Amsterdam, at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Koolhaas is the principal of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, or OMA, and of its research-oriented counterpart AMO, currently based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. In 2005 he co-founded Volume Magazine together with Mark Wigley and Ole Bouman.

In 2000 Rem Koolhaas won the Pritzker Prize. In 2008 Time put him in their top 100 of The World's Most Influential People.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 128 reviews
3 reviews2 followers
June 2, 2008
pure unadulterated architectural self-aggrandizement. completely pretentious crap. some interesting material, but you have to wade through every other sentence of bullshit metaphysical declarations that this guy just pulls out of his ass.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,656 reviews617 followers
July 17, 2017
I remember reading 'The Generic City' by Rem Koolhaas (pdf) when I was a masters student and greatly enjoying it. His analysis is entertainingly idiosyncratic and yet curiously illuminating. His selective account of New York’s architectural history is likewise fragmentary yet instructive. It contains a wealth of strange anecdotes, a forest of illustrations, and several underlying theses about the nature of New York City. Inevitably, the most memorable elements are weird details, such as Gaudi’s never-built skyscraper (pictured here), everything about Dreamland on Coney Island (which deserves the many pages Koolhaas devotes to it), the 1931 costume ball at which architects dressed as the skyscrapers they designed, and Dali’s arrival in NYC:

For shock effect on arrival, Dali decides to realise - retroactively - a Surrealist project originally intended to upset Paris, the baking of ‘a fifteen metre loaf of bread’.
The baker on board ship offers to bake a version 2.5 metres long (the maximum capacity of the ship’s oven) with ‘a wood armature inside it so that it would not break into two the moment it began to dry…’ But when Dali disembarks an ‘utterly disconcerting thing’ happens: “Not one of the reporters [of a waiting group] asked me a single question about the loaf of bread which I held conspicuously during the whole interview either in my arm or resting on the ground as if it was a large cane…”
The disconcerter disconcerted: Dali’s first discovery is that in Manhattan Surrealism is invisible. His Reinforced Dough is just another false act among the multitudes.

Theoretical points are raised in a similar, vaguely impressionistic fashion. The concept of ‘reality shortage’ was particularly intriguing, as were the culture of congestion and the analogy between hotels and movies. Much like Lefebvre in Writings on Cities, Koolhaas is no great fan of Le Corbusier, although he discusses his views on New York in some detail. This description is both acute and comical:

The Parisian authorities do not take the Radiant proposal seriously. Their rejection forces Le Corbusier to become a Cartesian carpetbagger, peddling his horizontal glass Skyscraper like a furious prince dragging a colossal glass slipper on an Odyssey from Metropolis to Metropolis.

The most alarming unrealised proposal in the whole book, though, is Harvey Wiley Corbett’s vision of traffic planning. He thought not only that pedestrians should be relegated to first floor walkways to leave the entire street for cars, but that the front of buildings should be cut into for additional parking and traffic lanes, culminating in twenty lane streets. Can you imagine if this dystopian scheme had materialised.

'delirious new york' is by no means a systematic or full history of its architecture and planning, nor is it meant to be. Koolhaas provides detailed insight into the antecedents of iconic buildings such as the Rockefeller Centre and a real sense of the spirit of the city in the first three decades of the twentieth century, in his inimitable style.
18 reviews1 follower
July 10, 2009
The main thing I learned from this book is that architects have incredible freedom in establishing their own narratives. It helps when it is done masterfully, as is the case here.

Seemingly unrelated and sometimes arbitrary elements intermingle to produce an intense and inimitable environment...the history of urban life in Manhattan becomes spectacle as seen through the critical eye of the author. Fueled by Koolhaas' precise and colorful verbal descriptions, the book makes good use of historical images to produce a grand and absurd vision that, in my opinion, contains a healthy dose of self-criticism.
Profile Image for Clif Brittain.
132 reviews8 followers
December 30, 2013
This was a wonderful book. Full of great ideas, telling wonderful stories, giving great descriptions. But what was it about? After I read it a dozen more times, I might be able to tell you.

Some clues:

It is about Manhattanism. Manhattanism was defined concisely once within the book, but I can't find it again. Basically it is a culture of congestion, motivated by greed, which occasionally & accidentally produces wonderful architecture.

Two constrictions define Manhattan. The grid map of 1811, which imposed the street/avenue grid, which enabled the greatest concentration of buildings with no thought of how it would look or feel, with no thought of pleasure (the rivers were to provide the recreation - Central Park was an afterthought), with no regard for the existing geography. It was purely man over nature.

The second constriction was the 1916 Zoning Law, which prescribed how high a building could be in relation to its footprint. It was created in response to the realization that buildings produce shadows and that people seek to have access to light and air.

The book describes several architectural responses to these constrictions. The writing is very droll and clever. Even if you don't care about architecture, the writing is a lot of fun. The first response was Coney Island, a testing ground for how to bring nature back to the city. The inhabitants of Manhattan instantly discovered that they missed nature and wanted to recreate it. The contemporary Coney Island is a pale shadow of the previous Coney Island.

The second project described is the first Waldorf-Astoria hotel, its geographic replacement - The Empire State building, and its recreation, the current Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The story of the construction of the Empire State Building justifies reading the entire book.

A third project is the Downtown Athletic Club. This so fantastic I can't believe it is true. I don't know whether it was ever built, if it was occupied, or how long it existed. But even if only a dream, it would be considered too unreal to exist.

A fourth project is the Rockefeller Center. Bigger, bigger, bigger. Unconstrained by budget, designed by committee. How could it be so good? Find out here.

Less entertaining were the visits by Dali and Le Corbusier and their attempts to "save" Manhattan. I must admit this part of the book held less fascination for me. Dali is incomprehensible (is the story of the Macy's display true?). Le Corbusier diagnosed the skyscrapers as being too small and thought the city should have a much bigger scale.

What interested me most though was the story of the evolution of the skyscraper. It was enabled by the elevator. This enabled a theoretically infinite duplication of a footprint. My favorite description in the book is the skyscraper as an extrusion. Every floor exactly as the previous floor.

But soon elevators dominated the building and skyscrapers became pyramids with a core of elevators that decreased in area as they ascended. The offices and apartments simply encased the elevators.

But when air conditioning became a possibility (recreating nature within the building), they no longer needed to be external pyramids. They could again become perfect extrusions. Within the confines of the 1916 Zoning law, they had to expand their footprint to gain more vertical space. Up, up, up. Not tall enough!

Add to this the infinite need for rich white men to display phallic prowess, and you've got Manhattan!

I love Manhattan and I can't wait to get back and see some of these sights. I am just as impressed as anyone.

Profile Image for Ruby.
12 reviews
June 25, 2019
this bastard wrote some truly perfect sentences and I'll never forgive him for it...he's dutch too!!!
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,975 reviews689 followers
July 5, 2011
Koolhaas has great material. New York is WEIRD. And he paints a wonderful picture of it at various historical and spatial stages.

I take issue with his overarching theory. Much like what I refer to as the "things stoners thinking of when watching Wallace and Gromit" school of literary criticism (Baudrillard, Virilio), he prefers wacky style to cogent argument.

A good example of his school can be found in this conclusion I came to while stoned and watching Wallace and Gromit...

"Really, the wrong trousers is just metaphor for Hiroshima. Man is ultimately controlled by his quest for knowledge, and the once-noble project of Enlightenment is turned towards chaos and destruction."

You're stealing my stuff, Frenchmen.

What saves Koolhaas is the fact that he's a working architect and, i'll add, a damn fine one at that. The Seattle Public Library, where I checked out this very volume of Delirious New York, is one of Koolhaas' designs and it's a wonder. If this is the basis for that kind of noble, unearthly, whimsical, and still remarkably practical architecture, I'll take it.
Profile Image for M C.
6 reviews
October 25, 2018
I will have to give this another read. I truly tried my best to get through most of it, but I found the rhetoric and syntax to be obnoxiously tedious while lacking in cogency and force.
Profile Image for v.
243 reviews24 followers
October 16, 2020
The brilliance and imposture of this book are about as healthily sprinkled as that of New York City itself. Beyond the mountains of fascinating details and images he unearths, Koolhaas' gift as a theorist is his unpredictability (please believe that a section about a random, undistinguished 1930s skyscraper built for an athletic club is one of the most thought-provoking). But while critical reflection over what a "retroactive manifesto" even means in postmodern 1978 would probably be too much to ask for, fewer italicized catchphrases would not.
Profile Image for Ekaterina Ulitina.
100 reviews90 followers
March 23, 2023
Необъяснимо, но факт: это книга про Манхэттен! Почему-то я всю жизнь думала о ней как об архитектурной Библии, которая откроет мне глаза на архитектуру. А это книга про Нью-Йорк, как и было заявлено в названии.
Profile Image for Barrett Doherty.
8 reviews1 follower
March 3, 2013
Koolhaas, the most influential voice in contemporary architecture, explicated his theory of Manhattanism in "Delirious NY" in 1979. 30 years on, it still stands as a fascinating insight into the culture and architecture that make NY one of the great cities of the world. A very engaging quick read that illuminates NY's signature achievement, the "culture of congestion". Notable chapters include Coney Island: the technology of the fantastic, The Lives of a Block, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the Empire State Building and Radio City Music Hall: the Fun Never Sets. I lived in NY for 8 years and I found Koolhaas to be right on point. Delirious NY is one of those books that will forever change how you experience the city...
Profile Image for Honza Marcinek.
82 reviews26 followers
May 29, 2016
Rem Koolhaas patří mezi nejuznávanější architekty a je považován za současného Picassa architektury. Ale svou kariéru začal jako teoretik, kdy napsal tuto knihu, která je dodnes jednou ze základních příruček oboru. Je v ní krásné vyznání z obdivu k nekontrolovanému rozrůstání Manhattanu. A to přitom nesnáší mrakodrapy. Každopádně disharmonie protichůdných elementů se stala později jedním z poznávacích znamení jeho staveb. Já město New York miluji a díky této knize jsem mohl město poznat mnohem důkladněji. Hned bych ho chtěl znovu navštívit a projít si všechna místa, o kterých Rem píše ve svém manifestu.
11 reviews1 follower
June 12, 2018
An excellent read not only for readers interested in architecture. The book greatly conveys the feel of unrealistic, almost derilic process of development of "the greatest city on earth". Surprisingly light to read and engaging through many expamles, execellent graphics and interesitng facts.
Profile Image for UrbanPlanner_Shafaat.
16 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2022
When a theory is limited, that certainly means that there is a need to develop one: … Manhattan as the product of an unformulated theory … (Koolhaas 1994, 10).
Historical background explaining the foundation of a settlement has been echoed in all the readings: Holland families colonizing Manhattan in 1623 bringing engravings of European identity to Manhattan until it becomes a city of 13x156 blocks; and Spanish and Mexican founding of Los Angeles. These backgrounds initially defined what these settlements were: Manhattan’s superiority of mental construction over reality because its blocks negated topography while Las Vegas as a low rise expanded development along the highway and Los Angeles’s ecologies in accordance with topography and climate
Set in 1811, the Grid of Manhattan set a new form of urban fabric that was irrelevant to any in the past: known grid patterns of Haussmann’s Paris (1850s) were also after this project. While reading through this part of the essay, I kept thinking if Grid form was ever evident in any city of the past. I searched through internet to find that there were European town planned on Grid Iron previously but the author in this article never mentioned those inspirations.
Manhattan – as a mental construction – is a product of the machine era and the aspirations to surpass natural barriers through technological toolkit. Hence elevator at the 1853 Exhibition (though steam operated at that time) was an invention above all others. Moreover, the contrast of sphere and the tower at the exhibition exhibited two extreme aspiration for Manhattan: maximum interior volume with least external skin (sphere), and maximum physical impact with least ground consumption (tower).
Hence, the meet-up of these technical tools and aspirations gave birth to the skyscraper under the theorem: create aerial plots to give a new world at each level without any impact from others with varying activities unprecedented by past predictable buildings and uses. This theorem could not take up physical translation at start and was, therefore, pragmatic camouflaged by businesses on all floors as temporary phase. This pragmatic alibi, however, made the skyscraper possible which continued its replication until the aim now was 100 floors.
Another salient feature in Manhattan’s manifesto, though retrospective, was the use as big as the block alone – block was the limit on the physical imagination. Aspiration to build block scale vast events oriented structures gave birth to large indoor theatres which continued to struggle for the financial viability and the continued attraction for the incoming visitors. Yet block being the maximum limit for a single owner/planner for a vision, Manhattan became an archipelago of blocks. Analogous to lobotomy, structures in Manhattan continued to experiment the interventions in the conventions of architecture, thus giving birth to a dynamic theory. This schism is inherent in Manhattan’s architecture which, by law, sought future regulation while simultaneously a legibility for the past.
Profile Image for  Aggrey Odera.
225 reviews43 followers
July 27, 2021
"Retroactive manifesto" supposedly just means history.
I love Manhattan. Before I lived in Mexico City, I had not even considered the possibility of settling down anywhere else. Koolhaas does a wonderful job of historicizing some of Manhattan's greatest skyscrapers and their builders. In the process, he also theorizes about "Manhattanism", which, as far as I could gather, is the peculiar kind of creativity/ chaos that arises when millions of human beings are confined to 2028 blocks in an island, with no possibility for expansion except upwards. Though places like Hong Kong (which I love) and Singapore (which I detest) have attempted to recreate Manhattanism, it's clear that there's still nowhere else quite like Manhattan.

Some sections of the book seemed to me superfluous - like the part on Dali and Surrealism which, though interesting (and though a case could be made for why it was included, since it was placed side by side with Le Corbusier's push into Manhattan as well) I simply found not of use. I also hated the writing. Koolhaas' manifesto like ramblings, which i found a bit endearing in Junkspace and Bigness here just left me annoyed.
8 reviews1 follower
May 19, 2021
Definitely changed how I look at New York's architecture. Koolhaus places every building in the city in a phallic, "Promethean," surrealist context. Someone should make a 5-6 minute documentary film about this!
Profile Image for mad.
59 reviews8 followers
July 1, 2020
i like this storytelling style shrug

we gotta decolonize the shit out of the world
Profile Image for Petr Moschner.
63 reviews
January 22, 2019
Vždy jsem považoval NY za změť masturbace architektonického ega. Výkladní skříň H&M. Pop song s miliardou zhlédnutí na YT. Jednotlivé stavby tomu i odpovídají, ale Koolhaas mi pomohl najít vzrušující rovinu této změti. Rovinu, která změnila mé chápání a nazírání na New York, na Manhattan. Manhattan jakožto mřížka. Manhattan jakožto laboratoř.

Ze zelené oázy pro rekreaci, přes první zásahy v podobě zábavních parků (Luna park), postupné zahušťování, komerční vykořisťování, kontrast věže a koule, neustálá snaha šokovat, multiplikace pozemku, stvoření výškové regulace, moderní vesnice v podobě jehel nabodaných v těsné blízkosti, budování nového parteru věže na střeše nižších budov v okolí ... a nad tím vším nosný systém mřížky ulic.

Mřížka, jakožto nadmnožina veškerého života města. Mřížka, jakožto rodina architektury. S kamarády se můžete pohádat a už se nikdy nedat dohromady, stejně jako struktura města se může rozpadnout díky jedné budově. Ale mřížka je rodina. Rodina je i po hádce stále rodina a nic to nezmění. V jednotlivých blocích se může odehrávat jakýkoli svět, ale vždy bude patřit do jasně definovaného vesmíru Manhattanu. A to je jeho krása. Laboratoř, která dává smysl.
48 reviews2 followers
October 13, 2017
A history lesson, dissertion in urbanism and thought experiment soaked in pretentious intellectualoid blabber. Should be called New York Delusion. Truly brilliant at times, it did make me marvel, but you really have to indulge the writer and power through the text to get to them.

It is, I guess, the point of the book, to sell this idea of congestion and manhattanism as an urbanism concept (and I am CERTAINLY not even close to being an expert on the matter), but for me, it mostly felt flat on its face. Felt like he was imposing his view and his narrative on the architects that were his subject of writing, views and ideas I felt like the author is making up completely. But what would I know.

Some really beautiful ideas in there though, especially in the first and last chapters of the book.
Profile Image for Mike Polizzi.
204 reviews8 followers
December 28, 2015
Delirious New York is a book that gives shape and vision to the endless collisions, accidents, and collaborations that produced the signature architecture of Manhattan. As much a history of schemes and illusions as a lucid extrapolation of the pragmatism that bore out the aesthetics of the skyscraper within the limits of the grid, the zoning law of 1916 and the city's ever present culture of congestion, Koolhaas is dazzling as he reads the formal code of the city's past through its buildings and balances their history, biography and sociology.
Profile Image for Valentin.
21 reviews7 followers
February 27, 2014
Amazingly interesting: read it in just two sittings. Surreal, phantasmagoric, brilliant, inspiring. No idea how true it is. No architectural background required.
Profile Image for Artem.
21 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2022
Колхас смог здорово подать историю развития Манхэттена вместе с его главной идеей, для всех сокрытой, но лежащей на поверхности - идеей перегрузки. Читать книгу было интересно в начале и в конце, где перегрузка была главным героем, где она зарождалась и погибла, отданной на энтропию реальности.
Я не архитектор и не увлекаюсь архитектурой, эта книга была для меня чем-то вводным в тему, но я получил не то, что хотел. Со скучными формулами, разметками и прямоугольниками здесь так же есть то, что сможет увлечь читателя, кому это дейтсвительно интересно. Я понял, что архитектура имеет такой же смысл, как и искусство, там есть такие же общие приемы и высказывания, что там тоже есть своя политика, да и про Манхэттен и логику его построения я узнал достаточно хорошо. Но мне ближе другие темы, другие акценты. История, философия и психология, влияние метрополиса на умы людей - здесь это есть, но не в полной мере. Колхас постулирует лишь одну идею, чрезвычайно интересную и захватывающую, но ее раскрытие в каких-то местах мне показалось скучным. Может, одной идеи было мало, а может, я все таки не проникся до конца происходящей машинерией градостроительства - ответ очевиден. Но ознакомиться рекомендую почти каждому - благоларя этой книге приобретается новая оптика, связанная не только с Нью-Йорком, но и остальными городами, их идеями застроек и какую функцию они выполняют.
253 reviews
May 21, 2019
Okay, I didn't read the whole entire book, but I came pretty close. This was a pretty long and dense book, but ultimately it is a fascinating approach to looking at architecture. Retroactively looking at the manifestation of the city as a product of ideals and technological advance is a rather fascinating viewpoint. The biggest critique I have about this approach is that it is very subjective. While Manhattan has the whole "culture of congestion" thing going on, there's nothing stopping someone from saying that maybe it has a "culture of capitalism" or something instead. Since we cannot create a completely comprehensive history of the city (especially something as expansive as Manhattan), we would inherently have to leave out details. It then becomes a question of what we should necessarily value or not value looking back in history.

Writing wise though, this was a fun read, even though the methodological approach taken is imperfect. I believe Koolhaas has written an entire book about why he has written this book, which I will have to read someday.
Profile Image for Billy.
14 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2021
Wow. I was prepared to hate this book. Not because I wanted to or thought I'd get some enjoyment out of hating it, but because I've become accustomed to architectural nonsense (re: http://www.ruderal.com/bullshit/bulls...). But I loved it. Yes, it's heavy on theory, but damn is it entertaining. The history of Coney Island is fascinating and his descriptions of Manhattan architecture at the turn of the 20th century capture the ambitions, hopes, and dreams of a city at peak technological optimism. He even brings Dalí into the discussion. You may not agree with him, or even find his arguments useful, but that's not the point. It's a fun ride. After reading this, I see New York, and architecture, differently.
Profile Image for Prabhu.
13 reviews2 followers
August 8, 2017
I'd been pushing the thought of reading this book for so long, since buying it in 2008. Rem definitely is a thinker. Most books on Architecture these days talk about some bullshit ideas, but described through flowery yet complex words. But, Delirious New York is none of those. He tells his reasons for writing the book, explains the retro active manifesto of New York by tracing the history of the place, mentions about the people involved during the time and then concludes with his own projects (collaborated with Elia Zenghalis etc) to show how the manifesto could be then used for new projects in other cities.
17 reviews
July 18, 2020
There are some very interesting historical tidbits scattered throughout this work, and plenty of architectural diagrams and historical photos to supplement the heady, dense prose. For every sublime, enlightened passage, there are about five paragraphs which manage to revel almost nothing at all that isn't obvious -- but they are redeemed by Koolhaus's surreal, generous insights.

The energy of this "manifesto" is compelling and infectious. Koolhaas is an anthropologist as much as an architectural theorist. His genius lies in his ability to recontextualize the structures of the city, throwing things we take for granted into sharp relief, as if he were a member of an alien race observing urban humanity from afar.
Profile Image for Daniel Dickson.
16 reviews4 followers
April 26, 2019
Delirious New York is fairly heavy-handed in shoving what were perhaps only loosely tied events, developments and histories narratively together. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel convinced by its arguments. In delineating what it means to live in and create buildings for a metropolis (through an accumulation of dreamlands, business schemes, architectural postering, idiosyncratic visionaries, fantastic renderings, sociopolitical collisions and cultural congestion), Koolhaas created an unquestionable classic.
Profile Image for Ruth.
447 reviews8 followers
July 21, 2019
I sometimes read books about architecture even though I don't know much about it. I learned possibly the most obvious thing in the world from this book. At the beginning of the 19th century, Manhattan's commissioners decided on the grid that we know today. The reason for the skyscrapers is that there's no where to go but up. Everyone in the world must have realized that before I did. Koolhaas tells all kinds of crazy true stories about the ideas people had to cram many people into a small space.
5 reviews
February 16, 2021
In some ways a necessary read for architects, Delirious New York achieves neither balanced historical analysis nor a manifesto that can achieve its intended aim (doesn't all architecture devolve into its own formalism). However, it is significant as an index of architectural theory of its moment, as it articulates a anti-modern idea and program for architecture as it uses 'Manhattan-ism' as its exempla. It is a great collection of New York's architectural/planning monuments and it's chapter on Europeans a fascinating read.
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