Delirious New York: A reaction, not a review

by Sandy Ikeda

I started reading Rem Koolhaas’s insightful but seemingly endless Delirious New York a couple of years ago and just finished it this morning. Why so long? Well, it’s partly because I don’t read so fast, but mostly because it’s maddeningly obscure, both its structure and prose.

Although it has a lot of interesting and important things to say about the “culture of congestion,” RK’s writing is as self-indulgent as his architecture.  Architecture should not be art, non-fiction should not be (mostly) non-sense.

The City of Captive Globe is devoted to the artificial conception and accelerated birth of theories, interpretations, mental constructions, proposals and their infliction on the World. It is the capital of Ego, where science, art, poetry and forms of madness compete under the ideal conditions to invent, destroy and restore the world of phenomenal Reality.

There are, of course, some really nice phrases — “paranoia is a shock of recognition that never ends” — and analyses, such as of the roles of Coney Island and of Hugh Ferriss in the evolution of New York architecture (and I liked how he describes Manhattan’s skyscrapers as “extruding” through the grid).  They came at high cost. I couldn’t get very far before the spinning in the my head made me put it down for a day, or two, or more before steeling myself to pick it up again.  Despite the many captivating images in this book, reading it was work.

But I would still recommend this book if you’re interested in the way of cities.  Here’s a suggestion though:  speed-read it.  Paradoxically, this makes the overly terse and elliptical text more comprehensible, and there will be little or no loss of meaning.  However, do pause when something catches the eye, which, alas, will be often.

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