Tafuri 2 - 6 The New Babylon The “Yellow Giants" and...

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Unformatted text preview: 6 The New Babylon: The “Yellow Giants" and the Myth of Americanism (Expressionism, Jazz Style, Skyscrapers, 1913—30] While the adventures of planning in the Soviet Union follow paths in which the avant-garde, tradition, and realism converge—at least until l927—demonstrating reciprocal limits and defining the conditions of a tol— erable coexistence, the second of the ”great world-systems” endures, until the Great Depression, the incubation period of a disease marked by the conflict between a progressive tradition and dispersed aspirations to new models of capitalistic self—management. There, where the Armory Show had introduced the virus of the “European negative” and where dadaisrn had experienced an autonomous and original phase, the avant-garde ap— peared to find before it, in the 19205, two “strait gates” to pass through: on one side, the paradox of a radicalism that identifies in the tradition of the American Renaissance a reference point with which it must continually keep faith; and, on the other side, thematics that emerge from metropoli- tan reality, but that exclude purely utopian "solutions"—that exclude from the very start a onsets—one correspondence between a utopia devoid of any mediations and techniques of intervention. The impracticability of the negative appears to be the imperative that winds through the debate on urban reform in the America that had seen frustrated the hopes fueled by the wartime economy and the uncertainties of Wilson’s policy of the "New Freedom. ” NevertheleSS, it is with respect to the control systems of urban chaos that American progressivism plays its hand: among the “conclusions” we have attempted to draw regarding the destiny of the avant—garde theatre, we have not by chance encountered the Hollywood musical. This poses a problem, upon which criticism seems not to have adee quately reflected: Does not what appears in the United States as a rejection of the avant—garde, at least in architecture, in fact conceal a “diverse” ap— proach to the same themes animating the European negatives Denken? Do we not find ourselves confronting in America a rapport with the public 172 that appropriates the theme of shock, embodying it in nonhuman subjects, or rather superobjects, that, indeed, obviates the strategy of the elites and the esoteric Bauhfitten? In considering American culture, must we not adopt a different viewpoint from which to evaluate the utopia of the avant-garde? Significantly, perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the Ameri— can skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has at— tempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a "typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan—from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman 8t Kendall and George B. Post (1868—70) to Post’s mature worksl—are real live "bombs" with chain effects, destined to ex— plode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of com— mercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem—even if _ there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Ienney, Iohn Wellborn Root, Holabird 8t Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now ap— pears as "anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the "heroic" phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.2 : Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century sky- scraper.3 In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now un~ dervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree—,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the sky— scraper phenomenon that European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent econ— omy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument—and no longer an "expression"wf economic policy, find- ing in this identity with economic policy its own true "value. ” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the , nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into po— E' sition repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “’surplus value” of I language to these structures manifest itselfucorrectlyfias pure ornament. 5' But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well~known or immedi- I ately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both 1- visual‘and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [moun- 3. tain giants} in the downtowns. It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not ._ grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straight— ‘ The Adventures of the Avani-Garde forward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “centre of intelligence,” was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaifler points out the possibility of a new "Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb—and here he re— proposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain— but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the t0— tality.5 Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Briicke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelhe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blane Reiter Almanac [1912), puts forward in meta- phoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects. The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti clella montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of indi— viduals who are "all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it: at the very instant in which the confusion in the orchestra, in the move ments, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light. The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihila— tion of value in the flux of monetary currents—which the people of Man- hattan could register, nondramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his "new angels,” also give off a flash of light. But here we are already dealing with—gin the words of Rosenquist—”the fleeting gleams of static motion. ” Kandinsky’s symptomatic piece synthesizes the entire European attitude toward the zeroing of form that the skyscraper induces as a corollary of its own domi— nation of the laws of economic growth of the American downtowns. The yellow giants have lost the gift of speech; but, they nevertheless insist on attempting to communicate their alienated condition. If one now glances The New Babylon 173 174 over the pages of the German and Dutch avant-garde magazines from the period immediately following the First World War (Die Wocbe, Prilihlicht, Wendingen, G), one will find that the projects entered in the competition for the Berlin skyscrapers on the Kemperplatz or on Friedrichstrasse, or for the administrative center on the Kaiser-Wilhelm—Platz in Magdeburg, and the experiments on the typology of tall buildings by Mies and Hilber— seimer all represent a mood quite similar to Kandinsky’s. Once again, op— timism and pessimism go together hand in hand. Whether in the graphic divertissements of Hablik, in the dignified reserve of Behrens, or in the grotesque geometric distortions of Scharoun or Wijdeweld, a common con— cern remains: to try to discern within the depths of the ”great alienated one” the promise of a collective catharsis. Just like Mendelsohn’s photographs taken, a little while later, in the American metropolises,6 the skyscraper projects of the German avant— gardes are immersed in a mystical atmosphere reminiscent of that of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And this is not simply because the compositions of Soder, Taut, and Scharoun involve a derangement of signs similar to that of Robert Wiene’s film, but, more important, because in those trou- blesome tangles of forms, torn asunder by an unrelievable tension between aspiration for the sky and rootedness in the earth, reside the same drama and the same hope: the overturning of the disenchanted and pure “being”, of the skyscraper to make it into an instrument of a superior synthesis. Therefore, not the skyscraper as a type, no matter how paradoxical, but the skyscraper as a unicum, as a Merzbau, that, by upsetting the order of the stratified city, succeeds in recuperating a symbolicalness, a communica— tive structure, a genius loci. The skyScraper that, finally, through an act of extreme violence, succeeds in purifying, while restoring its own power of speech, the place of the collective murder—the metropoliskwhich is now dominated by an observatory explicitly designed to reincarnate the sym~ bolic place of the Gothic community: the cathedral. The esotericism of Taut's Stadtkrone is, therefore, the leitmotiv of these invocations of a "spirituality" of the exceptional, of these mystical exor— cisms intended to reestablish—like Feininger’s Cathedral of Labor—the community spirit so dear to the sociology of Tonnies. Even Mies, in mounting the model of his skyscraper in the form of a mixtilinear design with a typical medieval texture, appears to have wanted to respond to the assumption of his friend Schwitters: “because of the tiresomeness of its materials, there is no other task for architecture than to reutilize the old and to integrate it within the new . . . thus the metropo- lis can be transformed into a powerful masterpiece of matter. “7 Certainly, Mies’s project responds to this in a paradoxical way. But its anti-material— ity, with respect to the surrounding context, piays the same role as the emphatic materiality of the skyscraper designs of Poelzig, Walter Fischer, and Max Berg. Nevertheless, a substantial difference does remain that will reveal its true significance only in the works undertaken by Mies in the United States. The glass prisms of the experimental skyscrapers of 1921 and 1922 The Adventures of the Avant-qude appear to announce the same "Millennial Kingdom” of which Ulrich speaks to his sister in the third part of Musil’s The Man Without Quali— ties: "you must imagine it to be like a solitude and a motionlessness full of continuous events of pure crystal.” That ”Millennial Kingdom” is—as has been writtenB—the "unio mystica of proposition and silence, activity and nihilism,” the place where something happens without anything hap— pening. The skyscrapers of Mies “realize” the truth of the solipsism of Wittgenstein and Musil: they cannot speak of it. By contrast, the tall structures planned by Otto Kohtz, Emmanuel Josef Margold, Paul Thiersch, Poelzig seem to want to speak, as completely as possible, of the tragedy of solipsism, caught in the pure substance of the great mountains of Babel. Too much happens in these projects¥Poelzig’s designs evoking a spiral—shaped Flughnus are typical—~50 that something actually does happen in them. They contain too many “words,” repeating to the point of obsession that the unio mystica they invoke is not that of Mies, but, on the contrary, that of the Great Subject with the crowd. However, was it not Otto Kohtz himself who predicted, in 1909, the advent of an architecture in the form of a gigantic landscape designed for pure contemplation, the evocation of a Schillerian people in the form of a "universe decorated for a festival” .79 The skyscraper as a cathedral, as a metaphor symbolizing a rediscovered collectivity, did not remain solely at the unconscious level in German cul— ture. Gerhard Wohler, commenting in 1924 upon the results of the compe— tition for the new Chicago Tribune headquarters, spoke of the German skyscraper as a "symbol of the aspiration toward the metaphysical and of the spiritual behavior” proper to the Cathedral, which, when translated into modern terms, represents nothing other than “the exaltation of the idea of work. "10 Not far from such a reading are the judgments given by Wijdeweld and by Adolf Behne in the first issue of Wendingen {1923) dedicated to the theme of the skyscraper.11 Wijdeweld—who published in the same issue, among other things, his notable project for Amsterdam from 1919, which was decidedly organic in origin—spoke explicitly of “constructing life from death”; Behne, having criticized as useless and provincial the initiatives in Frankfurt, Danzig, Berlin, and Konigsberg, in the end pointed out a way to transform such a typology: “We must be custodians of a certain romanti— cism even when we hide it behind the cold American hyperobjectivity. Doubtless, the construction of the American Goliaths in our cities will provoke a shock ,- if conceived correctly their construction will be urbanisti— cally romantic.” And "urbanistically romantic” are, for sure, the results of the competi— tion for the skyscraper in Cologne that, in 1925, under the auspices of Burgomaster Konrad Adenauer and the Tietz firm, was planned to be built exactly at the approach to the new bridge, with its flow of traffic directed transversally to the elongated square adjacent to the Neumarkt. The Col- ogne initiative is a greater example of provincialism than those for Berlin or Danzig: a long satiric article published in Wasmufhs Monatshefte in The New Babylon T75 municipal building policy aimed at concentrating skyscrapers to form a crown around the historic center of Breslau (on the Lessing Platz, near the Cathedral, on the SchWeidnitzer Graben). This arrangement had the spe— cific function of centralizing within these urban nodes the entire pressure of commercial affairs and of tertiary functions, thereby unburdening the historic center that was destined for a conservative restoration and for resi~ dential use. The sketches that accompany Berg’s essay display towers char acterized by a moderate expressionism, in line with the contemporaneous work of the designer of the Iahrunderthalle. However, it is interesting to observe that in this proposal, which was never actualized, the mystical exorcism of Taut and Scharoun becomes administrative policy without los- ing the basic trait of those utopias: the skyscraper—put forward as a prov- idential “exception” through which the language of matter expresses itself—intervenes to “save,” not to change, the existing community. The criticism of the indiscriminate laissez—faire of the United States is quite apparent in the programs of Berg and Mohring, which in some ways bring to mind Lissitzky’s subsequent project for skyscrapers as “stirrups of the clouds,” which he proposes to arrange in the form of a crown around the center of Moscow. But this criticism is even more explicit in a 1926 article by Pasternak—and even more significant, when one remembers that Pasternak will become, four years later, an adherent of the theses of the "disurbanist” group.15 Pasternak attacks polemically both the German ur— banists [Taut, Mohring, Berg] and the chaos of the American cities. For him, insisting as he does on the full social ownership of land, the sky— scraper is a simple element of urban composition, capable of establishing an area equipped for and subjected to an incessant dynamic. Pasternak regards the skyscraper as pure form, stripped of any economic functions— he ignores, as do “disurbanists” later, that not only the land but also the building and its management involve costs—introduced for its ability "to incorporate velocity,” for its ability to give form to that exaltation of change so pursued by the Americanism of the Soviet avant—gardes during the NEP period. And so the skyscraper introduced as a disposable object in the regional land5cape has a polemical role: it proclaims the socialist victory over space, over time, over economic materialism. Although Pasternak would never have admitted it, the skyscrapers of the Stalinist era that triangulated the center of Moscow do not have, finally, any objectives distinct from those now introduced. The skyscraper as a “structure that incorporates velocity within itself ” was interpreted in a different way by the famous project that Eliel Saari— nen entered in the 1922 competition for the new headquarters of the Chi— cago Tribune:16 once again, we are dealing with a “magic mountain,” which prevents a direct confrontation with the painful reality of the Amer— ican metropolis. Thus it becomes possible to describe precisely the critical attitude of European culture toward the skyscraper: whether that critique expresses The New Babylon 177 178 itself in global proposals or results in the fascinated contemplation of the . advancing monster. This critique becomes scientific Only in the pages dedicated by Raymon Unwin, in 1924, to the relationship between the skyscraper and the city.17 One should note that the Unwin of the twenties is no longer the simple mediator between the ideas of Morris and the Sittian tradition of the pre— war years. As Chief Architect for Building and Town Planning in the British Ministry of Health, Unwin had assumed tasks involving the com— prehensive management of urbanization; from that viewpoint and not from one of a romantic antiurbanism, he sees the skyscraper as an insur— mountable obstacle in the way of the rational planning of the city. The example analyzed by Unwin is the Woolworth Building of Cass Gilbert (1913), facing city Hall Park. In twenty—eight floors, including the base- ment level, with a daily movement of employees equivalent to 14,000 per - sons, to which the number of occasional visitors must be added, its permanent population—Unwin writes—would occupy approximately 854 . meters of sidewalk; but, if everyone were in movement, the occupied " length of the same sidewalk would leap to more than two kilometers, equivalent to around half an hour for everyone to gain access to the sub— way. Furthermore, calculating one car for every ten people, Unwin obtai ~ a figure of approximately 1,280 meters of street used for parking space. H also notes that, at the beginning of the 19205, in a situation such as the Chicago Loop there circulate 60,000 cars, with parking available for only 3,500; the remaining cars are forced back into Grant Park, jamming it. The skyscraper system, therefore, becomes uneconomical with respect I. the comprehensive tertiary functions. This is what in America the c0m~ . missions of inquiry into congestion, the studies of the RPAA, the investi— gations of the Committee for the Regional Plan of New York, and, a little - bit later, those of Frederick A. Delano were all beginning to recognize, despite their failure to find efficacious solutions to the problem.18 And this is what Werner Hegemann observes, analyzing skeptically the 7. initial proposals of the Regional Plan of New York, in a 1925 essay that takes up in great measure Unwin’s analysis.‘lg Hegemann, it should be recalled, is a particularly acute observer of the urban scene in the United 1 States, which he experienced as an insider from 1905, serving as the housv' ing inspector of Philadelphia, then as an expert with the East Bay Commu- nities of San Francisco, and then as an associate of Elbert Peets and ]. Hudnut on planning jobs in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Therefore-—as urbanist, as organizer of the great exhibitions of urban planning in Boston (1909], Berlin (1910} and Dusseldorf (1911), as essay- ' ist—Hegemann is the most adequate link between the urbanistic cultures ' of America and Germany:20 his critique of the skyscraper system belongs to his distinct polemic against the urban laissez-faire of the United States. - This polemic also implicates the protagonists of the Chicago School as we E as the New York Zoning Code of 1916 and Bassett's action. For Hegemann the skyscraper is the consequence of an "arbitrary law” 1 that must be broken; in support of this, he cites favorably the proposals ii The Advenlures oi the Avont-Garde Harvey Wiley Corbett, aimed at introducing into the congested tertiary centers multilevel systems of traffic, employing elevated pedestrian walks. Yet in 1913 Hegemann himself had already advanced similar proposals: but these are merely palliativesmas he himself recognizes—in the face of which the comprehensive uneconomicalness of the “skyscraper system” re— mains certain. The European critiques do not, however, appear to touch the American architects themselves, whose concern was focused on the problem of gain- ing partial control over such a distorted system. Writing in Pencil Points in 1923, Corbett exaltsfias he had already done in previous articles”——the new formal possibilities and the functional advantages of the New York Zoning Law. Corbett is not as interested in the structural significance of zoning, even though he points out in passing its effect on the stabilization of land prices,22 as he is in the new scenic apparatus that it suggests: precisely in that article are reproduced the four famous schemes for set- back skyscrapers, made emphatic in the perspective renderings by Hugh Ferriss that illustrate the results of Helmle 8t Corbett’s zoning envelope studies. Corbett, while holding reservations of an economic and functional nature regarding the second schemefiwith its upward thrusts arranged in levels of two floors in the tower on the right side, and with its tower of an indefinite height on the left—comments on it in a most significant way: “with the vertical part inclining up to the top and with the tower that, like the ideal of the Biblical epoch, touches the sky: an authentic tower of Babel.”23 The specter of the tower of Babel thus begins to circulate in New York architectural culture; the apocalyptic allusions perfectly coincide with the new optimism that in Manhattan, especially after 1925, follows the upsurge in building and the new boom in tertiary structures. It is not accidental that a few years after the publication of Corbett’s article, Fritz Lang films, in his Metropolis, the very reconstruction of the myth of Ba— bel.24 The setback skyscrapers, determined by the zoning law, come to be read as carriers of two complementary symbolic meanings. The confusion of tongues resulting from the undertaking of Babel merges with the refer- ence to the city as "New Babylon”: the project for the system of roof gardens and bridges suspended over the streets in Rockefeller Center is only a belated result of this widespread identification.25 But, meanwhile, it becomes necessary to compensate for such a disquieting reading with a cathartic interpretation. Babel is the prelude to new knowledge, to the division of language, the triumph of “difference”—but only as the premise of a new globality. If Claude Bragdon could interpret the renderings by Ferriss as Piranesian prisons, in which man is swallowed up by a machine that is infernal because it is irrational,26 Helmle 87: Corbett do not hesitate to elaborate in 1925 an ideal restoration of King Solomon’s Temple and Citadel, in a plan sent, along with others, to the Berlin exhibition of American architecture opened in 1926 at the Akademie der Kiinste.27 It would be an error to consider the pastiche designed by Helmle 8t Corbett as simply a divertissement of kitsch derivation. The rationality of Solomon is not an antithesis to the "differences" institutionalized by the The New Babylon 179 180 chaos of Babel; on the contrary, the latter is the very foundation of that rationality. The paroxysmal competition that invades mid-Manhattan along with the new commercial skyscrapers does not need to rationalize interventions coming from outside the market. The new laissez-faire has built into itself adequate potential for self—planning: this is the unex- pressed ideology that makes the rounds of New York architectural culture 1 during the 19205. The zoning law, precisely for its “restrictive” character— - istics, for its capacity to project the status quo into the future, for its use as an instrument for stabilizing the economy, can be accepted as a tran- quilizing measure; the same does not apply, however, to the reports pre— -. pared by Henry Wright and Clarence Stein for Governor Al Smith, which -: were seen as destructive of a self-correcting equilibrium. The orgy of 1 forms deposited on the skyscrapers of New York, between the resumption __‘ of building activity after the First World War and the crash of 1929, can— " not be interpreted monolithically as a simple optimistic merging of the I; influences of late-romantic European culture and Hollywood taste. That art deco, expressionist, Viennese, and Dutch influences had shaped this orgy ‘ of forms is indubitably, as has been recently underlined by Rosemarie ‘ Bletter. But nothing as yet has been said about the structural reasons that pushed for such a widespread adoption of the ”jazz style,” for such a de- liberate mediation of mechanization and allegories that are immediately understandable, for such an indifference to matters of linguistic coherence [every language is permitted in the "great theatre” of the metropolis]. Certainly, the ”New Babylon” is invited to participate joyously in the world of commerce: the commodities themselves, here, tend to hide the abstractions of their exchange value, to exalt the “gratuitous,” to present themselves as pure use—value. The refined lobbies of the Chanin Building, I the Chrysler Building, and the Film Center Building are composed as true and proper hoites a surprises: the conventional naturalisrn of the exteriors -- [the decorated walls of the Chanin Building come to mind] or their frag— mentariness are exalted in spaces that absorb into themselves the only “social” values possible in the new metropolis. Yet the fragment, isolated as it is, celebrates its own provisionality: the elevator lobby designed by Ely Jacques Kahn for the Film Center Building (1928—29) is merely an accumulation of plastic objects in synCOpated rhythm, unstable, ready to change form in a mechanically controllable metamorphosis. There is no celebration of the irrational in such an ostentatious frag— mentation of objects. The cute remark that Benjamin made in "Zentral— park” is quite valid. Referring to Nietzsche’s well-known metaphor, he writes: For the idea of eternal recurrence, most important is the fact that the bourgeoisie no longer dared to face the next phase in the development of a; the order of production which it had set into motion. Zarathustra’s idea of an eternal recurrence and the motto on the antimacassars covering the "i cushions [of the divans of the bourgeois salon] ’lnst a quarter hour’ are complementary.28 The Adventures of the Avunf-Gurde Thus the unstable surfaces hollowed out and dotted with denticles and the graded, slanted ceilings of Ely I. Kahn’s Film Center elevator lobby, and the spiral tangles of the radiator grills in the lobby of Sloan and Rob— ertson’s Chanin Building and the polychrome backgrounds of that build— ing’s elevators, though through different devices, express the same allegorical meaning: the exaltation of the temporary. "The eternal recur- rence” is banalized, but rendered totally enjoyable; "the bad infinity of time” is exorcized in a triumph of the transitory, of the flowing without pause, of the "inessential" play of forms. "Just a quarter hour”: the entire metropolis calls for the ceaseless acceleration of movement, of velocity, of exchange. Within the metropolis, it must be made impossible "to stop,” impossible to perceive the laws of its own productive order. "The New Babylon" must present itself as a variety theatre, through which eccentric- ity becomes an institution, a mode of collective behavior. Outside of this framework, the link, continually reaffirmed in the twen- ties and the early thirties, between the development of the skyscraper and Americanism is incomprehensible. No longer a structure but a scenic toy rich with ludic valencies, the skyscraper negates the structural matrix im— posed upon it by George Post and by Earnest Flagg. lts vitalism is both a response to the unrestrained course of financial speculation that leads di— rectly to the catastrophe of the Great Depression and, at the same time, a “mask” superimposed on that course. Writing in 1930 in The Architectural Forum, Paul Robertson, President of the National Association of Building Owners and Managers, reaffirms the tenacious bond between the development of the skyscraper and the American way of life, contesting, with the usual arguments addressed to the forces governing the financial speculation of the epoch, the relation between congestion and tertiary concentrations. The real enemies that Robertson intends to strike are the restrictive regulations conceived, as he writes, by the same mentality that in the good old days would have been frightened by the thought of trains proceeding at the speed of fifteen to twenty miles per hour. Robertson, having taken into account the values of the lands and buildings, does not hesitate to affirm that the total invest— ment in the commercial building sector is in access of seven billion dollars, making the skyscraper, at least in terms of invested capital, into an indus- try larger than the auto, steel, and railroad industries. Moreover, he ex- presses disappointment on behalf of his own group in the system of taxation that hits the buildings of the central business districts?" in his analysis, the inflationary effects provoked, on an urban scale, by the pro- liferation of skyscrapers are made to disappear, along with any considera- tion of the paradoxical situation of the building market in New York City—afflicted already around 1926 by an overproduction of office spaces, according to investigations by Frederick A. Delano and confirmed (note well) by the New York chapter of- Building Owners and Managers Association.30 While even during the depression, the skyscraper, against all evidence, could be reaffirmed as an ineluctable component of an urban “destiny” The New Babylon 131 182 already marked out, the initial stages of the economic cycle that resh :1 the face of the tertiary aspects of New York were experienced in an - - opposite manner by the architects. To begin the chapter on New York deco—as is usually done—with the Barclay—Vesey Building (1923—26) ‘ McKenzie, Voorhees 8: Gmelin, with Ralph Walker as designer, can, u : the viewpoint of the previous sentence, send us off in the wrong dir If we examine the structure of this skyscraper, which was constructed _ the New York Telephone Company, we find that its base takes the f0 1: a parallelogram, coinciding with the shape of its lot. The building rises, compactly to the tenth floor, where it assumes the planimetric form of H, with the short sides still determined by the basic shape of the par gram. Independent of this structure, however, the central core of the building rises for another nineteen stories, culminating in three large triumphal arches and a series of recessions in the form of parallelepip descending in tiers against the sky ":21 la maniere de Saarinen.” The t :j ogy of the skyscraper with an open courtyard—introduced by Post in :- 1880—is thus replaced by one with a single tower. And since we are ing with an assemblage [a tower that twists in relation to the base of ' building], what is emphasized is the effect of torsion, produced by the 5 divergent orientation of the geometric coordinates of the central core - of the volume articulated by the form of the parallelogram. The dram zation of structure is further accentuated by the prevalence of the con :5 ous vertical bands of brickwork that "liberate" themselves from their I functional constrictions once they reach the level of the crown with its a varying heights: 3 "liberation" that is underlined by, among other thi the heightened density of the decorative motifs—interwoven plants and exotic animals—at the levels of the shopping arcade and the upper stori Louis Sullivan had perceived correctly; Eliel Saarinen’s project for th Chicago Tribune concluded a formal experiment that Sullivan had left ' complete. The Barclay-Vesey Building is entirely within such a traditio_ The struggle of structure to reaffirm its own coherence assumes here an, epic tone: only formal distortion guarantees to the tension of volumes .1" organicity regained by means of a dialectic. Thus the tragic quality inh' ent in the very conditiOn of the skyscraper—a typological event sunder from every morphological support on the urban level—is assumed and _ sublimated: the organicity of the building is not guaranteed by the giv upon which it is based but by their deformation, by the imposition of ai” structurality obtained by means of “heroic” disarticulations. The distan from the fragmentariness of the Film Center Building could not be grea Nevertheless, three years after its opening, the Barclay-Vesey Build' _ would be hailed by Mujica as a work marking the triumph of the Mod School, as opposed less to the neo-Gothic already in decline than to the ‘ classicism advocated by Hastings.31 Yet even Lewis Mumford, writing in ‘ 1928 his first article dedicated to the review of new tendencies in Ameri. architecture,32 having argued against every connection between the zon' envelope and the aesthetic treatment of the skyscraper, cites the Barclay- Vesey Building as one of the signs of a cultural renaissance, placing it The Adventures of the Avani-Gurde alongside Hood’s Radiator Building, the Graybar Building, and the Ala- bama Power Company Building. Mumford, however, sees the work of Ralph Walker not as a unified organism, but rather as a split, dualistic structure: The building as a whole has a feeling of dark strength, but in the stone— work of the lower stories and in the interior the designer introduces a delicate, naturalistic carving, heightened within by the use of gold. When one enters the main hall, one almost forgets its purpose: it is as gaily lighted and decorated as a village street in a strawberry festival. Mr. Walker, in other words, accepts the contrast between structure and feel— ing: he does not attempt to reconcile them. . . . In Mr. Walker's design decoration is an audacious compensation for the rigor and mechanical fl- delity of the rest of the building; like jazz, it interrupts and relieves the tedium of too strenuous mechanical activity.33 It is significant that Mumford does not comprehend the structural as— pects of the Barclay—Vesey Building, which, with its shopping arcade on Vesey Street, among other things, takes into account the principle of mul- tilevel traffic, even though it is confined to the restricted ambit of a single passage. What interests the American critic is the juxtaposing of the ele— mentaristic terrorism of the European avant-gardes against the principle of synthesis at the heart of the tradition of Sullivan and Wright; to Walker’s work, he opposes the Park Avenue Building by Ely Jacques Kahn, which he interprets as a reconciliation of the two poles that, in his opinion, the Barclay—Vesey Building keeps apart. And yet, from the structural point of view, Raymond Hood, Corbett, and Kahn are in accord in advancing proposals antithetical to the regional— ism that was advocated by the RPAA and that Mumford himself will de— fend against the bland hypotheses of decentralization suggested by the Regional Plan of New York drawn up by Thomas Adams. Hood and Cor- bett more explicitly, and Kahn more generally, propose concentrations of high density in the large areas of the central business district to create a vertical integration of residences, services, offices, industries, and social spaces, in single and completely equipped blocks.34 However, Kahn arrives at the solution of the Park Avenue Building only after a Beaux—Arts edu- cation, an experience as a painter, researches in vernacular style, buildings in New York that are still ambiguous, such as the John Thorpe Building (1921), the Arsenal Building [1925], the 550 Seventh Avenue Building (1925), the International Telephone and Telegraph Building (1927). Only with the triad of skyscrapers built in 1927—the Insurance Building, the Park Avenue Building, the Broadway and Thirty—seventh Street Building—. does a Kahnian “style” become definitive: exactly the personal style that triumphs in the Film Center discussed above, in the Allied Arts Building of 1929, and in the Bricken Casino Building of 1931. It is evident that Mumford praises the formal continuity of the Park Avenue Building for its vague resemblance to some of Wright’s formulas. But the decomposition of Buchman 8t Kahn’s skyscraper, on the whole a The New Babylon 183 traditional organism, effected by its ornamental and colored projections, designed in collaboration with Leon Solon, belongs to a composite poetics. which departs from European experiments only to confront them critically with openly anti~European traditions. The abstract silhouettes that tor- ment the surfaces of the Park Avenue Building alternate, and enter into dialogue, with a gamut of colors and materials ranging from masonry, to terracotta, to ochre, to magenta red, to blue, with gradations dimensioned according to their distance from the observer’s eye. Presenting the build— ing in 1928, Leon Solon speaks of a scientific approach to form as opposed to a stylistic approach:35 one should note that in this same year Kahn, together with Hood, Walker, Saarinen, John Root, and Schoen, organizes an architectural exhibition for the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which testifies to the ferments raging within the Architectural League and which is in some way a response to the Paris Exposition of 1925, thorn oughly studied by Kahn. And one should further note that Kahn himself, so attentive to the debate of the European avant—garde,36 cites the use of color in ancient Greek temples to justify the formal artifices of the Park Avenue Building. In an unpublished autobiographical manuscript composed .' shortly before his death [around 1972), he writes: "We were thinking of I the primary colors of Greek antiquity. It is exactly those that we have attempted to reproduce. "37 [Particularly interesting, the detailed model of the building was submitted to the judgment of Hood, who approved its erection.) Thus the color and the texture of materials come to be exalted as new formal instruments. Kahn also writes in 1928: The dream of a colored city, buildings in harmonious tones making great masses of beautiful patterns, may be less of a vision if the enterprising city developer suspects the result. There is evident economy of effort in the application of color in lieu of carved decoration that cannot be seen and the novelty of a structure that can be distinguished from its nonde— scriptive neighbors has a practical value that must appeal without ques— tion to the designer and his public.33 The "colored city” is therefore a self—advertising structure, a system in— tended to involve the metropolitan public, and, as in the case of the new skyscrapers on Forty—second Street and on Park Avenue, the efficient in- strument of a speculation perceived as pioneering, an attack upon and conquest of new areas for the “adventure” sung by the skyscrapers them- selves. It is not coincidental that the professional organization of Kahn’s studio is ironbound: the firm can offer its clients not only new forms of publicity but also accurate advice on the suitability of locations, thanks to a scientifically kept up-to-date archive monitoring the state of land prices on the chessboard of Manhattan.39 It is upon such a relation between design and speculation that a poetics aimed at a search for the autochthonous values of ”American Civilization" is based. Kahn possessed, not by chance, a library containing texts on classical, Egyptian, and Oriental archaeology and a collection of objects, 184 The Adventures of the Avant-Gurde majolica, and porcelains from ancient Persia that were unique in New York. His interests in Chinese primitive decorations, Mayan architecture, Persian art, Moorish styles directly influenced his work, but they also have a deeper ideological meaning: Kahn saw the ascendancy of the Turkish Empire and the decadence of the Byzantine and European civilizations as consequences of the definite deterioration of an obsolete tradition, Whereas his recourse to pre—Columbian art belongs to a "cult for roots” that places him close to the free wanderings of Wright in search of the red thread that was broken, in the American continent, by the “corrupting” rational— ity of Europe.40 Besides, had not Rose Henderson, already in 1923, exalted the colonies of painters who had installed themselves after 1903 at T305 and Santa Fe, in New Mexico, near the anthropological sites of the Indians and the re— maining Pueblo tribes, affirming that “the Indians were the first Cubists in this country” .741 The unitary masses of Kahn’s skyscrapers, commented upon by a fragmentism that becomes appeased only in the Squibb Building [1930), are not as remote from Helmle 8t Corbett's reconstruction of Solo- mon’s Temple as appears at first sight. The Park Avenue Building, the Allied Arts Building, and the Holland Plaza Building (1930) are also mon— uments to “knowledge”: even if in them the cult of the archaic merges with a celebration of the “monumentality of the eccentric and the transi— tory,” unknown to the formal disjointedness—by now lacking any will to reintegration—pf a skyscraper like the Master Building [192849] by Helmle 8t Corbett. The immediately consumable image, despite its articulation by dynamic trajectories [one thinks immediately of the flagrant virtuosity exhibited by Kahn in the ultimate designs for the Bricken Casino Building], seeks roots in a culture that ignores the historicity of the European tradition. In the quest for the autochthonous, Kahn encounters neither Emerson nor Whit- man, but rather arts and cultures apparently “ahistorical,” stable, capable of being absorbed as new "Sources of Inspiration,” in a context that makes the transitory into a monster to be exorcized but to which, nevertheless, sacrifices must be dedicated. And is it not significant that the reductionism that Ely ]. Kahn and Raymond Hood both reach, but by different paths, was anticipated by an American sculptor, only recently “rediscovered,” like John Storrs?‘12 It is uncertain whether his aluminum statue placed at the vertex of the Board of Trade Building at Chicago's Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933 concerns us in this matter. Rather, more emblematic are his abstract sculp- tures influenced by the complex Parisian milieu, in which in 1920 this pupil of Rodin gave birth to a meditation on cubism in a work entitled The Spirit of Walt Whitman. Storrs’s Forms in Space [those in marble from 1920 through 1923 and those in metal from 1924 through 1927) have been interpreted as postsuprematist documents of a technocratic universe: ab— stract models of potential purist skyscrapers, they nevertheless do reflect the influences of the jazz style, even though restrained and reduced to minimal signals. In this sense, the experimentalism of Storrsihe estab— The New Babylon 185 lishes himself permanently in Chicago only in 1929—clears a path that American architecture will have to traverse reckoning with itself alone, once again removed from every advance made by the avant-garde in the traditional sense. Note well: whether for Richardson, Kahn, or Wright, the “roots” sought for a new American culture are embedded in the other. What counts is the equation between the archaic—symbol, and only symbol, of an uncontaminated truth—and the victory over the atavistic inferiority complex vis-a—vis Europe. But with a new feature, which emerges along- . side the neoromanticism of the Golden Age: now, at the end of the twen— ; ties, the enemy to defeat appears to be the organicity of language. In fact, i being neither able nor willing to offer themselves as complete “syntheses,” f. the skyscrapers of the “new” Manhattan pose as spectators at a gigantic ‘- collective ballet. The subjectivity that the system of big business transfers . to the molecules of the crowd—the individualsgit dominates is thus recu— I: perated, in a sort of propitiatory rite, by the “new subjects“ of the city, I who advance joyously to the front of the stage of the metropolis trans— formed into a music hall. The ludic installs itself in the metropolis with masks that lack thickness; the vitalism that emanates from it knows not the desperation of Fitzgerald, but rather the “foolish” vanities of Zelda. Yet the vitalism of the parade, denounced by critics like Croly or Mur— chison,45 is deeply characteristic of the search for the Americanism of which we are attempting to reconnect the threads. The “New Babel” is the innocence that accepts every language, but also the ability to single out '- collective myths to follow, conscious of their provisionality. It is not sur— ;_ prising that one of the first systematic histories of the skyscraper—that of '_ the Chilean Francisco Muiica—works out organically some of the hy— i potheses that Ely Kahn had formulated empirically and with the taste of a collector. .- The binding together of the search for a truly American architecture and i: the “American” typology par excellence, that of the skyscraper, is for Mu- E: jica a straightforward operation. In this sense, his interpretation of the reasons for the “downfall” of the so—called Chicago School, after the Chi— cago World’s Fair of 1893, is symptomatic: the neoromanticism of Root and Sullivan was “un—American.”i Moreover, the search for “roots,” 0b— stinately pursued by Mujica, is the legacy of the tradition of the American Renaissance. That compounding of transcendental subjectivity and the na- turalistic refounding of civil society had as its objective a “frontier” folded back on itself: the metropolis of the skyscrapers was an instrument at the national level, the brain of a complex organization, that, especially in the twenties, aspired to a selfwcontrol, to an automatic healing of its institu— tional wounds. [In fact, such an aspiration to capitalist self-planning, in the absence of interventions by the public administrators was the goal of the regional plan for New York financed and organized by the Russell Sage ' Foundation, from 1923 onward.) It is exactly to such a “miraculous” compounding of irrepressible differ- ences that the search for the roots of a “pure” Americanism, liberated 186 The Adventures of the Avunt-Garde from the mortgages fixed by European culture and founded on a neo- Rousseauean naturalism of the "noble savage,” attempts to offer a contri— bution. Mujica writes: In these latter days a new tendency has appeared that does not accept the preconceived patterns of the classical and the Gothic styles, but strives to express spontaneously a rational and sincere decoration of the structure employing for this purpose the most modern lines. . . . The characteristic qualities of these new lines and proportions present great resemblance with the elements of primitive American architecture. As to cornices it has not been possible to apply to skyscrapers any of the hitherto known pro- portions. The new architecture has had to find an element which only marked the limit of the wall-surface. By this quality and by the fact that its principal decorative elements are brought out in large surfaces, the new style strikingly recalls the Pre—Columbian architecture with its pal— aces and pyramids with small cornices, and magnificent decorations carved in big dominating surfacesfi5 That the first illustrations in Mujica's book are ideal reconstructions of the Mexican pyramids of Papantla and Teopanrepec and that of Tikal, in Guatemala, has therefore a polemical significance. The “new” draws its guarantees of validity by fastening itself to the primitive—even though the examples used by Mujica do not appear innovative with respect to the practice of designing within the circle of the Architectural League of New York. But let us allow the author to continue: After a profound study of the ruins it is possible to conceive a new line in which only the sentiment of the American forms subsists. It appears to me correct to call this new type of architecture Neo—American. The differ- ence between the Renaissance and the Neo-American architecture is fun- damental: The Renaissance worked with a model before it. The Neo- American architecture is a new creative work which requires profound study of the primitive American architecture and of the geometrical and mechanical elements of the regional nature. When all the forms peculiar to us have germinated in our minds and can follow the summons of our imagination we will be prepared to create this new architecture and to produce designs and plans embodying reminiscences of their primitive ori— gin, but at the same time revealing their modern character clearly and powerfully.46 As you can see, Mujica manages merely to rationalize the ideas widely circulating in the New York milieu. Beyond the subjective mysticism of a Frank Lloyd Wright, it is very clear that the appeals to a “Neo—American architecture,” to the art deco style, to a domesticated machinism tending toward kitsch—4 am thinking of the Chrysler Building, but also of the residential skyscraper by the Chanin firm—are merely instruments to seize a general consensus for an urban structure that is paradoxical and increasingly shackled by its own laws of growth. The opinion poll of New York architects that addressed the convenience of the skyscraper system, The New Babylon 187 188 which Mujica published in the fifth chapter of his book, is indicative. The opinion of Thomas Hasting, who is absolutely opposed to the tall comm cial building, is coupled with that of Mayor Henry Curran, who, in his speech delivered at the meeting in 1927 of the Civic Development Depart' ment of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, confirms the uneconomicalness of the tertiary concentrations, posing these questions: Is it good sense not to have a dollar for any other city need, to pour it into more traffic facilities to take care of a coagulated bunch of skyscrap~ ers, is that sense? Is that city planning? Is that good business? Is it good for your individual business? That is where we are.47 But John Sloan, Wiley Corbett, and Mujica himself are ready to demo strate that the skyscraper can be an instrument of good business: the problem is to limit the central business district, possible because of the I high tertiary concentration; to apply taxes compatible with the market; to use the resulting fiscal yield for a reconstruction of the streets, supervisedi by a public administration capable of taking into account the proposals for} the separation of traffic advanced since the first years of the century; and to adopt Le Corbusier's model for the ville radiease.48 Here utopia exten its hand to professional optimism: Corbett, Sloan, Hood, Mujica merely put into the form of their own discipline the demands of Paul Robertson. ‘ If, going beyond such considerations—with which American big busi- ness will not come to terms even after the Great Depression—we attempt to consider the effects the "New Babel” had upon the collective conscious-l ness of the 19205, we must place, alongside documents like the film Madam Satan, cited by Bletter,49 one more illuminating cinematic se— I quence. In the film Gold Diggers of 1935, Busby Berkeley inserts a practi-l cally independent segment, a film within the film: Broadway Lullaby. Thel camera begins with a long shot of the singer Wini Shaw, iSOlating her face against a black background. While Wini performs her song, the camera executes a perpendicular movement, framing the protagonist from above. After a dissolve, Wini’s face remains only in profile, within which appears an aerial view of Manhattan. The metropolis of the skyscrapers is com- pletely contained in the unconscious of the individual, as it were: the whole and its parts are no longer distinguishable, bound as they are in a relationship of complete correspondence. But here we are dealing with a mortal relationship. After an exceptional representation of “urban choral- ity”—a musical sequence that assembles a hundred dancers in a gigantic nightclub—Wini falls from the top of a skyscraper, while the camera moves within a Manhattan that continues indifferently its own existence. Once again, the metropolis is superimposed upon the face of Wini.50 In this way, Berkeley demonstrates that the loved-hated big city re— quires concrete reform in order for the collective festival of the musical to be experienced "authentically"; but he also shows that the entire search for "roots," which we have attempted to characterize by isolating some examples from the 19205, is completely superfluous. The individual has already internalized the "values" of the urban machine—and they are The Adventures of the Avunt-Gurde mortal. The dream will survive: the dance and the choral song of the musical. We are no longer dealing with the gaiety of the Chrysler and Park Avenue buildings. The hopes raised by Roosevelt’s New Deal remain as yet unfulfilled; the “Dinosaur City” will see to their destruction all too soon, reaffirming its own indissoluble connection with the triumphal march of urban-industrial America toward imperialist expansion, the des— tiny of whichein spite of everything—the Americanist ideology of Helmle 8:: Corbett, of Ely Kahn, of Mujica had celebrated. The New Babylon 189 ...
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Tafuri 2 - 6 The New Babylon The “Yellow Giants" and...

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