Rem Koolhaas’ DNY1 begins with a cryptic epigraph by the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico2. Actually it is a mash up or paraphrase of a passage from Vico excerpted from the Book II (Poetic wisdom) of his greatest masterpiece The New Science – in the last and definitive publication of 1744 – at the beginning of the paragraph entitled Poetic metaphysics:
«[…] tutti i Filosofi e Filologi, dovevan’ incominciar a ragionare la Sapienza degli Antichi […] e dovevano incominciarla dalla Metafisica, siccome quella, che va a prendere le sue pruove, non già da fuori, ma da dentro le modificazioni della propria mente di chi la medita; dentro le quali, come sopra dicemmo, perché questo Mondo di Nazioni egli certamente è stato fatto dagli uomini, se ne dovevan andar’ a truovar i Principj»
«Adunque la Sapienza Poetica, che fu la prima Sapienza degli Antichi, dovette incominciare da una Metafisica, non ragionata e astratta, qual è questa or degli Addottrinati, ma sentita, ed immaginata, quale dovett’essere di tai primi uomini»3
This reference has remained a silent enigma, bolstered by the deliberate reticence of RK: he has never fallen into the temptation of explaining the mysterious link with a theoretical approach. Rather he has chosen to show it in his work and in his actual architectural praxis.
That epigraph is anything but random, in fact Vico’s philosophical slant constitutes a breeding ground to clarify correlatively Koolhaas imaginative outlook; at the same time this unusual fellowship has something decisive to say about Laugier’s primitive hut4, inasmuch it puts forward a “prime fable” on the original state of primitive man which is much more profound and richer than the Laugier’s strictly Enlightenment-inspired view, that is still today imperceivably influencing our common feeling and the theoretical groundings of many disciplines.
The verum-factum principle
One of the cornerstone principles of Vico’s philosophy is the verum factum: truth can be reached only about what man can make, only about what he has made, that is the civilized world and his vestiges (literature, laws, architecture etc.). According to Vico the “philologists” are the ones who ascertain and describe the facts of human history, while the philosophers are supposed to make sense of them by researching the links between them and their deep meaning. Ascertainment of verity and giving verity to the certain5 (“Accertamento del vero e inveramento del certo”): Rem Koolhaas’ DNY is concerned with making true6 Manhattan’s fact or reality.
«A great writer (…) is one who makes true (“inverare”)7 with his work the largest amount of reality»8
It’s the “remains”, the traces that man leaves (sepulchres, monuments, and writings9) that allow him to reflect himself in a cultural milieu, acquiring individual and communitarian consciousness. It is on the base of these facts, of these products of human labour, that a historical awareness (and thus the possibility of writing our own history) is formed. Vico is the first philosopher of western tradition who considers writing not as a mere tool for the transcription of pre-existing thought and human self-consciousness, but as a creative practice allowing the very same facts to come to light by reciprocity and intersubjective recognizability.
In that sense should be intended the famous Dipintura in the beginning of 1730 and 1744 edition. The bright Eye of the Sun/God emanates two rays: one, omnidirectional, enlightens the world of nature and, proceeding beyond the great selva in the background of the picture (the symbol of the primitive barbarity, of the anonymous world, pre-historical, that is before the writing) reaches those objects in which the meaning of human life is condensed (the altar, the plough, the alphabetical table, the urn); the other is reflected in the «convex jewel» in the Goddess’ breast. It represents Methaphysics and it shines back in the statue of Homer, the first “writer” that with his poems unveiled human history for the first time. History and the writing of history, facts and their revealing proceed simultaneously, reflecting one into the other. Every tale, every history is a leftover, a sign, that serves as a mirror for ourselves, giving us historical awareness of belonging to it, our origin and a possible destination in a constant redefining process.
That is the reason why Vico does not consider his work as an “external” history or a report of pre-defined facts, but as a dynamic part of universal history. A circular sequence of losing reason by falling into barbarity and again the constant possibility of “reactivation of meaning”10 through the metaphysical-poetical narration.
As a contemporary of Laugier, Vico is acting within the framework of Enlightenment. Though he represents a dissonant voice. His work puts forward a quite peculiar position, totally independent from Enlightenment clichés. He contradicts the more ideological and superficial aspects of the Enlightenment thinking. No coincidence that his figure was quite marginalized by the culture of his time, while his work has been widely revalued by the most advanced areas of the twentieth-century philosophy11.
Poetic metaphysics and mental images: Manhattanism
«The most sublime labor of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things»12
Isn’t it what RK did with DNY? This is the poetic metaphysics generating the mental images with which RK gives life and name to the anonymous, untold and “untamed” Manhattan. Poets does not communicate, but originally name things:
«Where word is lacking no thing may be»13
It is poetic metaphysics that allows man to emerge from ingens sylva (the pre-human, feral condition) giving name and sense to things.
Poetic language and the myth of the primitive man
Vico shows that the origin of language is not conventional, (moreover without a preexistent language how could convention be?), but poetic, just as the origin of the state is not contractual but religious and “familial”; in the same way at the origin of the economy there isn’t the exchange but the gift and the origin of architecture is the temple and not the oikòs.
At the origin there is not the individual with its “usefulness”, but rather his emerging and recognizing himself in a community which logically and chronologically pre-exists him. Therefore, the Laugier14 description of “first man” (largely influenced by Rousseau’s theories) is mystifying and naive, because it superimposes improperly his (and our) contemporary western man – or rather, a particular representation of the western contemporary man – on the idea of primitive man. This is the «pragmatic fable» that Koolhaas tries to deconstruct, unmasking its ideological and «paranoid-critical» trait.
Umwelt and place
Jakob von Uexküll, introduced in biology the notion of Umwelt Jakob von Uexküll, introduced in biology the notion of Umwelt (literally “environment”)15. Each species of living being lives in symbiosis with its environment and derives from it a determined series of stimuli (and responses). The environment does not coincide with the place they live in: in the same place live together different Umwelten, different autonomous “perceptual worlds”. Even being in the same forest, different animals do not live in the same world: each one lives identifying itself completely with its particular Umwelt.
Martin Heidegger in The fundamental concepts of metaphysics16, refers back to the concept of Uexküll in order to define better what is the key point in framing differences between man and animal. Even the man is living in a quite specific Umwelt that differs from the one of any other entity; but the animal is completely identified with its environment, in which it plays certain stimuli with certain fixed responses; a water lily is not the same thing for the frog and for the fish, it represents a different stimulus for each animal. Therefore, they cannot communicate on the basis of a shared idea of water lily. A “common environment” exists only for the human being. In Heideggerian terms the animal is not able to experience a being as such, in its relation with the Being itself: actually it has no relation with its environment, it is its environment, Leib and Umwelt coincide in its being.
In humans instead there is a space, a clearing (lichtung is the famous term used by Heidegger) in which he distances himself from the Being and by doing so he is able to watch it, even though he is part of it: in other words, he gets aware of the relationship (which on one hand is distance, difference, on the other hand is sharing) between Being and entity. The animal is its environment, the man dwells in a place. And here comes architecture and the separation from the natural realm that reaches its peak in the «Manhattism», «whose program – to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e., to live inside fantasy – was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated»17.
RK quotes Vico in that specific expression as a warning of the fact that man is not constituted by the satisfaction of its needs or its utilities (biologically speaking, he does not have a fixed response to certain stimuli). Human being makes true and fulfills himself in the recognition of his desires and by the desire for recognition. His desire is, originally, the desire to restore that lost total identification with nature, through the identification with a earthly or heavenly (intellectual) community18. Men of course have needs and are certainly linked to his territory, but they do not identify completely with it; man dwells in a place, often moves from it, and constantly modifies and deforms it (hence the increasingly relevant conflict between the human ambition and the natural realm, a conflict that in the animal realm is of course not present). Human environment is always changing. Architecture testifies it.
«Otherworldliness. Architecture = the imposition on the world of structures it never asked for and that existed previously only as clouds of conjectures in the minds of their creators. Architecture is inevitably a form of PC activity»19
Man is delirious compared to the animal. He deviates from the natural realm; the whole culture (as opposed to nature), starting from architecture, can be defined as the paranoiac- utopian attempt to catch up for the loss of identification with nature that characterizes the animal world. The condition of the animal makes it effectively immortal (even if it dies, it does not die as a man does; it doesn’t know it must die, it lives in a single moment of eternity), because it doesn’t experience that detachment from nature, that clearing that allows man to get through the sublime adventures of knowledge, but at the same time condemns him to mourn the loss of eternal life of nature.
Architecture reflects this crazy and sublime epic. Architecture is the result of a paranoid elaboration of mourning for the original loss. Reducing architecture to mere satisfaction of the needs and utilities of the individual is a «pragmatic fable» spread by enlightenment rationalism20, that in the same period can be seen at work in the economic theory of Adam Smith or in the contractualist political theories that rely on the pragmatic and optimistic fable for which economy and politics, exchange and the state, would be the answer to the needs of men, an agreement between already existing individuals. Thus totally avoiding the question of power and desire.
The individual is a result. He does not exist as such before the community. But RK seems to mean something even more radical: that rationality itself is a result, a product of the paranoiac-critical activity, and only by recognizing it, rationality reaches completion (the completion, not the end)21. Only recognizing that rationality itself is delirium it can escape rationalist delirium.
So architecture is not born to satisfy needs, but to build a space in which community recognizes and embodies itself, that space in which man comes true. A space which, in turn, is nothing but manifestation and reflection of human desires and ambitions that transcend the will of the individual and lead to unexpected results22. Koolhaas, being conscious he got the point, leads us to recognize that, despite the «pragmatic dissimulations».23
«New York’s only efficiency is its poetic efficiency»24
Koolhaas writing, or scriptwriting
After every historical revolution, in times of the great crisis, when all seems lost and senseless, a new poet is needed (Vico recalls as examples Omero and Dante, in relation, respectively, to ancient Greece and the Middle Ages) who gives back sense and voice to what seems nonsensical, to what appears delirium, barbarism (and from a certain point of view it is so, without or before the intervention of the poet), but in reality is merely new: the simple fact that the world (thankfully) goes on, beyond all our projects, forecast or expectation25.
Poetic metaphysics establishes a meaningful area in which is possible to act, it draws an oriented map from an untold and anonymous reality, bringing out of it the hidden meaning.
The crisis of the modern and the Po-Mo pervasiveness allow Koolhaas to build a space of theoretical autonomy in which he could give sense to its architectural intuitions, through which he constructs a mythology for Manhattan, made up of objects and characters acquiring heroic and symbolic meaning (e.g. Raymond Hood or the Downtown Athletic Club).
«I wanted to build – as a writer – a territory where I could possibly work as an architect»26
By this way, from the anonymous but pervasive reality of Manhattan, RK creates the conceptual space of the “manhattism” (with its corollaries related to the “culture of congestion”, etc..). Within this space he could act in a meaningful, oriented and passionate way – that is the only way to act in a project. The conceptual space originates and guides the project just as the outcome of the project is responsible for new future conceptual spaces, which might be radically different from the original one. This type of circular retroactivity between theory and practice that allows us to move forward, projects us (in the Heideggerrian etymological meaning of “throwing forward”) in the future and make something really new happens.
«The delirium of New York […] becomes the model of a new urban praxis»27
But Koolhaas has avoided the temptation – typical of the theory that unties itself from the practice (just in the exact moment in which theory tries to link practice inextricably) – to make its concrete architectural praxis a simple demonstration of a thesis, the development of a mechanical theorem28. A conceptual space is a space of freedom: it offers a horizon in which to act, but where the same acting aims at overcoming continuously (even in Hegelian antithesis) the horizon itself.
«Upon completion of the book I decided not to be obsessed with it and to avoid, as everyone expected of me, spending all my time trying to prove the justness of the theses underlying my projects»29
Otherwise, theory tends to withdraw into itself. It stops to act on the practice and consequently is no longer capable of developing into a circular and fruitful relationship that allows to live the present in a meaningful way and to put us in the future through the reinterpretation of the past. From this set of considerations Koolhaas builds his critique to European culture:
«In the Seventies, when I started trying to get the general idea of what architecture is, even before really studying it, I came up understanding soon that what really counted in architecture was the history of the avant-garde in Germany, Russia, or Holland, France, even China; but the country where they seemed to lack completely was America (…) so, in a polemic spirit, I decided to study widely the architecture of New York, basing on the observations of writers and manifestoes talking about an architecture they described but never really built. By this way I came to this conclusion: America was all focused on reality, having no manifestoes. The idea at the basis of DNY was to create a literary form in which I would provide retrospectively the proofs of the existence of an artistic movement that in my opinion wasn’t less important than the European avant-garde»30
The clash between European culture and American reality is exemplified by Koolhaas in the story of Le Corbusier’ experience:
«(…) the real Manhattan confronts Le Corbousier – like the real America Columbus – with the fragility of his life long speculations»31
In Koolhaas’ view, the reaction of the European Le Corbusier is a paranoiac-critical denial of reality that turns into a Eurocentric claim of superiority: «you are strong, we have reflected» and «North American barbarism» will «give place to European refinement»32. «Le Corbousier portrait of New York is an identikit, […] a Paranoid-Critical product par excellence […] a purely speculative collage of its “criminal” urbanistic features»33. Manhattan is «child’s play», «an architectonical accident»34. Therefore, as the discoverers of the New World, Le Corbousier plans a massacre and a re-education of the island (the palace of the United Nations was supposed to be his Trojan horse). Reality fails, he doesn’t.
«To the European humanist/artist this creation is only a chaos, an invitation to problem solving: Le Corbousier responds with a majestic flow of humanist non sequiturs that fails to disguise the sentimentality at the core of his vision of modernity»35
No matter if the story was such: Le Corbusier is just a character in the epic poetry of DNY. What matters is the main thesis: the European avant-garde despite its indubitable value, ended up turning onto itself without realizing that, in the meantime, Modernity was taking place elsewhere, on anonymous basis, made by a silent but increasingly pervasive movement36.
«(…) only in America there were that kind of logistic capabilities that could organize enormous lengths in such a clever way, in contrast with the European tradition, much more ephemeral and unrealistic, where ideas are considered more important; by this way I wanted to provide a synthesis between ideas and the physical tangible world, or at least describe the theoretical possibility of it»37
Koolhaas’ great attempt was to heal the rift between theory and praxis, between signifier and signified, which is at the origin of the crisis of modernity. Inevitably this difficult reconstruction initially shows up with a bursting return of the repressed, of the unconscious praxis that deconstructs violently the conscious theory (see the case of Le Corbusier): DNY in this regard is a psychohistory38, a psychoanalysis of the modern, where Koolhaas tries to regain to consciousness (theory) what had been for long out of hand, making any theoretical claim marginal and powerless. America for Koolhaas represents (or represented) the fuller life force that continues and has continued to flow under the grid or network of European theory. Hence the need for a synthesis between the ideas- making and significance-grasping of Europe and vitality of American practice, in order to revitalize them both on a wide common ground.
«Through a bizarre cross-fertilization of misunderstood rhetoric, American pragmatism and European idealism have exchanged ethos: the materialistic philistenes of New York had invented and built an oneiric field devoted to the pursuit of fantasy, synthetic emotion and pleasure, its ultimate configuration both unpredictable and uncontrollable»39
To the eyes of a European humanist, the reality of Manhattan is incomprehensible chaos, pure barbarism. But Koolhaas has unmasked the projective mechanism (“paranoiac- critical” in his language, derived from the comparison with Salvador Dalì): the European decadent civilization reflects on the vital and young Manhattan its decadence (what more clear sign of decline than a civilization pointing out as decadent and barbaric everything that is simply new) and reserves to itself the monopoly of Modernity.
Civilization at its peak is likely to fall back into ingens sylva, into barbarism. But it’s a worse barbarism. Vico called it «the barbarism of reflection»: the rationalist delirium of a theory that rejects in a paranoid way every outbreak of reality in his preordained grid. The real grid is not the Manhattan’ one and Manhattan is not barbarism. It could be, if it remains unknown, if it remains a mere fact, before or without the intervention of a poet that regains it to the conscious life of spirit.
«Ma se i popoli marciscano in quell’ultimo civil malore […] allora la Provvedenza a questo estremo lor male, adopera questo estremo rimedio: che, poiché tai popoli a guisa di bestie si erano accostumati di non ad altro pensare, ch’alle particolari proprie utilità di ciascuno […] s’infierscono e sì nella loro maggiore celebrità, o folla de’ corpi, vissero, come bestie immani, in una somma soltitudine d’animi, e di voleri; non potendovi appena due convenire, seguendo ogniun de’ due il suo proprio piacere, o capriccio: per tutto ciò ostinatissime fazioni, e disperate guerre civili vadano a fare selve delle città, e delle selve covili d’uomini; e ‘n cotal guisa dentro lunghi secoli di barbarie vadano ad irrugginire le malnate sottigliezze degl’ingegni maliziosi; che gli avevano resi fieri più immani con la barbarie della riflessione, che non era stata prima la barbarie del senso […] questa [la “barbarie della riflessione”], con una fierezza vile, dietro alle lusinghe e agli abbracci, insidia alla vita»40
In this memorable page of the New Science, the baroque eloquence of Vico flows into epic expressions bound to become legendary. This culmination of expressive intensity is in itself an answer to the evils that Vico is denouncing: only a language and a writing able to recover a meaningful link with the reality of experience can cope with the «barbarism of reflection» (that today takes on the likeness of the “postmodern” crisis, seen as divergence of signified and signifier), a peculiar form of thought and speech anarchy that falls theory into helplessness and praxis into anonymity.
The text has been published in italian on Anfione e Zeto n°26, pg.183-191. Have a look at it here.
Text by Pietro Bonomi e Nicolò Ornaghi