Rem Koolhaas / Delirious New York

I didn’t enjoy studying architecture. I think it’s a fantastic profession, a really interesting subject and Brighton is a superb university (especially for design based degrees). But it wasn’t for me; I didn’t have the same passion my course mates had for it, and in terms of my actual ability I was always average at best. If I’m honest I probably rushed into picking a course I thought I might enjoy. I did learn a lot, and parts of it I really did enjoy. Writing the dissertation for example. I achieved my highest mark of the whole three years and achieved a first for my work, so I thought I’d share it on here.

Rem Koolhaas is one of the world’s most renowned architects: an architect, theorist, urbanist, author, filmmaker. He has brought fame, attention and controversy to the profession – there is never a dull moment with Koolhaas. His first major publication, Delirious New York (1978) thrust him into the spotlight, and it was this book that caught my attention and imagination a few years ago. Written in such a bizarre, dream like style, the city of Manhattan was brought to life and the book has been a favourite of mine every since.

This essay focusses on Koolhaas and Delirious New York; how it shaped his architectural standing, what his influences were, how he achieved his success with the book, and how it went on to influence his architectural career. And I would recommend anyone, with or without an interest in architecture, to at least flick through Delirious New York. Visually stunning and playfully written, it is a strangely compelling read.

An attempt to visualise and summarise my topic in poster form.

An attempt to visualise and summarise my topic in poster form.

Please note: these excerpts from the dissertation have simply been copied from the original text, I have not adapted them to necessarily make sense on their own. There may be references to pictures which are not visible here, and footnotes and citations will be missing; rest assured, there are all present in the actual body of work which can be found at the bottom of this post.

The Fabrication of Evidence in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York


In 1978, Rem Koolhaas’s first major publication, Delirious New York, was published, and described in Koolhaas’s own words as “a retroactive manifesto for Manhattan”. But what is a retroactive manifesto? As New York has already been built and shaped by the architects at the beginning of the 20th century, Koolhaas analysed Manhattan knowing its history, how it came to be, and aided by years of research, was able to create the ideology of ‘Manhattanism’: “How to write a manifesto – on a form of urbanism for what remains of the 20th century – in an age disgusted with them? The fatal weakness of manifestos is their inherent lack of evidence. Manhattan’s problem is the opposite: it is a mountain range of evidence without manifesto.”

The aim of this essay is to investigate the fabrication and strategy behind Koolhaas’s analysis of Manhattan, and whether Koolhaas has created his own fiction in order to make a compelling manifesto, researching numerous articles, interviews and critical responses to Delirious New York, as well as the involvement of Koolhaas’s wife Madelon Vriesendorp, and how her paintings were incorporated into the book to enhance the narration provided by Koolhaas.

The Paranoid-Critical Method and Koolhaas

In order to fully understand and appreciate the influence that Dali’s theory had on Koolhaas (as well as Vriesendorp), it would be beneficial to discuss the Paranoid-Critical Method (PCM) in more depth. Developed by Dali in the early 1930s, it was a Surrealist technique where Dali aimed to train his brain to irrationally link objects. This ability, to perceive connections between objects which would not rationally be linked, was described by Andre Breton as “an instrument of primary importance for Surrealism”. Dali, on his theory, wrote, “I believe that the moment is at hand when by a paranoid and active advance of the mind, it will be possible to systematize confusion and thus help to discredit completely the world of reality”

Reminiscenza archaeologic by Salvador Dali (1935).

Reminiscenza archaeologic by Salvador Dali (1935).

Manhattanism and the Culture of Congestion

Koolhaas then gives us a Surrealist take on how the form of the Skyscraper came to be. He studies two structures that took centre stage at the first New York World’s Fair in 1853 (Fig. 9): a version of the Crystal Palace of London, complete with a large dome (the globe), and the Latting Observatory, a 350ft high tower (the needle). “The needle and the globe represent the two extremes of Manhattan’s formal vocabulary and describe the outer limits of its architectural choices.” Here we see Koolhaas using the PCM to link two objects, the needle and the globe, and give them characteristics, a relationship between one another.

Koolhaas describes Ferriss’ The Lure of the City (Fig. 10, 1925) as the “Ferrissian Void…a pitch black architectural womb that gives birth to the consecutive stages of the Skyscraper”, and perhaps gives us an insight as to how Manhattanism was birthed from Ferriss’ painting (Fig. 9) Ferriss’ renderings (particularly the void’s murky vagueness) have inspired Koolhaas to look at them as a incubator for a number of styles of architecture, design and art, and it is here where his manifesto is born, as he concludes “Manhattanism is conceived in Ferriss’ womb.”

Fictional Conclusion / Introduction

Explaining the Appendix of Delirious New York, Koolhaas writes “The fifth block – the Appendix – is a sequence of architectural projects that solidifies Manhattanism into an explicit doctrine and negotiates the transition from Manhattanism’s unconscious architectural production to a conscious phase.” This Fictional Conclusion – or perhaps, more fittingly, Fictional Introduction, as the works contained within were all composed before Koolhaas had written the book – consists of several collaborations between Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, often with Vriesendorp and Zoe Zenghelis providing illustrations and paintings. These illustrations and concepts are the very evidence that Koolhaas fabricated in order to begin writing the book.   

The City of the Captive Globe (1972) was one such concept, a method of exploration for Manhattan, created by Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis, and illustrated by Zoe Zenghelis (Fig. 11). With the grid firmly in mind, a series of blocks surround the Captive Globe, suspended in the centre. These plots have a foundation of granite, from which a “philosophy” is based (“Each science or mania has its own plot…”), and each has “the right to expand indefinitely toward heaven… The collapse of one of the towers can mean two things: failure, giving up, or a visual Eureka, a speculative ejaculation.” These blocks each contain a ‘city-within-a-city’ that Koolhaas has described in Delirious when talking about the grid. And the purpose of the Captive Globe itself? “…all these Institutes together form an enormous incubator of the World itself; they are breeding on the Globe”. Brayer notes “The City of the Captive Globe (1972) illustrated this Manhattanesque culture of congestion. In the middle, the terrestrial globe was in a state of incubation, rising up in time with the development of ideas, with each block forming the pedestal.” This project hints at a return to the ideologies of captivity that were present in Exodus, albeit on a global platform. Koolhaas has used this construct, with its ideas of the grid, the city-within-a-city, using the PCM, to enrich his analysis. He is building his own tools, which are then being used to construct his own manifesto, fabricating evidence.

The Grid, and The Downtown Athletic Club

Koolhaas focuses on The Downtown Athletic Club in the chapter “Definitive Instability”, where the Skyscraper is used as a Constructivist Social Condenser: a machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse.” It consists of space for sporting activities on the lower floors, such as squash courts, swimming pools, a gym, even a golf course, and upon ascending there are floors for lounges, roof gardens, dining halls and bedrooms. From reading this chapter, the reader is led to believe this particular Skyscraper is some sort of paradise for bachelors, as Koolhaas writes: “The Downtown Athletic Club is a machine for metropolitan bachelors whose ultimate ‘peak’ condition has lifted them beyond the reach of fertile brides”

Koolhaas narrates stories and scenarios throughout Delirious, and one of the most recognised is the image of the bachelors taking a break between a bout of boxing, relaxed and naked, eating oysters (fig. 15).  Again, Saunders is more than a little sceptical at Koolhaas’s suggestions of the scale and fantasy of the mixed-use skyscrapers, particularly the Downtown Athletic Club:“There is little reason to believe that Manhattan skyscrapers ever were significantly mixed-use, that office pods for the humanly dead transactions of the great grey corporate world were not… these buildings’ overwhelming activities. Rockefeller Centre a richer environment? Certainly. The Downtown Athletic Club, with its fluid building sections and mixed programs, scene of “eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor” a setting for maximum creative living? Certainly not, unless your idea of such living is a rich man’s hedonism.”

"eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor...", illustration by Madelon Vriesendorp.

“eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the nth floor…”, illustration by Madelon Vriesendorp.

Koolhaas and Vriesendorp

Koolhaas explains the Paranoic and the Critical roles in the PCM in Delirious, suggesting it “is a sequence of two consecutive but discrete operations.” In an interview towards the end of The World of Madelon Vriesendorp, Shumon Basar muses to Rem Koolhaas: “Delirious New York seems to have been written with the help of Salvador Dali’s paranoid-critical method (PCM). Proofs are important for his method, even if they are wrong or fake. I’ve sometimes thought that in Delirious New York the proofs are missing, and this is where Madelon’s paintings come into play. You described the critical part of PCM as being to fabricate artificial proofs for an idea. In your collaboration, Maddie seems to be the critical part, and you the paranoiac one.”

[To which Koolhaas replies:] “You’re right. Her ability was totally crucial.”

Here we see that Basar has identified the two roles here needed for the PCM to be successful, with Koolhaas as the paranoiac, with his irrational, poetic, fantastical analysis of Manhattan, and Vriesendorp as the ‘critique’, developing these stories, compressing them and fabricating these paintings which give life to Koolhaas’s ideas, allowing the manifesto to be credible and compelling.
Koolhaas and OMA: Post Delirious New York

Looking at the projects Koolhaas and OMA have designed post Delirious, several seem to have been inspired by Manhattan buildings featured within the book (such as the Downtown Athletic Club and the Rockefeller Centre), in that they rarely have one pure function.  For example, the Educatorium in Utrecht (Fig. 23), built in 1995-97. As the name suggests, rather than just a University campus or a series of lecture theatres, there are a range of programmes, including auditoriums, lecture halls, cafeterias and more. The curving, bending floor planes are design to give a single trajectory throughout the building, and these curves allow for moments of playful ‘delirium’.


“Koolhaas has written this hugely influential, engaging book on Manhattan, and deservedly received critical acclaim and praise for it. It thrust him into the spoliglight of architectural critics across the globe. However Delirious should not be remember soley as a Rem Koolhaas work. Vriesendorp, with her Manhattan paintings, anthropomorphised skyscrapers and fictional drawings, gave much more power to Koolhaas’s writing, more so than ever could have been achieved by Koolhaas alone. And alongside Vriesendorp, Elia and Zoe Zenghelis played a huge part in the collaborations leading up to Delirious’s genesis. Exodus, and projects such as The City of the Captive Globe and The Story of the Pool from Delirious’s Fictional Conclusion / Introduction were the building blocks that enabled Koolhaas to construct his argument, his views and his architectural position.”

Madelon Vriesendorp, Flagrant Délit (1975)

Madelon Vriesendorp, Flagrant Délit (1975)

Link to the full essay: The Fabrication of Evidence in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York

  1. rubyr8 said:

    Well I didn’t enjoy the process of studying architecture but as you pointed out you get to learn a lot and enjoy some cool moments.
    I had a passion but deadlines where my enemy. What would you have preferred to study if you got to do it all over?

    • Hey! Thanks for your comment. Yeah I certainly learnt a lot but the stress and workload eventually killed off any real interest I had in it. I still appreciate good architecture but I don’t think about it too much anymore, brings back some bad memories.

      Knowing what I do now, I’d probably have gone for a degree in English/English Literature, with a focus on creative writing. That’s what I love doing now!

      • rubyr8 said:

        Yup, the workload can be pretty discouraging (daunting even). Goodluck with your current career choice, i for one will stick this out and hopefully my passion bears fruit. Cheers 🙂

  2. Laurence said:

    Eating oysters with boxing gloves? Rather awkward and messy, to say the least. Not surprised they did this naked – in those days athletic clubs were all-male, so who cared? The club is now all condos, alas, but the original architecture has been preserved, happily. Likewise the beautiful Woolworth building.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: