Two reissued classics of New Deal literature, “Black Metropolis” and “Modern Housing,” deserve new attention from architects and urbanists.

Reinhold Martin | September 2020 | Places Journal

Sometime in mid-June 2020, as protesters across the United States dethroned monuments to white supremacy, the sculptures adorning the grounds of New York’s Rockefeller Center were fitted with blue surgical masks. Among them was the figure of Prometheus, gilded and unbound, as portrayed in 1934 by the sculptor Paul Manship. Despite the mask, it is not difficult to recognize the whiteness of Manship’s Prometheus, a characteristic that is confirmed when we learn that the model who sat for the figure was Leonardo Nole, a lifeguard from New Rochelle, New York, whose Italian-American heritage had only recently joined the ranks of racial privilege. 1 The Prometheus myth, in which the Titan who defied Zeus by delivering fire to humankind is forever bound in punishment, is also in no small degree the myth of the modern architect and of modern planning. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas rewrote that myth by casting Rockefeller Center’s commercial architects as capitalist heroes: Wallace Harrison as Howard Roark.

Many scholars, educators, and students concerned with racial and economic justice are now ferociously debating the content of syllabi on which books like Delirious New York and other period apologias like Learning from Las Vegas (by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour) have long been fixtures. These titles may well remain unchallenged, not least for their genuine insight but also as units of ideological currency that still underwrite professional careers. To some readers, such books may seem mere curiosities, momentary and even enjoyable distractions from more serious matters, rather than the durably hegemonic depictions of architecture and the American city that they are.

For example: When read across the grain of its 1930s setting, Delirious New York is an unapologetic rebuke — the creative, life-affirming struggle of real estate development against the chains of government regulation — to the New Deal public planning that, for all its racial exclusions, sought to dampen what John Maynard Keynes called capitalism’s “animal spirits.” Between its lines, Koolhaas’s book also represents an unsubtle repudiation of the European welfare state and its architects, including the author’s immediate Dutch predecessors, and of the earnest provision of housing and other public goods for what that earlier generation called the “greater number.” To seal the deal, the book’s message of rebirth, composed in New York during the 1970s, awkwardly ignores the racial strife that had been roiling American cities for the past century. Despite its manifest irony, Delirious New York deserves our renewed scrutiny today because it is actively not about public planning, social housing, or Black life. Full of energy, the technological triumph of big business for which Rockefeller Center stands is precisely what racial capitalism looks like, with or without a mask.

Originally published in Places Journal. Read the full essay here