Capitalism's melting plots

Form Follows Finance - The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940
January 26, 2001

Histories of architecture typically take the form of cyclic creation narratives - repeated tales of design and construction, with prominent architects and their clients as the heroes. Mark Gelernter's A History of American Architecture is typical of this genre. But you can invert the standard formula by focusing on the fact that buildings, like living creatures, also grow old and die; their carcasses may be demolished, they may linger on as ruins, or they may be reborn through renovation. Max Page's The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900-1940 is a welcome addition to the small body of works that take this latter, more dismal view.

Like all those who seek to tell the story of American architecture, Gelernter must stake out the geographic and chronological boundaries of his topic. He begins with a map of North America, from the Bering Strait to Belize, but the present-day continental United States gets most of the attention. He reaches back in time to the neolithic hunters, proceeds through the architecture of Native American cultures before the European invasion, then organises chapters in conventionally defined historical periods, such as the era surrounding the American Revolution. This is very much within the venerable tradition of Banister Fletcher's History of Architecture - not surprisingly, since it happens that Gelernter's crisply executed drawings illustrate the 19th edition of Fletcher.

This unashamedly old-fashioned format fits A History of American Architecture to the needs of traditional introductory survey courses on the topic. Its usefulness is enhanced by carefully chosen photographs and drawings, a glossary of architectural terms and an extensive bibliography. It is carefully researched, and it makes a more serious effort to consider works of architecture in their cultural and technological context than its 19th-edition model. But the limitations of the Fletcher tradition clearly show. The examples are drawn from the accepted canon, the potted history that introduces each chapter is lifted from secondary sources and inevitably comes across as superficial, and the text gives little indication that architectural history has been a fiercely contested theoretical battleground in recent decades.

By contrast, The Creative Destruction of Manhattan develops its thesis within a narrowly delimited time-frame and tightly bounded geography, and many of the buildings it examines are little known. Its author has laboured long in the archives. Page sets out to demonstrate that the building of Manhattan - surely the most powerful icon of American architecture and urbanism - was far from a simple process of creation and expansion, but proceeded through a complex interplay of new construction with destruction. The title derives from Joseph Schumpeter's chilling vision of capitalism as a cycle of destruction of outmoded products and methods of production and remorseless replacement by newer ones. "Capitalism," Schumpeter proclaimed, "is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism." Or, as Marx spun it a century earlier:

"All that is solid melts into air."

Bricks and mortar are not about to melt into air, but buildings do have finite life cycles; it is just that they are longer than those for flared trousers or Furbies. Sometimes, buildings simply wear out and cease to function. Occasionally, they are destroyed by fire, flood, earthquake or bombing. In other cases, they become functionally obsolete. And in yet other cases - perhaps the saddest of all - they cease to exist not because there is anything wrong with them, but because somebody decides that they have to make way for something bigger, more up-to-date, or more profitable.

Lifespans vary, of course. The Egyptian pyramids were designed for eternity, and did their job very effectively for thousands of years. Europe's great cathedrals took generations to build, and have served their communities for centuries. Developers calculate the lifespans of modern commercial buildings in decades. World's fair pavilions - mercifully in most cases - may last only as long as the gates are open.

Manhattan provides a compelling context in which to explore architectural destruction and regeneration. It is an island of limited area, and it has been under intense development pressure for most of its history, so it has seen repeated waves of demolition to make room for the new. Lifespans of proudly constructed buildings have often turned out to be startlingly short. The cycle of construction and destruction has been fuelled, in many cases, by great wealth. Thus, Page argues, "capitalism inscribed its economic and social processes into the physical landscape of the city, and then into the minds of city people".

Page's narrative traces some of the most crucial cycles. Fifth Avenue began as a country road, developed as a street of residential mansions and brownstones for the wealthy and was transformed again by a "march uptown" of industrial lofts, office and apartment towers, and intense retail development. The Lower East Side was jammed with tenement developments to accommodate the influx of migrants, then it was targeted by reformers and much of it was levelled in slum-clearance efforts.

That these issues are now of scholarly interest is a sign of the maturing of American cities. In pioneering days, the engine of American capitalism drove the confident, rapid, outward expansion of cities and the transformation of virgin landscape into urbanised territory; in places such as Phoenix and Atlanta, it still does. It follows that many of the projects shown in the earlier chapters of A History of American Architecture were built on green-field sites. But where available space was tightly bounded - particularly on Manhattan Island and within the Chicago Loop - development soon reached a point where there was nowhere else to go but up; the heroic structures of the great skyscraper era were mostly replacements for lower structures. Today, in older American cities, the existing built fabric defines a powerful context for new construction; architects and planners must weigh the demands of new functions and development pressures against the powerful desires of citizens to respect and preserve established scale and character.

The tensions induced by a city's creative destruction are many. Advocates of progress find themselves in conflict with guardians of the collective memory embodied in a city's streets. Modernisers bang heads with traditionalists. Market forces interact uncomfortably with planning controls. All of this is familiar in the old cities of Europe, but it is much less so in the US. In the vigorously expanding cities of the Sunbelt, with their endlessly sprawling suburbs, it is still easy to imagine city building as a process of ceaseless new construction; the green-field developer is king. In established cities, though, architects, planners, politicians and activists must seek a delicate balance of opposing forces.

William J. Mitchell is dean, school of architecture and planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States.

Form Follows Finance: A History of American Architecture

Author - Mark Gelernter
ISBN - 0 7190 4726 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 346

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