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|New York City: Look but Don't Touch|
Colin Harrison spent a month in New York City on a Fulbright program for teachers of American Literature at the New School University in the summer of 2000. What follows are some reflections on architecture and everyday perception in the metropolis.
Note: this article was due for publication before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. I have chosen to leave it unchanged, with the addition of a postscript, although clearly the visual spectacle of New York has changed irrevocably.
|Posted 20th March 2001||Click on the thumbnail images in the text to see full-size pictures|
|When the windows of the World Trade Center were widened only three years after construction for the observation gallery and restaurant on the 107th floors, it suggested there might be a tension between architecture and the ways of seeing a city. Was the view part of the function? Or was it possible that skyscrapers were being built to fantasy proportions that were in fact at odds with human use? Originally, both towers had been glazed throughout with glass panes only twenty inches in width, separated by thick vertical ribs: this, it was thought, would help counter acrophobia in what was to be the tallest building on earth; architect Minoru Yamasaki, himself afraid of heights, conceived of the distinctive exoskeleton as imparting a degree of extra comfort to the office workers - something to cling to, in effect. Then again, the building's early unpopularity was in part due to such cautiousness, and the widening of the windows was meant to re-emphasise the dramatic panorama that had been deliberately limited in the first place. It was as if a project of such scale accentuated a basic conflict between two distinct ways of experiencing space, visual and physical, where the same quality of height could produce both a thrill to the eye and a physical sickness.
The general effect of such a vantage point was evident from the restaurant's name, Windows on the World, and spelled out by the food critic Gael Greene, upon its opening in 1976: "In the Statue of Liberty Lounge the harbour's heroic blue sweep makes you feel like the ruler of some extraordinary universe."1 The thrill of looking down on a city from on high lies in its claim to being God's perspective - partly because of the traditional association of architectural height with spiritual achievement, but also because of the special knowledge it seems to offer. Theorist Michel de Certeau famously characterised it as a viewpoint that freezes, and simplifies, the life of the city, and allows a spectator to believe they can "read" its meaning: "The 1370 foot high tower that serves as a prow for Manhattan continues to construct the fiction that creates readers, makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilises its opaque mobility in a transparent text."2 In other words, height gives a viewer the illusion of making sense of what lies below: whether in identifying different areas of development, observing traffic flow, speculating on history, or ruminating on human achievement and failure. On my visit, as dusk fell, I was amused to discover that the lights of the traffic heading in alternate directions up and down the parallel avenues divided the city into red and white stripes, as if it were performing its own choreography of the American flag.
I was struck by something else, however: looking around, rather than down, it was apparent that the view from the World Trade Center was supplemented - if not saturated - by a host of other representations of the city. Even before getting to the ticket desk you have to pass a backdrop of the towers where photographers take a portrait shot which they will try to sell you at the top (much in the way of airline companies in the early days of overseas package tours). In the observation gallery there is a map of Manhattan painted on the floor; a scale model which lights up at intervals to a recorded commentary; and a cinematic flight simulation, screening a helicopter ride over the city as the seats tilt slightly. There are numerous souvenirs of the skyline for sale, and even a metal stamping machine which converts your one-cent coin into a little medallion. By the exit, an exhibition displays pictures of the city painted by school children.
Each of these representations recasts the experience of the view in some way, fitting it into customary habits of seeing. The backdrop photo turns a personal memory into an official record of the visit (quaintly calling to mind the 19th century portrait photographs which pictured families in absurd, exotic settings), while the children's pictures offer a social history, acknowledging that the famous skyline or aerial views are not just the tourist's, but exist in the mind of New Yorkers themselves. Then the models and maps stand for the civic perspective: these are the ways that architects, planners and engineers see the city, tools for rationalising space and regulating urban life. Such images contribute to the authority of the view from on high as the dominant perspective on New York City, however limited it may be. But I think the helicopter simulation demonstrates something else: it harks back to a different version of urban space, one that is tactile rather than abstracted. It is a fairground ride, distant relative of Coney Island, whose function is to induce vertigo and make the aerial view feel physically challenging - to restore wings and a body to the bird's-eye perspective. Perhaps this is something that fairgrounds have always done in the modern city - recreate danger for the inhabitants of an increasingly protected world, remind them of the frailty of their bodies.
|Separation of vision from the other senses||The metropolis has often been characterised as a place of commotion, collision, and noise - a place where a person is physically assaulted by a barrage of stimuli. In fact, while it is fundamentally a device for bringing people into contact with others, modern life seems at the same time to been intent on reducing actual physical contact wherever possible, to cope with the city's commotion by insulating an individual from the world around. The pristine environments of shopping centres, transport's ideal of shock absorption, even the informal codes of conduct which impose restrictions on touching in the street: all of these promote ease of movement and reduce friction. Indeed, from the 19th century onward, principles of motion and flow have increasingly determined the form a city's social and economic life takes; whether flows of traffic, air, light, waste, or money, all must circulate freely in the interests of growth. For the modernist architect and planner Le Corbusier, the city was both a body and a machine, each part assigned a separate function, all conditioned to work to optimum efficiency: "A city has a biological life... A fundamental condition of health of a city is being traversed, irrigated, nourished from end to end, being
The dominant mode of perception in the metropolis is vision, not touch. For many commentators the city is a new world which is primarily apprehended through looking: whether it is the outward appearance of strangers whom it is impossible to know in the same depth as those of a small town community; the visual delights of an emergent consumer culture's shop windows, department stores, fashions, and advertising; an architecture of smooth, reflective surfaces, multiplying the images of the environment; or a civic culture's exploitation of spectacle as an instrument of control (the festival, rally or parade). Modern transport has also contributed to the visual experience: by the end of the 19th century, the landscape passed in front of a railroad passenger's eyes as if on a screen; the physical effort of travelling through space became an aesthetic activity. John Dos Passos notes a similar effect in his novel of 1925, Manhattan Transfer - as the traffic starts moving, the saturated physical presence of New York City slips into abstractions of light and colour:
The sense of being a "disembodied eye" was acute at the World Trade Centre. Looking out from the observation gallery, I could see a crowd gathered for a concert in the plaza below, and yet up here, it was impossible to tell if the crowd was dancing or waiting for the music; the scene was mute and motionless. (I was reminded of the opening sequence of West Side Story, a camera passing in eerie silence over the tops of midtown skyscrapers, then a slow whistle, and the camera gradually zooms in on a Puerto Rican's clicking fingers.) Such plays of height and physical presence are also to be found at the Rockefeller Centre, whose sunken plaza becomes a skating rink during the winter. Why should it be that dancing and skating at the foot of skyscrapers carry such a romance? As with the helicopter simulation, I would argue that they pick up on something lacking in the disembodied aerial view; they celebrate the physical presence of tall buildings, rather than the visual prospect available from them.
|How do we create a holistic sense of the city?||One of the major concerns about the disembodiment of vision is that it contributes to alienation and the erosion of civic values. Sasaki considers that the Western traditions of the urban plan which is best appreciated only from afar or on high do not pay enough attention to what it feels like to be immersed in the city, and therefore undermine an emotional attachment to place. He calls for future design to incorporate Japanese principles of "minimal order": "vision supported by the sense of touch... the different feelings of building materials, stone, wood, metal, glass, mud etc; the effect of imposing mass, or that of lightness; impressions of open or closed space; the feeling of security like the effect of [being in the] 'bosom of the mountain', and so on." For him, this would make the city more sensitive to the needs of inhabitants who, after all, do not often visit the famous "sightseeing" spots (or have access to their equivalents in high-rise office blocks) but know the city more intimately, and horizontally, through day to day contact.
In a similar vein, liberal urban critic and fervent New Yorker Richard Sennett has argued that modernist principles of circulation and flow have produced specific problems for an increasingly diverse, multiethnic society. A frictionless city makes for a community of atomised individuals, protected from their environment and each other, and lulled into a false sense of personal sufficiency. The implications are that only a weak form of public life based on mutual tolerance may take root - and where cultural difference exists, it may be met only with indifference, and a minimum of interaction between groups. What might revitalise urban life in Sennett's eyes is a culture of greater friction - not less - in which the inhabitants of the metropolis are forced into physical contact with others, in order to acknowledge a common ground in their bodily needs, even in the capacity to suffer pain: he concludes (somewhat lyrically), "the body accepting pain is ready to become a civic body, sensible to the pain of another person, pains present together on the street, at last endurable..."7 This could mean using the streets as places of collective activity and protest rather than mere traffic flow, or investing in public spaces and events as places where encounters with the unfamiliar proliferate and are hard to avoid; the appreciation of bodily friction would thus help resist an encroaching privatisation of space.
A related complaint is that the emphasis on visual spectacle undermines the "legibility" of a city. If modernists dreamed of a metropolis of machine-like efficiency, they also wanted it to make it accommodating to the needs of its inhabitants, and easy to comprehend: its streets to be easily navigated, the functions of its spaces, aesthetic rewards of its architecture, and its distribution of power to be easily identified. What seems to have occurred, according to a number of critics of postmodernity, is that this ideal has been lost: recent urban design is no longer dedicated to creating public values, but rather to masking social conflicts. As a consequence, citizens increasingly find the exercise of power not only difficult to participate in, or to resist, but difficult even to recognise. In a study of Lower Manhattan's redevelopment during the 1980s, Sharon Zukin noted the correspondence between the intensive redesign of public spaces (streets, parks, commercial centres) and the lack of social provision; such a process of regeneration, with its courting of the private sector for commercial opportunities or for the tendering of public services, its rhetoric of hygiene ("cleaning up the city"), and the displacement of undesirable occupants is now depressingly familiar. Zukin suggests that aesthetics (or some would say cosmetics) has played a key part in this process: "How do you plan public goods for a low-income or even homeless and unemployed population when the rich wont pay for them and no one else can? Under these conditions it is no surprise that the landscape of cities has been reorganised for visual consumption, abstracting an image of freedom and power that commands - in its very abstraction - some degree of consensus."8
An alternative example: in a secluded niche of 520 Madison Avenue, extravagantly called a "plaza" but in effect an example of the semi-public space developers are required to create as a concession to pedestrians, stands an unusual monument: five concrete slabs comprising a section of the Berlin Wall, 20 feet long, two giant faces staring out from a mass of graffiti, pockmarks and cracks registering the efforts of its dismantling. This is the property of the developer Jerry Speyer, bought in 1990. The plaza is hidden from view and used by few people other than customers at an adjacent café. It stands as the most complete expression of the architectural conflict between physical and visual effects, for it is wall become image: what once divided space, creating differences either side (and probably no other construction in the modern world so clearly signified the politics that inform all spatial organisation) is now a single painted surface, with a "front" and a "back". The western side is now art (credited to Thierry Noir, Kiddy Citny and others, after the anonymous monument was spotted by friends of the graffitists). The eastern side is no side at all, backing as it does onto a wall of water trickling down pebble stones. Thus coffee drinkers may sit in the midst of a commercial development and contemplate a triumph of capitalism, with its associations of creative spirit and resistance to oppression, while sensing a natural order of things; and the Berlin Wall is transformed into a fitting sign of New York, meaning freedom and absolute hegemony. (But the new meaning of the wall is undermined at the same time, its context notwithstanding: its graffiti a memorial to the art now banned on subway trains, its surface now physically untouchable, protected by an alarm...)
Sennett's "pains present together on the street" recalls Jane Jacobs's famous account of 1960s Greenwich Village, which she pictured as a diverse yet mutually supportive local community, caring for its members through a network of "eyes on the street". It is a vision of public space which is common to a number of liberal critiques of urban modernism, and is important for the value that it gives to contact between strangers, challenging assumptions that a more diverse urban society means a more unsafe city, demanding higher levels of security. These two principles seem to be more and more set at odds today, turning into a trade-off in which an investment in one necessarily involves a sacrifice of the other. Either a safe world, or a diverse one: on the street, in shopping centres, or the semi-public atria of skyscrapers people's protection is being ensured at the expense of the sort of friction that Sennett appreciates. The idea of collective vigilance has clearly been substituted by professional and electronic surveillance; at the same time, the inclusiveness of the category "the public" which they are ostensibly there to protect is being eroded - street traders, the homeless, or those who do not use urban spaces in conventional ways (as tourists and shoppers, for example), may be deemed "undesirable" and removed. Thus a culture of surveillance severely compromises the ideal of a legible city - indeed, the last thing it does is make power explicit: instead, it hides power from sight, while condemning city dwellers to a compulsory visibility.
As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has argued, the prevalent concerns for personal safety in cities today should be thought of in relation to a wider context. For him, there are three different kinds of security which need to be distinguished: the security of being able to make risk-free choices; certainty about the values and principles determining participation in a society, and the safety of one's body, family and property. Processes of globalisation put all three under threat, and yet the first two are hard to address - in fact the loss of security and certainty is inherent in a world dependent on global markets and speculative finance; hence it is the safety of one's body and property that provides the most reassuring (and politically expedient) means for responding to the anxieties of a global condition.9 In this light, one can see that surveillance not only weakens public space and disenfranchises the vision of city inhabitants; it is also a very limited fix for deeper problems.
"The Crystal Frontier", a love story by Carlos Fuentes, makes similar connections between global capital and a culture of surveillance amid the corporate spectacle of downtown Manhattan. Fuentes is intent on showing how economic relations between Mexico and the United states are mirrored in the urban landscape, where an image of transparency fails to mask real barriers and divisions. Lisandro Chavez is "exported" from Mexico City with a team of labourers contracted to clean office blocks, feeling a shame in his predicament and determined to resist the allure of New York. He is sent to work in a glass skyscraper, which he first glimpses through a snowstorm: "a building completely made of glass became visible, with nothing in it that wasn't transparent: an immense music box made of mirrors, unified by its own chrome-covered, nickel-plated glass, a palace like a crystal deck of cards, a toy of quicksilver labyrinths." Inside, the separation of vision and touch is evident: windows and walls are one and the same; everything is visible to the eye, yet space is still carefully demarcated with respect to professional hierarchies. If such an environment is supposed to create transparency in the workplace, it also encourages a form of secrecy, as workers are forced to "act natural" while they are constantly on view. In Audrey, an advertising copywriter, it has produced a sensibility which is utterly averse to touch - "especially that, to never touch one another physically, never a hug, not even a social kiss on the cheek, bodies at a distance, eyes avoiding eyes..." - while at the same time able to enjoy the spectacle of her workplace in full innocence: "at times she liked to feel that her gaze fell forty stories, transforming on the way into a snowflake, a feather, a butterfly."10
The two characters catch sight of each other and fall in love, the story ending with their kiss either side of a pane of glass, and an exchange of names written on its surface: YERDUA / NACIXEM. If this is a somewhat whimsical storyline, Fuentes is careful to show that the workers themselves have not escaped from the reality of power relations. Their looks are inextricable from the games of surveillance and self-scrutiny the architecture forces them into: watching each other, they sense their own being watched; they recognise that the system which refuses their desire to touch may in fact be creating it, and their passions may be confused with exotic fantasies. In Chavez's refusal to leave his name, only his nationality, he is ultimately frustrating their desire for intimacy and showing that the barrier between them is more than glass. But the greater irony is that they are more intimately connected than they realize, since Chavez is the son of a Mexican soda manufacturer put out of business by multinational companies such as the one employing Audrey to write advertising copy. He returns to the offices of his father's rival by virtue of the same free trade agreement that created his predicament in the first place. Hence the spectacular nature of New York's skyscrapers is by no means innocent: the arrangement of space to be found in Manhattan's business district is part of a global economy whose deeper structure is made less, not more, transparent.
In some respects this is no more than a conventional romance of love between insider and outsider, even master and servant: we dream of the glass being smashed at the last, the union that abolishes all differences. But it is contained within a larger realist drama about the migration of labour, and Mexico's ambivalent relationship to the United States: captive to its economic policies and yet debarred from its benefits, while embracing its spectacular cultural produce (and despising itself for doing so). In this light, the romance story itself seems like another of America's goods, a regular Hollywood fantasy which the reader is invited to indulge in. Fuentes explores this ambivalence throughout the collection of stories, playing on the double meaning of the crystal frontier: it is a line of division between nations, cultures and classes, and it is the mythical land of American freedom and opportunity. It is the invisible barrier between cultures, fortified by a modern mode of seeing, and the alluring edifice of America's wealth, holding other nations in thrall to a western market economy, yet endlessly out of reach.
|Postscript||In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, one of the more gruesome artefacts to be circulated on the Internet was a photograph reported to have been recovered from a camera found in the rubble of the World Trade Center. A white man in a parka, hat and tinted glasses poses for the camera on the viewing gallery of the second tower oblivious to the approach of a United Airlines plane behind him, gleaming in the sun. We did not need the detailed forensic analyses of a multitude of hoax debunkers to know that the picture had been faked - apart from the impossibility of a camera surviving the explosion, the gallery was simply not open at the time. Nevertheless, the enormous currency of the photograph and the enthusiasm with which people debated its authenticity or dubious taste suggested it tapped a collective nerve.
Many accounts found it hard fully to represent the horror of the events, which seemed inextricable from an already established genre of urban apocalypse; images of the explosions, collapse, and of New Yorkers running from the scene of a gigantic destruction were too familiar. Films such as Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage and Edward Burns's Sidewalks of New York were held back from release as if the film industry were somehow implicated by the spectacular nature of the tragedy. In Britain, the following day, The Sun ran an article on a computer game which simulated a flight over Manhattan: "DID THEY LEARN ON £50 CD ROM?"; the cheap thrill was the possibility that the terrorists were not, after all, that different - in fact, we knew their minds too well, for we shared the same imagination.
Rem Koolhaas noted in 1978 that New York has a peculiar tradition of staging its own catastrophe, preceding its feature in movies by a long way. When Elisha Otis presented his elevator invention to the public in 1853, for instance, he demonstrated its safety by melodramatically cutting the cord which apparently suspended the platform on which he stood, thereby acting out the triumph of engineering over disaster which would be the theme of the age of skyscrapers to come. At the turn of the 20th century, the amusement parks of Coney Island boasted several rides and exhibits simulating the fall of cities: Rome, Moscow, Pompeii and a model of a contemporary city block which was set alight and extinguished daily. Koolhaas argues that New York's flirtation with apocalypse - "an astronomical increase in the potential for disaster only just exceeded by an equally astronomical increase in the ability to avert it" - is integral to its history, operating as a kind of exorcism of the fears associated with urban living and bolstering its pride. The better you can stage destruction, and the more convincing your display of technological mastery, the less likely will be the real thing.11
The World Trade Centre shared in this belief: as a representation of the New York's power as the hub of global capital, the view from its top presuming a divine reading of the city below, it seemed unassailable. With the loss of the towers comes a loss of such hubris, and the security implied in spectacular entertainment: the image of disaster no longer wards off a real threat; on top of high rise buildings it is now harder to feel like a disembodied eye than a target. The faked photograph depicts this desire for power and security before its end; the tourist is an everyman figure, the last innocent viewer.
|References||1. New York 1960, eds Robert Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman (New York: Monacelli, 1995)
2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984)
3. Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White (1948), from Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, ed. Philip Kasinitz (New York: New York University Press, 1995)
4. John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (1925; London: Penguin, 1987)
5. Henry Adams, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904; London: Penguin, 1986)
6. Ken-Ichi Sasaki, "For Whom is City Design?"; in The City Cultures Reader, eds Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall and Iain Borden (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)
7. Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone (New York & London: Norton, 1996)
8. Sharon Zukin, "Space and Symbols in an Age of Decline"; The City Cultures Reader
9. Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge: Polity, 1998)
10. Carlos Fuentes, The Crystal Frontier (1995: London: Bloomsbury, 1999)
11. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978; New York: Monacelli Press, 1994)
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