ISMS #1: Toward Chicagoisms

Toward Chicagoisms : Hacking Delirious New York

When beginning to think about Chicagoisms, one must at some point position the topic in relation to two works: the recent Chicagoisms: the City as Catalyst for Architectural Speculation, edited by Alexander Eisenschmidt and Jonathan Mekinda, with its subsequent exhibit at the Art Institute, and Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. First, I'll address the latter.

So, Chicagoisms. What is that supposed to mean?

We know what Chicago is, so lets start with the very popular suffix: -ism. Originally from the Greek -ismos, the suffix was transfered to Latin and entered English through the French -isme, and is used to form abstract nouns of action, state or condition ("Ism"). It is a way to give a name to a way of doing, making or being. In the more specific sense that I will explore here, an ism describes a method. So, Chicagoism names the condition of the city of Chicago, its present state, or the actions of which it is continuously formed. A Chicagoism is a method for making the city of Chicago, and all that might be subsumed under that idea.

Koolhaas's Delirious New York, as a "retroactive manifesto for Manhattan," is as close an example of what I will attempt to construct here as can be found: his self-stated goal was to present "an interpretation that intends to establish Manhattan as the product of an unfortunate theory, Manhattanism, whose program ... was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated" (Koolhaas, 10).

Koolhaas's own program suffers a similar pitfall of ambition. In his case, it isn't so much the scale of the project that is problematic, but its focus on an "unconscious" and obscure method. This task is unusual enough that common conceptual tools and vocabulary are limited in their applicability. This isn't due to a deficiency of the author, but a deficiency of the conceptual apparatus at his disposal. This is where the identification of Manhattanism as a method can help as I seek to adapt Koolhaas's text to my objectives.

In just the introduction to Delirious, Koolhaas describes Manhattanism as an urbanistic ideology and paradigm; a collection of strategies, theorems and breakthroughs; an explicit doctrine; a blueprint. And now I want to add method to the list as it seems like a natural fit.

Method: "a procedure or process for attaining an object: such as: a systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline or art: a systematic plan followed in presenting material for instruction" ("Method").

This definition applies, to some extent, to every other term on Koolhaas's list. Each qualifier is important, and contributes to our understanding Manhattanism as a way of making that has resulted in unique urban conditions: Manhattanism as a method for making Manhattan.

I am picking apart Delirious not only because its intended purposes align so closely with my desire to articulate Chicagoisms, but also because it is very popular. Koolhaas's neatly planned and highly idiosyncratic text is widely used as recommended or even required reading for architecture students tackling New York City as a context for their research, making it a common point of reference for designers. Although written in the late 70s, Koolhaas's project is still quite useful, I will only need to modify it a bit, to get it to speak the right language - one applicable to other cities.

The first change I can effect once we choose to recognize Manhattanism as a method is to distance Delirious from its chosen format - a manifesto - and all of the baggage that comes along with it. To believe Koolhaas's writing, he planned a good portion of the structure of Delirious New York specifically to effect that distance - to write a different kind of manifesto. His text begins with the question: "How to write a manifesto - on a form of urbanism for what remains of the twentieth century - in an age disgusted with them?" He continues:

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 a manifesto. (9)

Another way around the "fundamental weakness" would be to not write a manifesto at all, but something similar: a format suitable for exploring the details of Manhattanism, their sources and interaction. I propose the treatise on method.

Like the manifesto, the treatise on method format deals specifically with the articulation of ways of working, their value, applications and results. Both formats also have a long history of examples to pull from. But the treatise on method differs from the manifesto in that it is not a popular format; our age is not "disgusted" by the treatise on method. If anything, the format has become archaic and alien in any context outside a survey of philosophy. The treatise on method offers the opposite of the manifesto in terms of cultural relevance: Koolhaas needed the manifesto format to grab the audience's attention, but also needed to distance his text from it to make a lasting point. With the treatise on method as a format there is no need to distance one's work from a deluge of contemporaries. But, would anyone want to read a Treatise on Manhattanism? Or, more to our point, would anyone read Chicagoism: A Treatise on Method?

Probably not. But one can follow the modifications to Delirious further, uncovering new possibilities for analyzing urban precedents to guide design work. That, after all, is the value of both the treatise on method and the manifesto: they present a way of working to achieve specific results. The next step is to offer an alternative to Koolhaas's focus on madness throughout his text, a characterization that again is useful for grabbing the readers' attention but, like the manifesto format, is limiting in application.

Poetic metaphysics and the paranoid mind

Delirious New York begins with a quote from Giambattista Vico voicing a plea for a poetic metaphysics:

Philosophers and philologists should be concerned in the first place with poetic metaphysics; that is, the science that looks for proof not in the external world, but in the very modifications of the mind that meditates on it.

Since the world of nations is made by men, it is inside their minds that its principles should be sought. (9, quoting Vico, The New Science, Bk. 1, "Establishment of Principles," 93)

Koolhaas filters his content on Manhattan through the minds of its inhabitants and creators; each aspect of Manhattanism revealed in the text is articulated with regard to its effects on the mind and its subsequent role in individual and collective desire. But when it comes to articulating the subjective mind itself - the qualities and characteristics of the filter - Koolhaas uses the insane mind of the paranoiac as his model.

The portion of Delirious devoted to a direct discussion of method is the exploration of Dalí's Paranoid Critical Method, a way to simulate creativity and induce invention through using the ulterior logic of paranoia.

Diagram of the inner workings of the Paranoid-Critical Method: limp, unprovable conjectures generated through the deliberate simulation of paranoiac thought processes, supported (made critical) by the “crutches” of Cartesian rationality (Koolhaas, 236).

Koolhaas finds an example of PCM applied to Manhattanism in Modernist architect Le Corbusier's proposals for the city. Le Corbusier's writings and his character are put forward as evidence of the architect's paranoia.

... Le Corbusier’s persona and method of operation show many parallels with Dalí’s PCM.

Some of these must be the involuntary signs of a truly paranoiac streak in his character, but there is no doubt that this streak has been systematically exploited, and with relish, by its proud owner. In a classic paranoid self-portrait, he claims: 'I live like a monk and hate to show myself, but I carry the idea of combat in my person. I have been called to all countries to do battle. In times of danger, the chief must be where others aren’t. He must always find the hole, as in traffic where there are no red or green lights!' (246; Quoting Geoffrey T. Hellman, “From Within to Without,” parts 1 and 2, New Yorker, April 27 and May 3, 1947.)

Koolhaas then indicts the proposition of architecture as a paranoid endeavor:

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. (246)

Everything in the book is filtered through mental states, as researching Manhattanism requires exploration of an unexpressed - unconscious - method. And of course the author indicates his intentions in the title: Delirious New York.

It should also be noted that Koolhaas pairs the introductory plea from Vico with a contrary quote attributed to Dostoyevsky:

Why do we have a mind if not to get our way? (9)

The pairing is adroit, as it perfectly sums of the author's position relative to his content: knowledge of the world must be sought through the world's effects upon the mind, but the mind has a tendency to reveal only what it wants. Koolhaas's project follows precedents that attempt to short-circuit the workings of the brain to find cogent ways of working on the exterior world: the Surrealists sought this gambit into the unconscious through the portal of our dreams; Dalí modified the Surrealist method to search for a gambit around the status-quo through the alternative logic of paranoia. Koolhaas proposed that Manhattan was formed only because its ways of working - the collective work of all who effected the city of New York as an urban construct - remained unconscious. Le Corbusier's mistake, and the mistake of the Modernists in general, was to make the unconscious drives of the architect fully visible. The Modernist project failed where Manhattanism succeeded because the Modernists showed their cards, and alienated their audience. In contrast, Manhattan continued to play its hand, growing the stakes....

But we don't need to seek recourse in insanity to better tune our ways of working toward specific results and to develop new methods for effecting change in our environments. This search for Chicagoisms will explore positive aspects of the creative mind at work, to induce creativity through examination of precedents as instances of method development. This focus on our sanity is particularly important to me because Chicago is my home and my place of work: my family has chosen to put down roots here, and we will reap what we sow. Chicago's conditions, good and bad, are the conditions of my life and work; my actions, movements, responses are an enactment of those conditions that continuously make the city.

I have skin in this game.


  • "Ism." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2017.

  • Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. The Monacelli Press, 1994.

  • "Method." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2017.

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