MANHATTAN, NEW YORK – MANHATTAN, BRUSSELS: postwar urban planning in the grip of an island

Kasper Demeulemeester

MANHATTAN, NEW YORK – MANHATTAN, BRUSSELS: postwar urban planning in the grip of an island

Manhattan, New York – Manhattan, Brussels: postwar urban planning in the grip of an island

People need icons and every one needs dreams. For urbanites of the last century, that icon, that dream was New York City, and more precisely the island of Manhattan, which for most outsiders amounts to the same. It represented everything people hoped to achieve: freedom, wealth, modernity. The skyscrapers, the subways, the lights and the cars made Manhattan a symbol of the ideal 20th-century city.

The uncontrolled sprawl of modern New York City was not without its problems. Nearly as famous as its skyscrapers and city lights were Manhattan's filth, stench, and overcrowded streets and tenements, or as Rem Koolhaas has dubbed this accumulation of urban problems: Manhattan's culture of congestion. As a consequence, numerous plans were drawn up to solve these problems during the first decades of the 20th century. When analyzed closely, however, none of these plans actually intended to solve congestion -it is, after all, a city's life blood- but quite contrarily, raise congestion to an extreme level where it would then become something sublime. This is what I have called Manhattanism.

In the years before WWII, Manhattanism was rediscovered by urban planners, real estate developers and politicians. Le Corbusier had been trying to implement his European Modernism in America, but he had been rejected everywhere. The New York powerbrokers saw a synthesis of that Modernism and their pragmatic Manhattanism as a uniquely powerful tool to reshape New York's city fabric to their wishes. It would become a controllable city, clean and predictable, free of all the contingencies which are so typical for urban life. Manhattanism -the ultimate theory of urbanity- was stripped of its metaphorical core and then used to introduce Le Corbusier's anti-urban theories in America. The consequences, which became clearly visible from the sixties onwards, would be disastrous for the city.

When, after WWII, American theories about the city were exported around the world along with chewing gum and rock'n'roll, so was Manhattanism, as a real blueprint for the perfect modern city. One of the cities where Manhattanism became the most important theoretical framework in postwar urban planning was Brussels.

Here ambitious politicians, businessmen and urban planners wanted to copy the 'original' Manhattan, believing that this would automatically bring with it the wealth and modernity of the real New York -if they would just stick to the plan: Manhattanism. An entire neighborhood was razed to make way for this project, which would tellingly be called...Manhattan. An urban catastrophe ensued. This resulted in a strong anti-Manhattanist movement in the 1970s, just like it had done in New York after the dramatic consequences of the literal interpretation of Manhattanism had become clear.

During the last decade we have however seen that the Manhattanist anti-urban project had not been defeated in the 1970s, but that it instead had been tucked away until the economic crisis was over, which is exactly the same thing that had happened before WWII. The story of Manhattanism in urban planning is as much a story about 20th-century urbanism as it is about the cities of today, and tomorrow.

Universiteit of Hogeschool
Master of American Studies
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