Manhattan: the Romantic Criminal

Of course without an accomplice, what does a criminal have but an intangible plan?…

01 – Crime of pleasure

Agitated by the relentless orders (grids) back home, Manhattan decided to leave home. That was when he met the beautiful Miss Coney Island, who by 1897 became his mistress and accomplice. It was here that the predicament of the tall, dense, and pleasurable city came became a cardboard model.

“…a curse that is to haunt the architectural profession for the rest of its life, the formula: technology + cardboard (or any other flimsy material) = reality”

– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York.[1]

“Steeple Chase Park – Barrels of Love (1897)


02 – Crime against the acts of God

Manhattan returns home, full of confidence and determination, for he has found a way to take advantage of the grid. With the help of the vertical transport (called the elevator), he becomes the ultimate creator…creating a new Garden of Eden at every 15-foot increment.

 “1909 theorem: the Skyscraper as utopian device for the production of unlimited numbers of virgin sites on a single metropolitan location.”

– Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York

Here the tower stands – autonomous – ignoring any land ordinances by which only certain realities can occur concurrently (i.e. zoning laws).


03 – Defying gravity

Not long after his second stunt, Manhattan fabricates yet another misdemeanor – this time against gravity. By 1974, New York City had reached (then) uncharted zone in the sky.

 World Trade Center Twin Towers – 1,368 feet (roof of 1 WTC)

By now Manhattan is not only a wanted suspect, but he has also gained a few admirers – perhaps he has found a new accomplice – Philippe Petit. Manhattan leads him on literally by the thread – the thread of a cable. For if one has built a tower of babel, it is only logical to take your new lover to its crown.[2]

Philippe Petit, between the Twin Towers, 1974


04 – Crime of Murder

After all, what is the ultimate crime if not of murder? Isn’t it true that “to really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder”, as Tschumi would say?[3] Then can we infer that we have finally experienced and captured in full the Twin Towers on the day they were greeted by death?


Criminals test the limits, they break rules, but most importantly, they are able to prove wrong the impossibility. It is not to judge them on the basis of conscience, but rather the aftermath of their doing. By committing such crimes, Manhattan has taught us to embrace loose activities that cannot (for one reason or another) be bounded by walls, to not fear heights, and that it is only at the brink of death that we can attest that we have reached our ultimate limit.


the Lovers

At a time when New York City was at its downturn, 1970s, a few devoted lovers still romanticize (and to some degree obsess over) Manhattan –for it is hard not to fall in love with a city that is filled with “beautiful women and street-smart guys.”[4]

Woody Allen, screenplay writer, actor, and director, fell in love with the hustle and bustle –the chaos of 1.4 million individuals living under one entity they called “Manhattan.” To him, change – whether it was how fast people spoke, how quickly people jumped from one relationship to another, how easy it was to move into a new apartment – was what drove the energy of the city.

Rem Koolhaas, Dutch architect and writer, became obsessed with this fantastical American city. For him, Manhattan held the fantasies, the secrets, and the future. It had a spur-of-the moment phenomenon. Whatever came to mind, it would be built the next day. It didn’t matter if it was not perfect because perfection meant stable and static, which was opposite from what a city was.

Bernard Tschumi, an architect and theorist, also saw this collision between the static and variable. For him, architecture did not remain the three-dimensional cube, it needed to venture into the fourth and fifth dimension. There are invisible movement and happenings that simply have lives of their own independent of their built incubator.

Philippe Petit, a French tight-rope performer, paralleled his dream with that of the New York ambition to be at the top. For him, the WTC was the top of the world of which he had to conquer, though not out of spite for Manhattan, but out of respect – for him, Manhattan and he were of the same level.



[1] Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. New York: Monacelli Press, 1994.

[2] Marsh, James, Simon Chinn, Philippe Petit, Igor Martinović, Michael Nyman, J. Ralph, Jinx Godfrey, James Ricketson, and Philippe Petit. 2008. Man on wire.

[3] Tschumi, Bernard. 1981. The Manhattan transcripts. London: Academy Editions

[4] Weide, Robert B., and Woody Allen. 2012. Woody Allen a documentary. [United States]: B Plus Productions.


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