History Plays a Double Hand

DSC_5480I have recently enjoyed dipping into Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes – a book about the overlap between the different music scenes in New York in the mid seventies. But I only sampled the book, thanks largely to a review by Charlie McCann in Prospect Magazine which places the book amidst a general nostalgia boom for the seventies, particularly in New York  and is many ways more perceptive than the book itself – as entertaining as it is. McCann states convincingly that “the decade now appeals to the people who weren’t even around to experience it in the first place.” 

His reasons for this are the following: “Growing inequality and the fallout from the financial crisis have New Yorkers longing for a time when you could get by in the city for very little. They’ve settled on the 1970s, the last era before Reagan arrived in office and ‘the musk of profit once again scented the air,’ as Luc Sante wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2003.” It is a convincing argument for a kind of radicalised nostalgia which we have heard here in the United Kingdom. The argument goes something like this: nothing of any note has been produced by popular culture since the mid-90s and we must therefore go back to the 1970s and 1980s to rekindle our critical and creative powers.

However, we have to be careful with this strategy as New York proves. Whilst there may be a radical approach to nostalgia, nostalgia is not in itself radical and often countermands radical intensions. Manhattan is a case in point. Here, I would argue that nostalgia for the counter-culture of the 1970s is in competition with a more powerful nostalgia; one which inhabits the upper echelons of the cultural institutions of New York; one which is closer in step and ethos to the establishment of that city. I’d argue that the claim to the 1970s as an ideal of counter culture is effectively an echo of a cultural trend inhabiting not just the management of the island’s cultural powerhouses but its built fabric.

In some ways the new One World Trade Center (1WTC) – a beautifully simplistic abstraction of the skyscraper form  – plays into a nostalgia for a different era which sits at the heart of the Manhattan establishment. As Adam Gopnik put it in the New Yorker: 

The building is genuinely handsome, its long isosceles, mirrored faceting giving it the illusion of being torqued, twisted right, even as you stare at it—a look that, in the past, was called futuristic.

This note of retro-futurism in a skyscraper – and it is just a note – brings another recent architectural controversy in Manhattan in to play. It was telling that the recent announcement of the demolition of the Folk Art Museum only occurred because MOMA wanted to extend further its exhibition space. MOMA is the mid-20th century art institution par excellence: a museum that was conceived contiguous with Manhattan’s heyday in the 1950s and is still the great reliquary of that time. Countering the nostalgia for the wild freedom of the 1970s amongst the remnants of the island’s sub-culture is the nostalgia for the 1950s in its ruling classes.

Whilst  1WTC is an exceptional piece of architecture, which I am going to write about at length elsewhere, it also emerges from a very familiar cultural place in Manhattan as MOMA. 1WTC it is an extrusion of a form that became dominant in the late 1950s just like the new superannuated, folk-crushing behemoth of MOMA. In the increasingly conservative planning culture of Manhattan the 1950s is a good default decade to return to. New York was in its pomp then. The UN came to the city because it was the capital of the world. The island’s steady decline in population since the 1920s was not yet fully perceptible.

Today with other genuflections before conservation bodies – the decision to scrap a vital upgrade to the New York Public Library for example – one vision of history is slowly consuming another. Instead of thinking of Don Draper in Mad Men as a historical figure he has become a living personification of Manhattan


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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