Willa Cather, Daniel Libeskind, and the Creative Destruction of Manhattan

Article excerpt

There must be something wonderful coming. When the frenzy is over, when the furnace has cooled, what marvel will be left on Manhattan Island?

-Willa Gather, 1912.

It seems to me that architecture is, in fact, the machine that produces the universe which produces the gods. It does so not fully through theories or reflections, but in the ever non-repeatable and optimistic act of construction.

- Daniel Libeskind, 2004.

Creative Destruction

In The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, Max Page offers a new vision of modern urban development through a history of New York City's architectural destruction. Central to Page's thinking is the idea that the convulsions of capitalist urbanization that shook Manhattan in the early twentieth century were "not defined by simple expansion and growth but rather by a vibrant and often chaotic process of destruction and rebuilding" (2). Exploring the impact of the wrecking ball on New York's shape-shifting cityscape, Page shows how this continual cycle of "creative destruction" encapsulated "the fundamental tension between the creative possibilities and destructive effects of the modern city" (3). The result is a fascinating account of the mutability of urban landscape and the competing social and economic forces that are still shaping cities today.

This article considers the "ways in which a similar urban tension between creation and destruction animates two very different yet interrelated New York texts. One is a 1912 short story about skyscrapers by the American modernist writer Willa Gather. The other is an actual skyscraper: Daniel Libeskind's Freedom Tower, which is currently under construction at the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan. What links these two city texts is the theme of urban disaster. Gather's story is about the destruction of a high-rise building at the height of the city's first great moment of vertical expansion. Libeskind's design, which comes in the wake of precisely such a disaster, is about the architectural renewal of the skyscraper form in the postterrorist landscape of New York. In such terms, both Gather's story and Libeskind's design are implicated in the process of creative destruction described by Max Page. Gather's narrative concedes the creative possibilities of the modern city but stresses its destructive energy. By contrast, Libeskind's architectural vision responds directly to an act of urban destruction but emphasizes creative possibility. My argument is that, in contrasting ways, these two disaster narratives register long-standing cultural anxieties about modern urban development and the deeply transitory nature of urban landscape. To develop this line of thought, I want to focus my discussion on the diverse ways in which Gather and Libeskind interpret vertical New York, paying close attention to the symbolic significance that they both attach to the city's modern skyline.

Gather's Towering Inferno

In May 1912, Willa Gather published "Behind the Singer Tower" in the New York magazine Collier's. The story, as John Murphy notes, is "emphatically about New York as futuristic American City," complementing "the theme of destructive ambition in her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (which also came out in 1912), and anticipating Carl Linstrum's complaint in O Pioneers! (1913) about the city's tendency to overwhelm its citizens" (24). To this I would add that "Behind the Singer Tower" is also about the legibility of urban space, what Michel de Certeau, adapting Lefebvre, calls the "texturology" of the city (92) -for one of Gather's main points in the story is that a close reading of the skyline can offer insight into the form of modern urbanism that she refers to as "the New York idea" (44).

In a morbid prefiguring of the skyscraper explosions of September 11, "Behind the Singer Tower" is set in the smoldering aftermath of a high-rise hotel fire that traps and kills hundreds of people on the upper floors of the building. …