Arriving in New York is always a thrill. The view of Manhattan from an approaching plane and from a taxi into the city, the immersion into its canyons, and the unfolding of its forms up and around you always takes my breath away. Manhattan has the power to amaze like few other places humans have made do.
That is because few cities are as defined and as definite in their forms as New York – at least if we treat Manhattan, the core of a metropolis that sprawls across three states, as Gotham's essence.
This does not mean that Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island don't count, of course. They just never have been and never will be Manhattan, the core cultural and capital condenser for the whole region. Manhattan is, after all, not only where Batman fights evil, Spiderman spins webs between skyscrapers, and King Kong climbs the Empire State Building, but also the core of New York's and therefore the world's financial, corporate, and cultural networks. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, and have, by extension.
What is even more remarkable is how we have made Manhattan, and how the ridge running down from Spuyten Duyvil to the Harbor and surrounded on all sides by water has become the icon for metropolitan life. Now that the island is undergoing one of its periodic spurts up into the sky, we do well to wonder what kind of work of art Manhattan has been, is, and may be.
For Manhattan is no longer just an agglomeration of offices, dwellings, and parks. It is a human-made work of art, an answer to natural and human conditions that has become so large and so carefully crafted that it can stand as a cultural fact. There might not be many individual masterpieces under construction there (though there are a few), but the island's collective form is coherent, powerful, and open to a multitude of associations and metaphors.
Manhattan as we experience it is above all else a human extrusion of the rock from which it rises. The rhythm of the high-rises that run along its length has the syncopation of a mountain ridge, while the spread of the lower structures ebbs into the island's flatter areas, before rising in places to form human cliffs looking out over the Hudson River. Manhattan is a human rock formation riven by a grid of canyons.
Just as important as this geology is the way it has been understood and extrapolated by architects and artists, from Erich Mendelsohn to Hugh Ferris to Rem Koolhaas, as having the potential to become seamless: One giant mass growing out of the interconnection of stone, concrete, steel, and glass into a web of human activity clothed in the crystallisation of the natural forces that have shaped Manhattan's forms.
Over the years, works of art ranging from Woody Allen's abstraction of the city's spires and parks into black and white to Teju Cole's exploration of its rivers, tributaries, and eddies of humanity have continued the work of making a city as an all-over cultural production in other media.
As such a giant, inhabited object, Manhattan presents the most coherent and compact image of a city centre. Movies might let their cameras sweep down on downtown LA to identify that metropolis, but we all know the Hollywood sign is the Southland's real emblem. Big Ben and the Eiffel tower anchor London and Paris respectively, but those cities, along with just about every other metropolis, bleed into the surrounding countryside and have multiple centres and cores. Only Manhattan has limits and a compactness that defines it with a clarity that is lacking elsewhere.
One part of Manhattan's image has disappeared over the years, and that is the sense of a place that is always under construction. The pictures of riveters balancing on girders high above the street, the silhouettes of skyscraper skeletons seen against a cloudy sky, and the views into deep construction pits revealing the island's bedrock, so famous from photographs and paintings, gave way for a while to images of decay and despair. And then to a sense that the place is closed and finished, even if it is still building ever higher towers and continuing to renovate the grids in which its inhabitants work, live and play into ever more open and flexible, if also more constricted, lofts.
Gone, too, is the sense that this is a city where things are made, from George Bellows' paeans to the docks to more recent cinematic pans through office and factory floors. Now artists create images and forms in former factories and office floors are places to meet and socialise. Work has disappeared here, as everywhere, either into the ether or into places of production whose nature is either too unpleasant and sweaty or too bland and robotic to contemplate.
What has also become evident is how derivative Manhattan is and how mediocre its built bits and pieces have always been. The skyscraper was invented in Chicago, as was just about every building type that occupies its ridges and flats. Its museums and monuments have never, with the sole exception of the Guggenheim, been original or innovative in their forms. They have been often second-rate Classical or Modernist buildings, or, as is the case with the new Whitney Museum, even third-rate.
Though recent projects by the likes of Bjarke Ingels on 57th Street and at Ground Zero give some hope, the history of the latter site, for instance, is one of the erection of bland mediocrity out of a disaster that in itself symbolised Manhattan's power as an icon.
All of that doesn't matter, because Manhattan remains magnificent. Endowed with a natural beauty, it has somehow risen into a composition that continues to refine itself and become ever more elegant and powerful as it grows more dense.
The punctuation of the ridge by towers as thin and expensive as their super-rich inhabitants; the filling in of the former Hudson and Penn Station rail yards with yet more subsidiary ridges and seried ranks of otherwise bland towers; the dissolution of Times Square into pure imagery seen only by pedestrians; and the replacement of stores by restaurants, affordable apartments by luxury retreats, and memorialising museums into places of spectacle. This all contributes to bringing Manhattan closer to the ideal and iconic image of itself.
That there is no place for poor people, for production, or even for conflict, in this metropolis of tomorrow rising today only confirms Manhattan's status as our modern Jerusalem, our contemporary City on the Hill.
This is the secular compound of capitalism, the movement and accumulation of capital made real and celebrated as a citadel surrounded by its own moat. That is, finally, what Manhattan is becoming: Oz and Camelot, Delphi and Mecca, El Dorado and New York, New York of song and dance, all rolled into one, compacted, driven up in height and scale, and turned into a real place where those who produce the images to which we aspire – from the art at MoMA and the Met, to the verities and falsities of the New York Times and Fox News – make their home. Manhattan is theirs; we just get to admire it.
Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com, Beyond Buildings. Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.