The Sphere and the
Perhaps no better way exists of grasping what the American skyscraper is not than by studying how European culture has attempted to assimilate and translate into its own terms, especially in the years immediately following the First World War, that paradox of the Metropolitan Age. The skyscraper as a “typology of the exception”: the first elevator buildings in Manhattan — from the Equitable Life Insurance Building of Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post (1868-70) to Post’s mature works  — are real live “bombs” with chain effects, destined to explode the entire real estate market. The systematic introduction of the mechanical elevator, equalizing the price of rents at various floors of commercial buildings, levels in a single blow the existing economic values and creates new and exceptional forms of revenue. Immediately, the “control” of such an explosive object presents itself as an urgent problem — even if there ensues, just as immediately, a clear renunciation of any regulation of the economic effects. The entire typological elaboration that, first in New York and then in Chicago, lies at the heart of the structural inventions of architects like Post, Le Baron Jenney, John Wellborn Root, Holabird & Roche explicitly tends toward a visual control of all that which now appears as “anarchic individuality,” a mirror of the “heroic” phase of the entrepreneurship of the Age of Laissez-Faire.
Winston Weisman has quite correctly emphasized the central role played by Post in the formation of the typology of the nineteenth-century skyscraper. In many ways the work of Post takes an opposite path from that of Sullivan; nevertheless, Sullivan owes a great deal to the until now undervalued New York architect. In Post’s U-, “tree-,” and tower-shaped structures, there already emerges quite clearly that aspect of the skyscraper phenomenon that the European interpretations tend to overlook: namely, that it is exactly by embodying the laws of the concurrent economy and, afterwards, of the corporate system, that the skyscraper becomes an instrument — and no longer an “expression” — of economic policy, finding in this identity with economic policy its own true “value.” Only after the typological and technological experiments of the last decades of the nineteenth century have exhausted their provisional tasks, setting into position repeatable structures, will the attribution of the “surplus value” of language to these structures manifest itself — correctly — as pure ornament. But it will do so with a precise function: to emit well-known or immediately assimilable messages, to soothe the “distracted perception” of the metropolitan public subjected to the bombardment of multiple shocks, both visual and economic, provoked by the new giganti della montagna [mountain giants] in the downtowns.
It is just this phenomenon that European culture could not or would not grasp. What in the United States was produced by a complex but straightforward process was experienced in Europe as a trauma. The skyscraper, which Henry Huxley could call in 1875 the “center of intelligence,” was seen, especially by German culture after 1910, as a symbol and threat of total reification, as a painful nightmare produced by the drowsiness of a metropolis on the verge of losing itself as a subject. In such a frame, optimism and pessimism wind up coinciding. In 1913 Karl Schaffler points out the possibility of a new “Spirit of Synthesis” in American territorial organization: the metropolis will be recuperated here as a conscious subject dominating the complementariness of City and Suburb — and here he reproposes a municipal administration retaining ownership of the terrain — but also reestablishing the equilibrium between the individual and the totality. Reification can be overcome only by considering it a “bridge” that permits the crossing of the Grand Canyon of the anguish of the masses. A “bridge”: but precisely by going beyond the experience of the Brücke, Kandinsky, in presenting his own theatrical piece Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Tone] in Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912) , puts forward in metaphoric form a completely opposite interpretation of the same phenomenon. In Kandinsky’s unique text, as is well known, five yellow giants undulate, grow disproportionately or shrink, contort their bodies, emit guttural sounds, under a flickering light that accentuates their oneiric aspects.
The previous allusion to Pirandello’s giganti della montagna was not accidental. For both Kandinsky and Pirandello, the theme is that of individuals who are “all too human,” and therefore on the verge of becoming pure signs, dumbfounded testimonies of an existence whose faculties of communication have been blocked. The whispering of the yellow giants and their “difficult” movements are the last, clumsy attempts at expression by beings who, having seen the truth, feel condemned to drown in it:
at the very instant in which the con fusion in the orchestra, in the movements, and in the lighting reaches the high point, all at once, darkness and silence fall on the scene. Alone at the back of the stage, the yellow giants remain visible and are then slowly swallowed up by the darkness. It appears as if the giants are extinguished like lamps; or rather, before complete darkness sets in, one perceives some flash of light.
The finale of Der Gelbe Klang represents, in tragic form, the annihilation of value in the flux of monetary currents — which the people of Manhattan could register, non dramatically, using such real giants as the Woolworth or the Equitable Life Insurance buildings. Moreover, such giants, in reality, despite their linguistic clothing that is just as paradoxical as the yellow color with which Kandinsky clothes his “new angels,” also give off a flash of light. Continue reading