Let’s Take a Trip to New York City

Let’s Take a Trip to New York City
January 24, 2010


This is a Trip that I’ve been postponing for a while, because it’s a tough one. New York City is, undoubtedly, the world’s primary example of the Heroic Materialist style in City Design, in the pre-World War II format. I’ve been calling this 19th Century Hypertrophism.

The Heroic Materialist era began with the Industrial Revolution, around 1780 or so. This also coincides exactly with the beginning of the United States, in 1776 (Declaration of Independence) or 1789 (Constitution), depending on how you want to count it. Thus, the United States is also overwhelmingly dominated by the Heroic Materialist style in all things, whether the earlier version that we are calling 19th Century Hypertrophism, or the later version, 20th Century Hypertrophism.

Like all things Heroic Materialist, the 19th Century Hypertrophic City exemplifies certain repetitive thought processes. At some point, I’ll have to have a separate piece on Heroic Materialism. However, we can begin by summarizing some of the basic attributes.

To make things very simple, Heroic Materialism is the basic aesthetic of a mechanical or civil engineer. First, it is an aesthetic. It is not actually practical, it is a sort of artistic style. However, it is the artistic style of an engineer — a gearhead guy who likes machines. For example, let’s say you wanted to show up at a party and make a big impression. A mechanical engineer would probably want to show up in something like this:

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Vroom Vroom!

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

However, a mechanical engineer probably wouldn’t even think about showing up on something like this — a thoroughbred stallion. It’s not that he doesn’t like it, it just isn’t something that crosses his mind.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

And this? Just plain weird to a mechanical engineer.

Only a euro-poofter would want to show up to a party in a gondola.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what you show up in to a party. There is no actual need we are fulfilling here. It’s all just fun and games. That’s why I call it an aesthetic. The Heroic Materialist aesthetic is an aesthetic of practicality, while actually being often absurdly impractical. I mentioned the Rolex watch. It represents an aesthetic of practcality — “it helps you get to the top of Everest” — but actually, it is expensive, breaks easily, is heavy (mountaineers are nuts about weight), and doesn’t have the digital alarm that wakes you up at 3am so you can start your trip to the top of Everest. (Digital alarms are very important to mountaineers who need to get up early.)

This aesthetic stems largely from the realities of industrialization itself. The fact of the matter is, the mechanical engineers, and those that employed them, were getting rich! The thoroughbred stallion represents landed gentry, the aesthetic of the aristocrats who gained their wealth from the land. The gondola represents Old Europe, centuries of tradition and artistic subtlely and handmade craft, all quaintly anachronistic and increasingly irrelevant in a world then powered by coal and made by machines and out of steel.

Thus, we see that the Heroic Materialist style is very masculine. There’s little in the way of feminine attributes. Things that are soft, comfortable, colorful, decorative. Where are the flowers and kitty cats? Luxe? Calme? Volupte? Gone, gone, all gone. The Heroic Materialist style, in City Design, looks a lot like our mechanical engineer’s bachelor apartment. In other words, it looks like shit. (Naturally, our young engineer is completely oblivious.)


Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Like this. Practical. Utilitarian. Not a teeny whiff of decoration, or anything soft, living, gentle.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Credit: The Swing (Les Hasards heureux de L’Escarpolette), 1767 (oil on canvas) by Fragonard, Jean-Honore (1732-1806)
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Jean Honore Fragonard, The Swing, 1766.

This painting is often used as a representation of the ideals of the 18th century, which were replaced by Heroic Materialism. See what I mean? Can you see how this expresses a different aesthetic? We are in nature — and not a managed, controlled, dominated nature; a mechanical engineer’s version of nature, like a cornfield — but nature that is wild and mysterious. The nature of unicorns, devas and fairies. We see that everyone is dressed, not in workmans’ overalls, or miner’s clothes (jeans and a t-shirt), but the most fanciful and impractical clothing you could imagine. Along with nature, we have a sculpture, the addition of a beautiful (and completely useless) human-made thing to mesh harmoniously with the natural beauty of the forest. The people here have lots of leisure time, with nothing to do except enjoy the process of life in all of its splendor, which, in this case, means looking up a young woman’s skirt.

We’ll dwell on Heroic Materialism more at a later date. What I want to consider now is how this Heroic Materialist style was translated into City Design.

The primary characteristic of 19th Century Hyptertrophism is that it is hypertrophic. That’s a fancy word that means big, really big. Big big big. Everything is goddamn big. Is there any reason for things to be so much bigger? No. Humans are the same size as always. But, BIG BIG BIG is one of the core themes (i.e., repetitive thought processes) of Heroic Materialism. Bigger houses. Bigger TVs. Bigger cars. Bigger hamburgers. Bigger boobs.

Big it up baby!

Since cities are mostly made of streets and buildings, we find that the 19th Century Hypertrophic City has really big streets, and really big buildings.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Manhattan. 19th Century Hypertrophism at its most Hypertrophic.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Siena, Italy. The Traditional City, in the normal scale that cities around the world were built in before they all became Hypertrophied.

OK, you are probably thinking: “hmmmm, looks kinda similar to me.”

I did that on purpose.

Look a little more closely. How wide is the street in Manhattan? We see a pretty wide sidewalk, of perhaps ten feet on either side of the street. Then, there’s a roadway in the middle, with a row of cars parked on either side. Then, there’s at least one lane of traffic in the middle of the street. All in all, the Manhattan street is about forty or fifty feet wide. Considering that this is about the narrowest that streets get in Manhattan, that is pretty wide! We saw earlier that Traditional City streets all around the world are often 12-16 feet wide.

November 15, 2009: Let’s Kick Around Carfree.com

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Here’s a busy commercial street in Venice, a wonderful Traditional City. This is not some tiny back alley, or even an unusually narrow street for Venice. However, it is only one-third the width of our Manhattan street! The Hypertrophic City’s street are not just “a little” larger, they are three times larger, or more than three times! If we were to take a bustling commercial street in Manhattan, like Madison Avenue, how wide is that?

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Madison Avenue.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Madison Avenue.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

Madison Avenue.

Here we have five lanes of traffic, and 12-15 foot sidewalks on either side. Just one sidewalk on Madison Avenue is as wide as the whole street in Venice!

I suppose you could say: “OK, but Madison Avenue has to be wide because of all the cars.”

But Madison Avenue was created 100 years before cars!

What actually happened, was that we needed to create cars to have something to fill up Madison Avenue.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

This is a large commercial street in Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon is a major European capital. Portugal used to have an empire that spanned the globe. Can you see the difference in scale between the Hypertrophic City and the Traditional City? Note that there are no cars here, even today. That’s because there isn’t a big space in the middle devoted to cars. Get it?

The second Hypertrophic thing you should notice, from our first picture of Manhattan, is that the buildings are much taller. The buildings are about fifteen stories high. That is much taller than the Traditional City, which tends to top out around six stories, the limits of practical use without elevators. Look at the buildings in Siena again. They are about 4-5 stories tall. So, along with a street that is about three times wider, we have buildings that are about three times taller. Everything is three times bigger! That’s why the Manhattan photo and the Siena photo looked similar at first glance. The relationship between width and height was about the same. In the case of Madison Avenue, the street is more like five times wider, and the buildings more like five or eight times taller.

Of course, nobody started with the idea of “let’s make a city, but, just for fun, let’s make everything three times bigger.” It didn’t work like that at all. Actually, they made the Hypertrophic Streets first. Only much later did they get around to making some Really Tall Buildings to go with the Really Wide Streets. The first “skyscraper” in Manhattan was of course the Flatiron Building:

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

See the 3-7 story Traditional City style buildings all around the base? Also, we can see what the streets of Manhattan looked like in 1902, before cars.

Real empty.

See the guy walking right in the middle of the street? He doesn’t even have to wait for a traffic light (not yet invented) because there’s no traffic.

No murderous machinery in the middle of people’s living spaces. Yet.

There are some more people in the middle of the street on the left.

The Flatiron building was completed in 1902. It is 22 stories high.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

This period image gives an idea of what kind of impression the Flatiron Building made when it was completed.

Woo hoo! Finally, after a hundred years, we now have some super-big buildings to go with our super-big streets!

Actually, I like Manhattan. The funny thing is, it is OK (not that great, but OK) because the big buildings and the big streets match, to a certain degree. The 19th Century Hypertrophic City is, strangely enough, worse when it is only sort-of-Hypertrophic. Remember this picture?

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

This is the main street in Norwich, New York. It is a small town of about 7,000 people, and never had too much more than that. The town was established in 1793, so the street width we’re looking at here comes from the very earliest days of 19th Century Hypertrophism.

As we can see, it is just about the same width as Madison Avenue. However, Madison Avenue is fun because the super-big street also comes with some super-big buildings, and all the excitement and big business implied by that. Here we have the Really Big Street, but some rather modest Traditional City-style buildings. There’s absolutely no reason for this at all. No benefit, either. It would be much better to have proper Traditional City-type avenue, like the one in Lisbon.

Unfortunately, there’s only one Manhattan. Pretty much all the cities built in the U.S. during the 19th century — and also most of New York City outside of Midtown — look much more like Norwich. This includes, for example, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

Thus, when I talk about the Traditional City, I absolutely do not mean what is often taken as “traditional” in the United States. It doesn’t exist here. It only exists in Europe and Asia.

Actually, the Traditional Cty does exist in the United States, but only in the oldest parts of the oldest cities, which were built in the Colonial period before the advent of Heroic Materialism around 1780. Places like the oldest, Colonial-era bits of Lower Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island.

Let's Take a Trip to New York City

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Look, it’s a Really Narrow Street!

In the United States!

And no cars!

Newport, Rhode Island.

So, we see that there was a change in City Design even in the United States, from the Traditional City to 19th Century Hypertrophism, around 1780.

Other comments in this series:

January 10, 2010: We Could All Be Wizards
December 27, 2009: What a Real Train System Looks Like
December 13, 2009: Life Without Cars: 2009 Edition
November 22, 2009: What Comes After Heroic Materialism?
November 15, 2009: Let’s Kick Around Carfree.com
November 8, 2009: The Future Stinks

October 18, 2009: Let’s Take Another Trip to Venice
October 10, 2009: Place and Non-Place
September 28, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to Barcelona
September 20, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity 2: It’s All In Your Head
September 13, 2009: The Problem of Scarcity

July 26, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to an American Village 3: How the Suburbs Came to Be
July 19, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to an American Village 2: Downtown
July 12, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to an American Village
May 3, 2009: A Bazillion Windmills
April 19, 2009: Let’s Kick Around the “Sustainability” Types

March 3, 2009: Let’s Visit Some More Villages
February 15, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to the French Village
February 1, 2009: Let’s Take a Trip to the English Village
January 25, 2009: How to Buy Gold on the Comex (scroll down)
January 4, 2009: Currency Management for Little Countries
(scroll down)
December 28, 2008: Currencies are Causes, not Effects (scroll down)
December 21, 2008: Life Without Cars
August 10, 2008: Visions of Future Cities

July 20, 2008: The Traditional City vs. the “Radiant City”
December 2, 2007: Let’s Take a Trip to Tokyo
October 7, 2007: Let’s Take a Trip to Venice
June 17, 2007: Recipe for Florence
July 9, 2007: No Growth Economics
March 26, 2006: The Eco-Metropolis