Monday, June 6, 2011

Aurora of Empire

Part 1

The first great drama of New York City skyline was the rise of the piers for the Brooklyn Bridge. Born in the ashes of America's great internecine conflagration, alignments forged in war between commerce and politics, between laborers and visionaries and between capital and human creativity were set loose in the sprawling and expanding city. Grand projects of a scale and ambition never before conceived in the New World were dreamed of and then made real. Imagined half way between the dawn of industrialization and the present, the Brooklyn Bridge, and particularly it's piers, can be read as both ancient and contemporary. They stand at the dawn of American Empire and are the harbinger of full scale American industrialization towering over a vanishing pastoral to heights even steeples never dreamed of.

The gilded age, parallel to which the piers arose, was at its' end an era still deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of European civilization. Although the sinews of industrialization were insinuating themselves into every aspect of the new, between the Civil War and the First World War most of the advances in industrial technology were sublimated into infrastructure which unlike the Brooklyn Bridge remained invisible. While H. H. Richardson's buildings had been bearing wall masonry, Charles McKim's were mostly steel frames, parged with terracotta and only veneered with stone. Privy gave way to sewer, stairs to elevators and gas light gave way to electric.

Begun at the outset of the first Gilded age, as the bridge rose its gothic piers soared over a city still searching for a unique place in history. The load bearing granite piers were as ancient a technology as can be imagined, embodied in a venerated architectural style for uplift. But the cables, the reliance on pure tension for both structural form and architectural expression, were radically new, not invented but perfected here and nowhere more dramatically expressed. The towers and the tension set the direction and character for the dawning age in New York.

The skyline apotheosis of the era was achieved in Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building just across City Hall Park from the Manhattan anchorage of the Bridge. These two structures bookend the park with the beginning and end of the First Gilded Age. At the beginning, the United States had been a chaotic place, at war with itself on the way to ending human bondage: corrupt, opportunistic and striving. It had been a nation totaling 30 million souls, a tenth of them slaves with New York City holding some 800,000 people having itself only abolished slavery in 1841.

By the end the U. S. had bested Spain in war acquiring an expanding foreign Empire. While the buildings of this age did things never before possible, they demurred aesthetically in how they did them: Gilbert's Gothic filigrees were a comprehensible expansion of the same five hundred year old language of architectural uplift across the park that, though shocking to some in its' application to commerce was none the less familiar. By its end, fifty years after the Civil War, the First Gilded Age encompassed a nation of over 100 million with New York City alone containing more than 5 million.

Gilbert's building on City Hall Park remains one of my favorites. While technologically its steel frame and extruded terracotta infill bear no resemblance to the load-bearing limestone, both ornamental filagree and basic structure of Cathedrals like Chartres or Notre Dame, the glazed terracotta skin, to borrow words from Michael Benedickt, is "real enough". In fact the defects of the material, its spalling and cracking, have mottled the facades of the building in an accidental simulation of the natural variety in color and texture found in limestone. The technical problems with this artificial skin are signs of a technology stretched beyond its breaking point and are symptomatic of the kinds of tensions that would transform the urban environment in the next phase of America's rise.

The worlds tallest building with cutting edge technologies, vast plumbing stacks, steel skeleton, terracotta spanning structures, vacuum tubes, electric lifts and lighting, the Woolworth Building was completed in the same year the deeper infrastructure of the banking system underpinning the nations growth was replumbed with new systems of its own. The Federal Reserve was created to stem the recurrent liquidity problems that fractional reserve banking on a gold standard combined with human nature to inevitably produce. Remember, this happened only a hundred years out from the final collapse of the Ancien Regime in Europe. What had been stable but almost imperceptibly growing cities, with what Ian Morris calls "energy capture" through the process of industrialization, embarked on an exponential growth around 1800 that is still playing out today.

Sixteen hundred years earlier, Rome had been a city of over a million people and in decline. It had stalled into a slow decay at that size and no other western city had achieved similar scale until London did so around 1800, at the dawn of industrialization. To repeat, until 1800 no western city had reached a million people since Rome peaked at that size almost two millennia earlier. With preindustrial technology, a million people seems to be a threshold beyond which cities become increasingly unworkable.

The infrastructure with which London achieved its first million people was identical in kind to that of Rome: stairs and windows in a fire proof structures in a network of streets and canals for the distribution of essential goods to the concentrated population of merchants, artisans and rentiers. Water and waste were the chief engineering concerns supporting urbanism at this scale. Until that time, this is all that cities had ever been and the energy that could be deployed to build and maintain them was that found in the muscles of oxen, of horses and of people. The "energy capture" of industrialization unleashed all of the stored power of wood, whale oil, charcoal, coal and eventually petroleum, on the development of cities.

This concentrated energy, converted to "horsepower" by machines, shattered the ceiling on city size as new technologies for plumbing, heating, lighting, lifting and ventilating habitable spaces opened up entirely new vistas of density and economic opportunity. At the heart of economics, where people made most of the things that added real wealth, real richness to the overall civilization, cities drew population from the agricultural hinterlands that fed them by offering opportunity to engage for wages in the work of making things that added wealth and drove urban economies. At the same time, inventions from cities transformed agricultural work and by applying energy capture on the farm freed up huge portions of the population to move to the city and make, and even to invent entirely new forms of, wealth.

To this point, when periodically bankers became too indulgent in the issue of credit in their never ending pursuit of income from interest, and financial markets froze and collapsed, for most people it simply meant several years of making do without income while living off the fruits of agriculture. When new infrastructures drove urban growth beyond the 1 million threshold, this situation profoundly and permanently changed: upon the occasion of the periodic and increasingly common financial panic, larger and larger numbers of city residents found themselves suddenly financially destitute and for the first time disconnected from agricultural sustenance. In the new market based urban civilization of the new super city, to be without income, in the absence of wealth, is to be denied the necessities of life. This was intrinsically new; this is an artifact of breaking the one million population ceiling; this condition will not go away without the population density going away first.

The new Federal Reserve Bank was seen by its designers as a financial tool to smooth the liquidity problems of interbank balances, but it was the popular pressure from an increasingly militant electorate fed up with the recurring abuses of credit and seizures of a banking system run solely for its private benefit that forced legislation on the issue. As lender of last resort, when panic struck the banks and runs drained deposits, the Federal Reserve would step in to prevent small holders from being wiped out by liquidity problems by providing banks with money at a penalty rate. This cost the banks for their failure, but prevented those failures from damaging the banks depositors so long as the Federal Reserve deemed the banks solvent.

Charles McKim's Morgan Library is the last unselfconscious  architectural monument of preindustrial American civilization with both pedigree and provenance back to antiquity. Hand hewn marble stones tooled to perfection were set with nothing but paper thin sheets of lead between them. This pinnacle achievement of human manual dexterity was executed for the last of the true private financiers, the last private banker to be master of all the levers of the monetary system. That so much power accrued in crises to one man made the populists arguments for them that economic power was too concentrated with too narrow an interest and Morgan's apotheosis in the panic of 1907 led directly to the creation of the Federal Reserve System. The library would endure, as would the nostalgic values, the sense of entitlement and centrality of the private banker. But the world in which both lived had irrevocably changed.

New visions of technological utopianism arose at about the same time McKim was building his monument for Morgan. Jules Verne's Belle Epoque visions of science fiction informed a popular imagination to engaged with the accelerating delights that energy capture and industrialization were bringing to the burgeoning middle class, beneficiaries of real and dramatic progress. The Wright brothers and Bleriot would make real some of his most extravagant ideas and visionaries like Sant'Elia were imagining what these new techniques could afford for buildings and city form.

It was the First World War that blew to bits both what aesthetic and technological continuity remained with the past. The scale of the war and the application of energy capture to waging it multiplied the destruction seen in the American Civil War, the first industrialized total war, exponentially. The effort drew the entire populations of the belligerents into some form of participation and like the Civil War in the U. S. transformed all of the institutions involved. The Romantic Futurism of technological utopianism imagined by Sant'Elia died with him on the battle field and a new industrial aesthetic began to erupt from the infrastructure asserting itself into the superstructure of Western Civilization.

The interwar years were a symphony for the New York skyline, with many marvelous and multiform buildings going up. The technology of the Woolworth building would persist for another twenty years, but it was under threat from the end of the First World War on. New industrial processes were producing cheaper and more durable ways to build and the concentrated business organizations that grew from the war effort were transforming both the organization of the economy and of cities.

In perspective then, for ten thousand years cities had been built of wood, stone and clay. That is how the New York of 1880 was built. There was a concrete interregnum that bracketed Rome's peak, but it faded only to return over a thousand years later. Then, beginning with the energy and industrial revolutions new materials and techniques began to proliferate. Parallel to the human population explosion, industrialization and energy use began to systematically re-make every aspect of the human environment culminating now with global climate change, a direct consequence of our energy economy. Compare this photograph from 1929 to the etching dated 1881 above, exactly 48 years earlier. From a city of brownstones and church spires to one of airplanes and skyscrapers.

So the first Gilded Age was aesthetically attached and not so technologically distant from that ten thousand year tradition and at its start every thing standing in cities had their roots in antecedent and ancient building traditions. For fifty years cultural conservativism paid architects for the visual pretense that nothing had changed. But the realities of sky scrapers combined with blinding devastation of World War to wash away that pretense. In the interwar years a riot of styles competed with a riot of technology as innovation built on innovation and everywhere energy was applied to the challenges of life. At the same time an ever larger percentage of the total population of economically advanced countries were living cities and thus dependent on sustained flows of income. Now urban residents were no longer attached either to ancient traditions of building or historical patterns of economics that protected them from the recurring catastrophes of finance.

Click to read Part 2 

No comments: