Manhattan’s Doubles

This article was written a few years ago when preparing the Cold War Modern exhibition at the V&A. It first appeared in Piktogram. There may still be a few typos hiding in the piece ..


For much of the twentieth century Manhattan functioned like a magnet drawing artists and designers who wanted to witness the future in the making. It was, in Rem Koolhaas’s words, ‘a collective experiment where the entire city became a factory of man-made experience, where the real and the natural ceased to exist.’[1] Koolhaas in his magnificent 1978 dreamwork, Delirious New York, outlined a ‘retroactive manifesto’, that is a theory of urbanism written after – rather than before – the new world it describes has been fashioned:

Manhattan [is] the product of an unformulated theory, Manhattanism, whose programme – to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e. to live inside fantasy – was so ambitious that to be realised, it could never be openly stated.

Only those without a direct interest in Manhattan’s stone, glass and steel could, it seems, articulate this theory, Koolhaas included. Two reflections on Manhattanism appeared in 1965. By a strange, even uncanny, coincidence, they were produced on either side of the Iron Curtain, apparently in ignorance of each other. These non-identical twins were faithful to Koolhaas’s conception of Manhattanism: both represented the island overshadowed with anxiety and hope.

In 1965 American architect and visionary, R. Buckminster Fuller proposed changing the skyline of New York by installing a dome over mid-Manhattan. This massive structure would span the city from the Hudson to the East river. One mile high at its centre, this hemisphere was to be three-times taller than the Empire State Building. ‘The dome’s skins, consisting of wire-reinforced, one-way-vision, shatterproof glass, mist-plated with aluminium, will,’ wrote Fuller, ‘have the exterior appearance of a mirrored dome.’ At a distance, the structural elements would become almost invisible, little more than a ‘glistening translucent form’.[2] The warm air inside the dome would provide lift, so the structure would not require a foundation: it could be tethered to the ground.

Fuller’s logic was environmental. The dome, he claimed, would conserve wasted energy spent heating the city in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer. Snow would melt off the dome’s electrically heated surface and rain would be drained in gutters and collected in reservoirs. Life inside would be a happy arcadia of outdoor restaurants and street art. The warm air that would gently lift the structure off the ground would also deliver a hospitable habit and a new sensibility. It was to be a high-tech antidote to the volatile, polluted atmosphere of the industrialised city.

Franz Kafka, fifty years earlier, in his novel Amerika had suggested that New York’s air formed its own atmospheric shell. He described it as ‘a confusion … of noises, dust and smells, all of it enveloped by a flood of light which the multitudinous objects in the street scattered, carried off and again busily brought back, with an effect as palpable to the dazzled eye as if a glass roof stretched over the street were being violently smashed into fragments in every moment.’[3] In 1965 Fuller’s hemisphere promised to restore Kafka’s metaphorical glass roof as a ‘shatterproof’ shelter.

Writing in 1965 he also hinted a darker dividend: ‘the dome would provide a prime shielding against atomic radiation fall-out, reducing the radiation effects of neighbouring regions’ atomic explosions to below lethal or critical impairment magnitude.’ Fuller even imagined that domes of prestressed and poststressed steel and concrete could be made so powerful that they could be covered with earth and become man-made, air conditioned mountains. Never described as such, these were surely nuclear bomb shelters on a gargantuan scale.

For much of the post-war period Manhattan had been the amygdala of America’s Cold War anxieties. Defence planning emerged as a new profession with a vested interest in predicting apocalypse. Ralph Lapp published a book in 1949 entitled Must We Hide? which offered a premonition of Fuller’s two-mile dome. Lapp overlaid a series of rings on a street plan of Manhattan to indicate the extent of destruction that would be caused by the explosion of an atomic bomb over Grand Central Station. This was no mere doodle: Lapp, a physicist, worked on the Manhattan Project, America’s nuclear weapons R&D programme which had been initiated at the end of the 1930s and climaxed in the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Manhattan was the first home of what became an extensive network of atomic cities – secret research and production sites – hidden across the country.

America’s ‘victory’ in the race to detonate the first atomic bomb was ultimately the cause of much home-grown paranoia. And when in 1949 Stalin detonated the first Soviet atomic bomb – nicknamed ‘Joe 1’ by the West – American fears began to seem more concrete. The nation was drawn ineluctably to its worst nightmare, albeit as entertainment. Take the 1952 B movie ‘Invasion USA’, a money-spinner for its maker, veteran director Alfred E. Green. An eccentric artefact of Cold War culture, it was a blend of stock footage, staged newscasts and romantic melodrama. In the film, the USA is invaded by an unnamed, but obviously Soviet, army. ‘They push the button and vast cities disappear before your eyes’ shrieked the film’s poster. And, on screen, like a strange analogue of Fuller’s dome, Manhattan disappears under a great arching nuclear hemisphere of death.

On screen, a ruined Manhattan is declared Soviet territory:

The People’s Government of America will take the wealth from the greedy, the speculators and the capitalist bourgeoisie and distribute it among the workers whose labour will ever again be exploited for the benefit of the warmongers of Wall Street. The People’s Government brings the citizens of New York a new freedom; a freedom based on order; a freedom based on loyalty to the leaders of the Party.

New York was to be Moscow on the Hudson. However, this radiant future lasts little more than a few hours before America fights back. The President promises the nation that the military is exacting vengeance on its enemy. For every enemy atom bomb detonated in the US, three are being dropped by Convair B-36 bombers in the socialist East.

Manhattan was target number one. Like the enriched uranium which formed the fissile material, Manhattan’s super-density magnified the terrifying effects of the bomb. Following a principle of au rebours, America’s defence planners predicted a future of dispersal and sprawl. Lapp, for instance, proposed new urban forms to diminish the effects of nuclear attack. They included the Rod City (fifty miles long and a mile wide) and the Donut City (chillingly empty at its heart).[4] Others proposed underground and under-water cities; places of refuge from the nuclear winter which followed in the wake of an attack. Architectural critic Lewis Mumford objected to such visions for imagining the unthinkable:

[Those] in the underground city … are the prey of compulsive fears and corrupt fantasies … and the more they devote themselves to adapting their urban environment to this possibility, the more surely they will bring on unrestricted collective genocide. . . the underground city threatens inconsequence to become the ultimate burial crypt of our incinerated civilization.[5]

From this perspective, Fuller’s glistening translucent hemisphere encouraged the incineration of the city it claimed to protect.

In 1965 – the year in which Fuller published his blueprint for Manhattan – Václav Cigler produced another impossible vision entitled ‘Mirror to the Town? No.’ A Czech artist living on the other side of the Cold War divide, Cigler was an early practitioner of Land Art, often using the medium of glass. He produced thick convex and concave glass lenses, sometimes cut with oblique edges and volumes, which produced unexpected distortions of the landscape in which they were placed. In the mid 1960s he created a series of cautionary images and environments. In one, he took an aerial view of Manhattan and superimposed the image of a monumental mirror. Bisecting the island, the mirror forms a new skyline and much of upper Manhattan is cast in deep shadow. In one sense this piece was an extension of his practice as a glass-maker: here was another kind of lens set into a landscape.

This and other montages have been described as the expression of a Pop sensibility in Czechoslovakia, and aligned with the output of the Italian design radicals, Superstudio.[6] The Italian architects famously imagined Manhattan locked into an enormous megastructure known as the ‘Continuous Monument’. This huge Cartesian network was to cover the surface of the world with brilliant white grid. This too was impossible architecture. These Florentine architects illustrated their conception of a ‘moderate utopia’ in a series of widely-reproduced montages. Riddled with irony, the Continuous Monument promised an egalitarian world community which eschewed consumerism and enjoyed a direct relationship with nature. This too was impossible architecture. Of ‘New York arranged by the Continuous Movement’, Superstudio wrote, ‘a bunch of ancient skyscrapers [will be] preserved in memory of a time when cities were built without a single plan’. The city was to be transformed into a ‘great plain of ice, clouds or sky.’[7]

By contrast, Cigler’s images were rather less euphoric. In a 1965 diptych, for instance, he represented an industrial plant on some dusty Soviet steppe or perhaps the lonely Nevada desert as if scorched by a nuclear flash, a brightness so powerful that at Nagasaki and Hiroshima it left its imprint burnt into city walls and etched people as shadows. A second image depicts the same site flushed with a wave of verdant energy. Technology could both ruin and heal the world.

Cigler’s urban mirrors hint at the dark side of Cold War modernity. The photographic image of the city from the air – employed by both Cigler and Fuller – occupied a central place in what Paul Virilio calls the ‘military field of perception’.[8] The constant surveillance from reconnaissance aeroplanes and spy satellites was a fact of Cold War life, despite the effort which was made to keep this technology secret. Invisible eyes, flying overhead to record life below, had, after all, become very visible in May 1960 when an U-2 spy plane was brought down over Sverdlovsk in the Soviet Union and its pilot, Gary Powers, paraded before the world’s cameras. Two years later in October 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis – an event which almost tipped the Cold War into nuclear war – was triggered by American air reconnaissance of Soviet surface-to-air missile sites on the island.

Cigler’s mirrors also testified to a new fear. He imagined them as great transmitters or shields which could bounce laser beams or electronic pulses from around and above the world. Whilst electronic communications had a more-or-less benign face in the form of the Western Telstar and Soviet Molniya satellites, Cold War military technologists in the mid 1960s – in the East and the West – were exploring the sinister possibilities of electronic warfare. They designed directed-beam laser weapons, ‘land-air dams’ to watch enemy movements and missiles fitted with video cameras so that ground controllers could home in on their targets from the safety of military bases. In representing defence as a mirror, Cigler anticipated what Virilio was later to call ‘light-war’, a conflict fought with weapons which threatened the world with their ‘piercing, unerring gaze.’

Manhattan may well have been the inspiration for bullish modernity for much of the twentieth century but Fuller and Cigler’s images – made in the wake of the most chilling episodes in the Cold War – point to its frailty. Their visions of the high-rise island overshadowed by yet larger defence structures were remarkably similar. The important difference was not one of symbolism but of context. After all, Cigler – a citizen of the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia – hardly followed the ‘party line’ on American warmongering and the Soviet commitment to peace. Neither image was anti-Soviet or, in fact, anti-American: they testify to a deep-seated and universal fear which was prompted by the militarisation of technology. Manhattan – the laboratory of modernity – was the ‘perfect’ territory for the incubation of anxiety.


[1] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (1978) (New York, 1994) 10

[2] Buckminster Fuller, ‘The Case for a Domed City’ in St. Louis Post Dispatch (26 September 1965) 39-41 – see

[3] Franz, Kafka, Amerika [1927] (London 1949) 50.

[4] Lapp, Must We Hide? (Boston, 1949) 157-68.

[5] Mumford, The City in History (new York, 1961) 481.

[6] Ludmila Hájková and Rostislav Švácha ‘Kde budeme žit zítra’ in Akce Slovo Pohyb Prostor. Experimenty v umění šedesátých let (exhibition catalogue edited by Vít Havránek, City Gallery Prague, 2000) 138.

[7] Superstudio, ‘The Continuous Movement: an Architectural Model for Total Urbanisation’ in Peter Lang and William Menking, eds., Superstudio. Life without Objects (Milan, 2003) 122

[8] Paul Virilio, Cinema and War. The Logistics of Perception (London, 1989) 69


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s