Certain themes of Jugendstil are derived from technological
forms. Thus the profiles of iron supports that appear
on the façades. (S8,6, p. 557)
Author's Note As seen above, the use of modern themes helped
to forge a link between the modern architecture and the
modern world. Just as Victor Horta employed cast iron
beams on the facades of his Austrian town houses, so too
did Manhattan architects incorporate modern materials.
Lintels and window frames blossomed with aluminum flowers
and metallic pilasters articulated the buildings’
surfaces. These details forge a link between structures
like Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank in Vienna and
Van Allen’s Chrysler Building in New York: both
celebrated industrial materials, bringing iron and steel
out of the internal cage of the structure and displaying
it upon the surface of the building.
The desire was to create a style out of thin air. Foreign
influences favored the ‘modern style,’ which
was almost entirely inspired by floral décor….
It was at this moment that [the city] acquired those
buildings and monuments which were so strange and so
little in accord with the older city. (Dubech and d’Espezel,
Historie de Paris, quoted in S2a,5, p. 548)
Author's Note "With its artists aware that the old worldviews
were being revoked, discredited, or at least challenged,
[Jugendstil] took sustenance from the current theories
of physical, political and social science" (Howard,
"Art Nouveau," p. 3). Similarly, Van Allen’s Chrysler
building drew upon the surrounding society, with motifs
derived from automotive parts and metallic surfaces reflecting
the reintroduction of aluminum into industrial manufacture.
The innovative building’s decorative program instantly
set it apart from other New York structures, thus the
building also seemed born from thin air. But all across
the city, modernist structures rose, each with zigzags,
floral bands, and setbacks. These buildings towered over
their older neighbors and ignored Beaux-Art traditions.
Dubech and d’Espezel called the modern style, in
architecture and literature, "pretentious;"
a view held by many critics in 1930s New York towards
their modern structures. Yet, Dubech and d’Espezel
recognized the power of the style to reform the Parisian
landscape. They even lamented the fact that the best modern
designers fled to England after the Commune (Benjamin,
[S2a, 5] p548-549).
Novelty. The cult of novelty. The new is one of those
poisonous stimulants which end up becoming more necessary
than any food: drugs which, once they get a hold on
us, need to be taken in progressively larger doses until
they are fatal, though we’d die without them.
It is a curious habit—growing thus attached to
that perishable part of things in which precisely their
novelty consists. (Paul Valéry, Choses tues,
quoted in S10, 6, p. 560)
Author's Note One of the driving forces behind the Empire State
building was its novelty. It was the highest, largest,
most innovative structure of its time. And yet, it was
a financial failure. This history expresses the danger
of novelty: the builders became intoxicated with the lure
of constructing the tallest building in the world, irrespective
of the realities of finding tenants for such a large space
located in an undesirable neighborhood. The novelty of
the Empire State Building was also a fashion. As Du Camp
noted: "Fashion is the recherche—the always
vain, often ridiculous, sometimes dangerous quest—for
a superior ideal beauty" (Du Camp, quoted in B2,3,
p. 66). In fashion, the novel and the beautiful and the
dangerous collide. The Empire State building’s tower
epitomizes the urge of novelty. In plan, the building
was not the tallest in the city. But the intoxicating
drive for height caused the architect to add a mooring
mast for dirigibles. This in itself played into the cult
of novelty. The building became a beacon for a novel future
where dirigibles, laden with urbanites, floated through
the skyscraping city. This infectious view of the modern
is best realized in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 film
Madame Satan, which culminates on a zeppelin moored to
an Art Deco tower.
History is like Janus: it has two faces. Whether
it looks to the past or to the present, it sees the
same things. (Maxime Du Camp, Paris, quoted in Benjamin,
The Arcades Project, p. 543, S1, 1)
Author's Note History is a circle, with no beginning or end.
This image elucidates Du Camp’s quote by blending
a photograph from the 1930s with one from the 1990s. More
than half a century of time shows no change. Just like
fashion, which exists in a constant state of fluctuation
yet never really changes, history constantly creates the
future in the image of the past (Benjamin, B1,4, p. 63).
All that is novel is simultaneously retrospective. History
must look backwards in order to accept the future, and
in this manner, every innovation, every seemingly blunt
break with the past, exhibits the influence of and dedication
to history. In this manner, Benjamin’s words written
about Paris in the nineteenth century apply to New York
in the twentieth century, as each city is part of the
same human cycle.
Multi-Media Essay Notes To help bridge the space between art and scholarship
each author has put together a series of notes to
his and her film.
These include the voiced-over words of Benjamin
(Narration) with appropriate
citation, other text where appropriate, and a discussion of the author's
intent (Author's Note).
Painting, Jugendstil, Novelty Notes
There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself
to be "modern" in the sense of eccentric,
and did not believe itself to be standing directly before
an abyss. The desperately clear consciousness of being
in the middle of a crisis is something chronic in humanity.
Every age unavoidably seems to itself a new age. The
"modern," however, is a varied in its meanings
as the different aspects of one and the same kaleidoscope.
(S1a,4 p. 545)
Author's Note Every society sees itself as modern, as coming
at the end of history’s continuum. From this self-conscious
realization of modernity also stems a panic. Benjamin’s
abyss is the unknown future: if the present society is
the apotheosis of modern, then what comes next? Benjamin
notes that this cycle of "epochal upheaval"
cannot be bound to a single time, though. It occurred
in the nineteenth century just as it did during the Reformation
(S1a,8, p. 546, ). This constant mediation between pride
and trepidation is inherent to the human view of the surrounding
This section provides a kaleidoscope of images associated
with the modern in New York. The separation between objects
and buildings collapses as each conveys a similar message
of modernity in their forms. The modern impresses itself
upon every aspect of the physical world, creating a gesamtkunstwerk
where buildings and bookcases, lamps and clothes dialogue
with each other. As Benjamin’s contemporary Le Corbusier
noted: "at every moment either directly, or through
the medium of newspapers and reviews, we are presented
with objects of an arresting novelty whose why and wherefore
engrosses our minds and fills us with delight and fear.
All these objects of modern life create, in the long run,
a modern state of mind" (Le Corbusier, Frederick
Etchells, trans., "Towards a New Architecture" ( New York,
1931, p. 276). This constant bombardment of images closely
resembles Benjamin’s own insights into the experience
of the flâneur, who takes in the eternal flow of
images from the world around him (see D. Baudelaire, or
the Streets of Paris). The modern is exuberant yet frightening,
for it sees itself as civilization’s culmination.
Yet, with time, this modernity ages and gives way to a
new modernity, and the cycle continues.
The dreaming collective knows no history. Events pass
before it as always the identical and always new. The
sensation of the newest and most modern is, in fact,
just as much a dream formation of events as 'the eternal
return of the same.' The perception of space that corresponds
to the perception of time is the interpenetrating and
superposed transparency of the world of the flâneur.
(Benjamin, S2,1, p. 546)
Author's Note The cycle of history lulls the populace into a
dream. "Because the collective unconscious is…a
deposit of world-processes embedded in the structure of
the brain and the sympathetic nervous system, it constitutes…a
sort of timeless and eternal world-image which counterbalances
our conscious, momentary picture of the world" (C.G.
Jung, quoted in Benjamin, K6,1, p. 399, ). Because the
past and present collapse in the minds of the collective,
they are not aware of history. They move through the world
in a dream state that buffers them from the flux of reality.
Benjamin asserts that the dreaming collective stands on
the verge of awakening: a flash of consciousness that
elucidates the surrounding world and even one’s
own sense of history. This awakening is likened to a Copernican
revolution. In the Copernican system the sun stood
at the center of the universe, orbited by the earth and
other planets. The introduction of this system negated
the institutionalized Ptolemaic system, which sited the
earth as the fixed center of the solar system. Even though
the Copernican system proved correct, its introduction
unsettled the tenants of science. A similar disorientation
would occur with the awakening of the collective. Instead,
the collective continues to live in a dream state where
events continually reoccur ([K1,2,] 388-389).
Here, the repetition of similar images invokes this repetition
of history. Time even collapses as a city street crowd
from the 1990s is transposed upon a crowd from the 1930s.
This juxtaposition shows that nothing has intrinsically
changed, only the clothes and buildings but not the actions.
The passage of time is only superficial.
Jugendstil is the second attempt on the part of art
to come to terms with technology. The first attempt
was realism…. Jugendstil no longer saw itself
threatened by the competing technology. And so the confrontation
with technology that lies hidden within it was all the
more aggressive. Its recourse to technological motifs
arises from the effort to sterilize them ornamentally.
(S8a,1, p. 557, )
Narration In this re-evaluation of "The Arcades Project",
Jugendstil translates into Art Deco. Both styles came
to epitomize their epochs and sought to come to terms
with technology through art. "Responding to the
advances of the modern age and its spirit of change,
the movement rejected the slavish copying of past styles,
and preferred the selection and manipulation of that
relevant to the present" (Jeremy Howard, "Art
Nouveau" (Manchester and New York, 1996,), p. 3).
Similarly, Art Deco turned away from the past, embracing
an iconography inspired by the mechanized world around
it. Here, Cross and Cross’s 1930-1931 RCA Building
serves as an ideal example of Art Deco’s application
of technological motifs. The ornament blends radio-derived
symbolism with Byzantine details, echoing nearby St.
Bartholomew’s church. The appropriation of technology
is beautifully displayed in the ground-floor tympanum.
Here, a hand seizes a lightening bolt. The hand, man,
captures electricity, subduing the formless power into
a decorative element. The image celebrates the potential
of electricity while simultaneously nullifying its power
through its integration into a decorative program.