The Metropolitan Life in Ruins <i>Architectural and Fictional Speculations in New York, 1893–1919</i>

in Untimely Ruins

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print February 2010 | ISBN: 9780226946634
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226946658 | DOI:
The Metropolitan Life in Ruins Architectural and Fictional Speculations in New York, 1893–1919

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In 1909, Metropolitan Life, the world's largest life insurer, completed the tallest tower in New York and in America. Shortly thereafter, the magnificent building suffered a series of catastrophes, such as being struck by the tail of a comet, exposed to poisonous gases, and submerged under an ocean. Despite these debacles, the building somehow remained standing in apparent perpetuity. The motif of the ruin became firmly identified with the emerging genre of science fiction and the skyscrapers of New York City. The notion of modern skyscrapers as antiquated ruins was belied by Manhattan's economic geography. The skyscraper's lifespan appeared to be limited by economic even more than technological and aesthetic obsolescence. Critics who coined the terms “doctrine of the scrap heap” or “perpetual motion quest,” which anticipate later critiques of creative destruction, remained largely ambivalent about, rather than overtly critical of, the skyscraper's troubled economic status. One writer who held architecture to higher standards and denounce the reduction of the office building to an economic problem was Henry James.

Keywords: Metropolitan Life; skyscrapers; New York City; science fiction; obsolescence; creative destruction; Henry James; office building; doctrine of the scrap heap

Chapter.  16611 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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