Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00

NEW YORK GOTHAM CITY

The idea that there is a close connection between New York and the so called Gothic subculture might, at first sight, seem unlikely for many reasons. In fact, firstly this subculture was born in 11land between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, and sprung from the Punk movement. At the time it was even called Post-punk. It seems that in those years its effects in the United States were felt more in California than on the East Coast. It reached its peak a decade later, above all in Germany and the Northern European countries, where a controversy developed regarding its ideological orientation towards the extreme right. Moreover, regarding youth fashion and rock music, the Gothic subculture does not seem to have any relationship with Postmodernism, that in the 1980s was the main cultural movement of the American universities (unless one can find a link between the re-evaluation of the notion of the sublime carried out by Postmodernism and the experience of fright and horror). However, within the field of humanistic culture, neobaroque and even neomanierism have gained a lot of attention, whereas not the same can be said about a Neogothic trend containing novel elements as regards to the past.
The relationship between New York and the Neogothic is instead more reliable. As is well-known, New York was called Gotham City since the end of the eighteenth century. This was connected to a legend that since the Middle Ages had been ascribed to the inhabitants of an 11lish town bearing the same name. The inhabitants in fact were alleged to behave weirdly and extravagantly, but not without being cunning so as to avoid paying their taxes by pretending to be stupid. It seems that it was the American writer Washington Irving who gave this nickname to New York at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the city was starting to gain a great economic and commercial importance, which however was not matched by its low intellectual life. It is an eighteenth century cliché the opposition between the eccentric and chaotic New York and the tidy and rational Philadelphia.
If we turn from legends to architecture, the relationship between New York and Neogothic is not less original. Anticipated by the construction of Trinity Church (1846) and the pillars of Brooklyn Bridge (1869-1883) the profusion of neogothic architecture in New York seems a late and epigonic phenomenon in contrast with the European Gothic Revival which took place in the first half of the nineteenth century. In fact most of the Neogothic buildings, amongst which the Trinity and U.S. Realty Buildings (1904-7), Liberty Tower (1909-10), the renowned Woolworth Building (1913-30), the New York Life Insurance Company Building (1926-1928), were built in New York between 1905 and 1930, therefore much later than in Europe and with entirely different aesthetic intentions from the European ones. In Europe two completely diverse interpretations of Neogothic lived side by side and in opposition to one another: the moral one, that sees in this trend the architectural expression of good, truth and religious transcendence (developed by Augustus W. Pugin and John Ruskin); and the the cursed one which sprung up in literary romanticism (already set forth in the eighteenth century by Edmund Burke in the feeling of delightful horror, which found its main American literary contribution in Edgar Allan Poe). Regarding Neogothic architecture in New York, neither of the two interpretations seem suitable, because it is the expression of a commercial culture inspired by the will to power that is neither institutional nor alternative. Even though in the eighteenth century the painter Erastus Salisbury Field had already depicted in his colossal work The Historical Monument of the American Republic (1876-1888) a fantastic city inspired by Babel Tower, made of enormous buildings decorated with statues and sculptures, this gigantic artwork - as Sarah Maclaren has maintained - belongs more to the aesthetic category of magnificence than to the Neogothic one. In fact the American institutional architecture continued to be profoundly linked to a neoclassical model until the 1930s; public buildings prefer horizontal positions to vertical ones, that are considered the expression par excellence of the industrial and financial power. In this regard, William R. Taylor quotes the 1931 Regional Plan that prescribed a horizontal position for buildings designated to offer public services. However in the 1930s Lewis Mumford and other progressive town planners had already expressed extremely negative opinions on Manhattan considering it as a cemented chaos, a chaotic accidentality, a den of dirt and obsessive advertising competition; this opinion was later on resumed and developed in the classic work on American town-planning The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs.
After 1930 the allure for the Gothic ends up in cinema and in Pulp journalism, of which it is quite a prominent aspect. Many films belonging to the horror genre take place in New York from the renowned King King (1933) until today. Neogothic goes from pulp, cinema, comics and architectural culture of the early twentieth century to mass culture production for which the term subculture is not suitable, because it implies the idea of social marginality, whereas it creates products that are widely spread. I would like to coin the word paraculture, in its double meaning implied in the Greek preposition para that means ”next to, near”, but also ”from” thus suggesting coexistence, derivation and origin.
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