Norman Mailer's LEGO Vision of New York
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February 18, 1965, Vol. X, No. 18
Mailer's Castle: Far Out, Way Up, and Swinging
By Mary Nichols
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From where novelist Norman Mailer sits, the cityscape -- the big scene -- is getting more dreadful all the time. He broods over the Manhattan skyline with all the protectiveness of a mother hen. His perch is the top floor of a house on Columbia Heights, the strip of Brooklyn Heights that looks out on that most magnificent artifact of them all -- Lower Manhattan. "There," he pointed to the left of the box-like Chase Manhattan Bank, "there's where that two-towered thing is going to deface the skyline." He spoke of the projected World Trade Center, the most massive monument to business yet conceived by man.
Mailer, who has been politically engaged for some years -- he almost ran for Mayor in 1961 -- believes that the time is coming when "architecture will become one of the most important things in politics." The architects don't know this yet, Mailer says, because "they are a priesthood and they only talk to each other." The stocky, curly-haired writer stopped, grinned impishly, and remarked, "I haven't seen an architect yet with a mop of hair! Crewcuts! They all look like they've been designed by Mies van der Rohe."
Mailer is a man to put his money where his mouth is. After a year or so of slamming away at the modern "Kleenex box" school of architecture, Mailer decided to demonstrate the kind of city he thinks architects should be building. Using children's building blocks with aluminum beams here and there to provide structural support, he built a six-foot sculptural model of his dream city. His creation, which was done with the help of Provincetown builder Eldred Mowery, rests on a wooden pedestal in his living room, with the panorama of Manhattan as a background. It has the haphazard shape of a child's drip castle in the sand. Or, as Mailer likes to point out, of a mountain village that just grew that way.
Mailer's dream city uses the basic technique of modern architecture, a mass-produced prefabricated element throughout. Here it would be a box girder, 50 by 25 by 12 feet, inside which the construction, a single apartment, would be built. Yet with such a standardized unit (represented by Lego blocks in the model), Mailer shows that an enormous variety of styles and moods can be obtained -- Gothic and Romanesque arches, baroque turrets, minarets, ziggurats, formal towers for formal-type people as well as swaying cantilevered apartments for the more bohemian taste. There is the isolation of hard-to-get-to apartments for those who would be isolate, and there are convenient apartments for those who prefer to hurry through life. The great city-structure he visualizes would be 3000 feet high and house 60,000 people.
In the summer, Mailer says, his city would be a tropical paradise "with all sorts of wonderful bright colors, beach umbrellas on terraces, people sunning themselves, all sorts of music." Mailer's city would be extraordinary in winter, too. "Think of it after a snowstorm," said Mailer ecstatically. "You'd think you were living in the Alps."
Those cantilevered apartments, by the way, would be safe enough, volunteered architect Mailer, but they would sway a bit in the high wind. "Those apartments," said Mailer, an impish grin again "could be for a special type of person." For furnishings, he suggested ship's furniture all nailed down. The idea of calling up people and saying, "Come on over -- there's going to be a big blow tonight," somehow appealed to him. That heady feelings of being blown back and forth in the wind would be heightened by the fact that these way-out apartments were 175 to 200 stories in the air.
The number of apartments in the building, Mailer noted, would approximate the new 15,000-unit Co-op City recently announced by city officials for the Freedomland site in the Bronx. But Mailer thinks that his radically different kind of city would give people a sense of "a particular place" that the barracks-type of architecture of middle- and low-income projects cannot give.
Mailer has a few architectural ideas that would undoubtedly set New York City Building Commissioner Birns' hair on end. Like the idea of getting out of one's apartment, say at the 150th floor, by sliding down a cable. The cable would have a belt attached for the slider to lock around himself, a brake, and an extra emergency brake. But now and then, Mailer admits quite genially, the cable would break and an adventurous citizen would be lost. For the more timid, there would be other ways of getting in and out of one's apartment -- elevators, conveyor belts, and even, if one was in need of a lot of exercise, steps.
The Mailer home is itself architecturally unique. There are a variety of rope ladders and swinging ropes hanging from the ceiling, peekholes, and portholes which give it a nautical effect.
It was clear from his apartment and his sculptured city that Mailer liked wind, sea, and ships. Again, mock serious: "I first got involved with ships when I put on a yachting cap for 'Advertisements for Myself.'" (The jacket has a photo of Mailer.)
The airy effect that he prides himself on in his city is related to his distaste for air conditioning, which he finds anti-human. He notes that just about every apartment has a three- or four-way draft and that most of them are above the smog level. He becomes serious when he talks about modern architecture's "monotonous environment," which, he believes, "increases the violence of mood." Modern buildings with their endless halls increase violence, he says. The Dallas airport ramps disturb him "with their plastic walls and ceilings, the endless hum of air conditioning." "I'm not giving this as an explanation of the assassination," he said in an aside, but he allowed that the air-conditioned nightmare could have been part of the preconditioning for the murder.
He noted that his 2000-story building could be built in Dallas as well as in New York. "It would be a great place for snipers," he remarked with a grin. Reminded that his kind of architecture was supposed to be an antidote to violence, he said, "Oh, well, the sniping there would probably level off after about 10 years."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]
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