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#186: Lake of Fire
One of my favorite recent Substacks has been On the Spectrum, On the Guest List, which its author describes as “a serialized account of my fish-out-of-watering through New York City’s VIP party circuit.” That doesn’t quite do it justice though. It’s a sprawling, witty, sociological exploration of one of New York’s countless alternate realities—the archipelago of nightclubs like Tao, Lavo, Marquee, and other vectors of NYC-Vegas quantum entanglement—by someone who is brand new to it all yet able to fully immerse herself and even enjoy the experience, remaining just detached enough to make a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of what she’s witnessing. It’s the rare Substack where the writing feels native to the medium and less like a series of essays or blog posts that happen to be emailed (the final issue just went out today). One of the newsletter’s most distinct motifs is subterranean imagery: The first issue recounts the author’s descent into Tao, passing the bouncer “awkwardly situated right up against the bottom step of the steep stairs that lead down into the sunken entryway…A very dark, stubby hallway later, I behold the main floor, which ups the ante on the sunkenness considerably. Vaguely Compactor 3263827-feeling, with the rough brick walls that glow reddish-orangish in the lights scattered about.” In a subsequent issue, at another nightclub in Midtown: “We’re very underground—I spiraled down at least four flights’ worth of marble stairs…Can’t wait to party it up at M42 next week. Very cavernous in here, too. Caverns, it’s always caverns.”
Elite subterranean space is not a part of New York’s architectural narrative. But there is necessarily more of it than you think. The skyscraper is the primary visual symbol of a city synonymous with verticality, and the punishing scarcity of interior space constantly tempts us to assume most important events unfold out in the open—that Manhattan’s colossal reef of concrete, steel, and glass isn’t merely the tip of a much larger iceberg. When the city needs more space it expands upward, leaving the underground available for infrastructure and mole people. In London, where comparable expansion is frequently blocked by the city’s heritage designations, they excavate, creating “iceberg homes” with massive multi-level basements stuffed full of luxurious amenities—swimming pools, cinemas, and wine cellars. Back in the United States, the increasingly dogmatic YIMBY movement laments the rigidity of surface-hugging, housing-constrained cities like San Francisco, begging for more residential square footage in the form of dense, vertical construction. Above ground is the obvious place for that, where it only displaces air: Rem Koolhaas writes in Delirious New York that “Manhattan has no choice but the skyward extrusion of the grid itself; only the Skyscraper offers business the wide-open spaces of a man-made Wild West, a frontier in the sky.” Within that unprecedented context, each separate building, and each separate floor, was able to become its own self-contained artificial universe. “Then the man-made territories of the frontier in the sky could be settled by the Irresistible Synthetic to establish alternative realities on any level.” The city’s appearance of publicness and openness, in other words, is just the ornamentation for a byzantine tangle of private spaces—its true driving force.
To build downward rather than upward, then, is to backtrack from the heavenly frontier, or to admit that frontier has somehow closed. The cellar “is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces,” Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Space. “When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.” Below ground is the urban organism’s id—a perfect place for a nightclub. Even better if it’s a club like Tao that formalizes the Las Vegas connection. In 1972 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown described Las Vegas casino architecture as “big low space”—the “archetype for all public interior spaces whose heights are diminished for reasons of budget and air conditioning.” A 20th-century creation, Las Vegas emerged in the desert, unconstrained by the path dependence of pre-automobile urban design as well as the geography that obstructs development in more temperate landscapes. Manhattan doesn’t have much room for big low space but it can still attempt its own version, wherever it fits. “Perhaps we should admit that our cathedrals are the chapels without the nave,” Venturi and Brown write. “Apart from theaters and ball parks, the occasional communal space that is big is a space for crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other.” That sort of space was perfected elsewhere, out west, and now New York can learn from it and even import it. The city’s density makes it poorly suited to accommodate the expansive version, but we nonetheless demand it. There’s always more room underground.
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More subterranean lore: In Dirt, Samantha Culp explores the internet’s obsession with liminal spaces and the fascinating evolution of the “Backrooms” meme. As one Reddit user put it: “The back rooms was such a cool and creepy concept at the beginning but 12 year olds decided to make it not creepy anymore by adding monsters and shit into it.”
The legendary urbanist and Los Angeles historian Mike Davis recently entered palliative care after a long battle with cancer. Patrick Redford wrote a great tribute to him in the Defector. I recommend checking out City of Quartz and Planet of Slums (but also anything the man has written). I riffed on the latter book in this post from a couple years ago (paywalled for subscribers).
Yet another troubled, cryptocurrency-oriented effort to build a new city from scratch, “somewhere in the Mediterranean.”