In the evolution of the 20th-century city, New York played a crucial role. Gotham haunted the imagination of everyone from John Dos Passos and H.G. Wells to Le Corbusier and the German Expressionist director Fritz Lang. A man-made colossus, it embodied in its concrete grid and in the tidal migrations of its pedestrians the very spirit and rhythm of the modern age.
By now, that affinity is so well known as to seem platitudinous. Less well known is that, half a century later, with the dawn of Postmodernism in the late 1970s, New York City would reassert its power over the minds of a new and very different generation of architects and writers. Pre-eminent among them was Rem Koolhaas, whose book "Delirious New York" defined this new feeling and can be taken as its manifesto. His highly influential text is now 30 years old, and its influence is being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, "Dreamland: Architectural Experiments since the 1970s," curated by Andres Lepik, together with Christian Larsen.
For some of us, it is an open question whether Mr. Koolhaas is a theoretician, which suggests a sustained and systematic point of view, or rather someone who has embraced the phenomenon of New York and of urban centers in general, with a new kind of enthusiasm that spills over into design. Three decades ago, what was new, if not entirely unique, about "Delirious New York" was a subjective, playful, almost spasmodic approach to urbanism that stood in direct contrast to the propeller-headed high-seriousness of the Modernists.
To an earlier generation, it was the regimented order of our grid plan and the mechanomorphic aesthetic of our skyscrapers that held out the promise of urban life as a well-oiled machine, as consummate social engineering. By the late 1970s, however, when New York had reached the perigee of its fortunes, when the very idea of the modern city had been widely discredited, Mr. Koolhaas and other young architects presumed to find in its chaos and danger an invigorating charm that could serve as a new and desirable model for social interaction. As a result, there are a great many oddities in the present MoMA exhibition; scenes of Piranesian devastation, earthquakes, and topsy-turvy distortions that celebrate New York's clamorous and ungovernable diversity.
Fantastic architectural drawings surely did not begin to be made in the 1970s. The first image you see on entering this exhibition is a work of Hugh Ferris, from the 1930s, a typically moody and darksome exercise in the noir style that he pioneered. But that work is unique in this exhibition. Far more typical is a painting by Madelon Vriesendorp, the wife and colleague of Mr. Koolhaas, in which the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building are lying enervated upon a bed, presumably after having just made out. That presumption is supported by a short animated cartoon that Mr. Lepik discovered and included in this show, in which the two skyscrapers are doing exactly that.
In another, even earlier work by Mr. Koolhaas, from 1972, "The City of the Captive Globe Project," we see a riotous variety of architectural types set into an exact grid resembling the one Le Corbusier conceived for his "ville radieuse." But here Mr. Koolhaas's point is exactly opposite to Le Corbusier's. Mr. Koolhaas seems to argue that New York, the postmodern city par excellence, is not defined by uniformity but by the unsystematic collision of unnumbered architectural styles.
"Dreamland" is made up entirely of works from the museum's own collection. It includes images and collages by some of the most visionary architectural draftsmen of the past generation, among them Raimund Abraham, Daniel Libeskind, Steven Holl, Peter Eisenmann, and Zaha Hadid. There are even entries by more straitlaced practitioners, among them Paul Rudolph, who was really a Modernist fully a generation or two older than the men and women in this show, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the one firm that, more than any other, defined the look of postwar Manhattan.
In the "Dreamland" exhibition, the drawings hang along the walls of the Robert B. Menschel Architecture and Design Gallery, on the third floor. But in the center of the room, on a raised platform, are two dozen architectural models, many of them corresponding to projects that have actually been built. It should come as no surprise that these models tend to feel far more earthbound and conservative than the drawings. Whether in SHoP Architects's design for the Museum of Sex in New York City or Lindy Roy's PoolHouse in Sagaponac, N.Y., or Diller + Scofidio's Slow House project in North Haven, N.Y., we see the return of a begrudging respect for the laws of gravity and something like architectural coherence.
Still, the mood of these projects has been directly affected by the antic spirit of Mr. Koolhaas's 30-year-old book, even if New York City itself, the town that inspired his meditations in the first place, has fewer imaginative monuments of this sort than most other important cities in the developed world.