Prometheus Unmasked

Two reissued classics of New Deal literature, “Black Metropolis” and “Modern Housing,” deserve new attention from architects and urbanists.

Prometheus, Rockefeller Center, New York, July 2020.
Prometheus, Rockefeller Center, New York, July 2020. [Courtesy of Anthony Quintano © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

Sometime in mid-June 2020, as protesters across the United States dethroned monuments to white supremacy, the sculptures adorning the grounds of New York’s Rockefeller Center were fitted with blue surgical masks. Among them was the figure of Prometheus, gilded and unbound, as portrayed in 1934 by the sculptor Paul Manship. Despite the mask, it is not difficult to recognize the whiteness of Manship’s Prometheus, a characteristic that is confirmed when we learn that the model who sat for the figure was Leonardo Nole, a lifeguard from New Rochelle, New York, whose Italian-American heritage had only recently joined the ranks of racial privilege. 1 The Prometheus myth, in which the Titan who defied Zeus by delivering fire to humankind is forever bound in punishment, is also in no small degree the myth of the modern architect and of modern planning. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas rewrote that myth by casting Rockefeller Center’s commercial architects as capitalist heroes: Wallace Harrison as Howard Roark.

Many scholars, educators, and students concerned with racial and economic justice are now ferociously debating the content of syllabi on which books like Delirious New York and other period apologias like Learning from Las Vegas (by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour) have long been fixtures. These titles may well remain unchallenged, not least for their genuine insight but also as units of ideological currency that still underwrite professional careers. To some readers, such books may seem mere curiosities, momentary and even enjoyable distractions from more serious matters, rather than the durably hegemonic depictions of architecture and the American city that they are.

Delirious New York is an unapologetic rebuke of the New Deal and an unsubtle repudiation of the European welfare state.

For example: When read across the grain of its 1930s setting, Delirious New York is an unapologetic rebuke — the creative, life-affirming struggle of real estate development against the chains of government regulation — to the New Deal public planning that, for all its racial exclusions, sought to dampen what John Maynard Keynes called capitalism’s “animal spirits.” Between its lines, Koolhaas’s book also represents an unsubtle repudiation of the European welfare state and its architects, including the author’s immediate Dutch predecessors, and of the earnest provision of housing and other public goods for what that earlier generation called the “greater number.” To seal the deal, the book’s message of rebirth, composed in New York during the 1970s, awkwardly ignores the racial strife that had been roiling American cities for the past century. Despite its manifest irony, Delirious New York deserves our renewed scrutiny today because it is actively not about public planning, social housing, or Black life. Full of energy, the technological triumph of big business for which Rockefeller Center stands is precisely what racial capitalism looks like, with or without a mask.

The same Promethean fire that powers the great skyscraper machine also forged the chains that have long bound the Titan’s subordinated human kin laboring in the machine’s guts. Among these chains at Rockefeller Center is the system of cables and pulleys that guided the dozens of elevators and their operators shuttling office workers up and down the vertical monoliths — the RCA Building and its companions — from which the complex was assembled. Students of architecture will remember such elevators as the internal dynamos propelling what Koolhaas called “Manhattanism.” Careful readers might also recognize in them a symbolic redemption — via the white-collar “culture of congestion” — of the high-rise building and its technologies, which had in those years been charged with architecture’s version of a crime against humanity — with the broken-down skip-stop elevators of the racially segregated, underfunded Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis as Exhibit A.

The New Deal era in which Rockefeller Center rose has acquired new relevance to anyone concerned with recovery from crisis, even as Delirious New York shows its neoliberal age.

Today, the New Deal era in which Rockefeller Center rose has acquired new relevance to anyone concerned with recovery from crisis, even as Delirious New York begins to show its neoliberal age. To those in architecture or urbanism who are thinking, then, about what to read or what to teach instead, two recently republished New Deal classics stand out. These are Modern Housing, by Catherine Bauer, from 1934, reissued this year by the University of Minnesota Press with a new foreword by Barbara Penner; and Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, from 1945, reissued in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press with a new foreword by Mary Pattillo. 2 With students’ reading time more limited than ever, it would be naïve simply to add these two volumes to existing lists. It would also be downright disingenuous to pretend that their measured anti-capitalism can (or should) be offset — just to be fair — with a dash of Koolhaasian Kool-Aid. Given the take-no-prisoners posture of the latter, no symmetrical, pedagogical balance can be achieved here. As a thought experiment, then, I suggest an asymmetrical agon: readers and teachers must prioritize one or the other. If the combined 1,357 social-scientific pages of the two reprints are weighed against the 263 heavily illustrated, telegraphic pages of witty retro-manifesto, the outcome may seem predictable enough.

Black Metropolis was recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press (left); the book was originally published in 1945 (right).
Black Metropolis was recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press (left); the book was originally published in 1945 (right).

But there is good reason to think that the pages may yet turn. Black Metropolis has long occupied a place of honor on urban studies syllabi. Its authors combine the imaginative, methodical discipline of Chicago School urban sociology with the razor-sharp critical legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois. Richard Wright’s poignant introduction to the 1945 original is reason enough to open the volume, which documents Black lives and Black space on Chicago’s South Side, while Pattillo’s new foreword follows some of those lives into the surrounding suburbs, and reports on the heightened precarity of others within the inner urban district known as Bronzeville. More a reference work mapped along Du Bois’s “color line” than a narrative of urban life per se, Black Metropolis stands beside, but also in opposition to, those portraits of the modern metropolis that have, since Georg Simmel, elevated White males, differentiated by class, ethnicity, and religion, as the archetypal subjects of critical urban sociology. To such portrayals, Du Bois’s landmark study of 1899, The Philadelphia Negro, was already a defiant rejoinder.

Black Metropolis combines the imaginative discipline of Chicago School urban sociology with the razor-sharp critical legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois.

Black Metropolis was the outcome of a decade-long study carried out by a large team of researchers at the University of Chicago directed by Cayton, a sociologist of Black labor, and W. Lloyd Warner, an anthropologist and sociologist who supplied the book’s concluding “methodological note.” Drake, a graduate student in anthropology at the time, contributed participant observation and co-wrote the final manuscript with Cayton. The Works Progress Administration, a storied New Deal agency, funded the research; a publication grant from the Rosenwald Fund supported the writing. 3 Wright, whose wrenching memoir Black Boy, also published in 1945, documents his northward journey from Mississippi to what Drake and Cayton call Midwest Metropolis (Chicago), belonged also to these circles. His introduction describes the book as “a scientific report upon the state of unrest, longing, hope among urban Negroes” that warns of uprisings to come. It was written, Wright says, “to aid white people in knowing the facts of urban Negro life” and to recognize the “all-too-human” character of that life. 4 The authors’ introduction, illustrated with Chicago School-style charts and diagrams, dispassionately outlines the salient characteristics of Midwest Metropolis. The book’s three main sections move from historical background, to a multi-dimensional study of the political and economic “color line” on Chicago’s South Side, to the cultural life of Bronzeville. A fourth section contains supporting materials, along with appendices to two subsequent editions. In the first of these, in 1961, the authors included updated data on the consolidation of Chicago’s “Black ghetto” during the postwar boom; in the second, a postscript from 1969 describes racial violence as both “spectre” and “spur,” and meditates on the rise of Black Power. None of this has lost its relevance.

The opening case for Bauer’s Modern Housing is both simpler and more elusive. Written by a relatively recent Vassar graduate in art history who would become a key protagonist in the development of U.S. housing policy, Modern Housing argues straightforwardly for the emulation, in the United States during the Depression, of European social democratic housing programs and their architecture. Bauer’s book draws on material she collected while touring Europe with Lewis Mumford on assignment for Fortune magazine. Mumford’s name has frequently overshadowed hers in accounts of the American reception of modernist doxa, documented for example in the pair’s contribution on European housing to the 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art under the watchful eyes of Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson. Bauer’s political voice, however, leaned more straightforwardly left than Mumford’s; respectful as she was of Mumford’s mentor, Patrick Geddes, she was also less inclined than he was to get caught up in the romantic, naturalizing organicism that tainted Geddes’s urban geography.

Modern Housing was reissued this year by University of Minnesota Press (left); the book was first published in 1934 (right).
Modern Housing was reissued this year by University of Minnesota Press (left); the book was first published in 1934 (right).

Prior to the publication of Modern Housing, Bauer was a labor organizer; in 1933 she became executive secretary of the Labor Housing Conference. The book’s success gave Bauer the means to connect her labor activism with her advocacy for a federal public housing program that would provide well-paying, union jobs in construction and related areas. The National Housing Act of 1934 had established the Federal Housing Administration mainly to insure private mortgages for White homeowners. In 1935, Bauer’s work with national and local union leaders placed her in an influential position during Congressional negotiations over a second, more inclusive federal housing bill that began with an LHC draft. The bill’s original sponsor, Pennsylvania Representative Henry Ellenbogen, was a Jewish Austrian émigré familiar with Vienna’s social democratic housing program, which Bauer had praised in her book. But the politics were multi-dimensional. Even after the more conservative Southern Democrat Henry B. Steagall replaced Ellenbogen as co-sponsor, Bauer and her LHC colleagues had to cajole the bill’s other sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, into fully backing the measure that would eventually bear his name. Bauer, a de facto feminist who regularly faced the misogyny prevalent in policymaking’s back rooms, was among the final bill’s lead authors. In 1937, the U.S. Housing Act, or the Wagner-Steagall Act, established the United States Housing Authority under the Department of the Interior, which was led by the powerful New Dealer Harold Ickes. The USHA’s mandate was to assist states and municipalities in providing “decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income,” along with jobs and an economic stimulus, backed up by an initial bond authorization of $500 million that was quickly increased to $800 million 5

The White violence that stalks nearly every page of Black Metropolis is barely visible in Modern Housing.

Reading Modern Housing today — in a time of social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine, when housing is a form of healthcare — we might associate Bauer’s policy work with left-progressive legislative proposals to renew and expand the country’s public housing stock. I am thinking of current proposals like the Green New Deal for Public Housing, sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, which proposes energy-efficient upgrades to all existing public housing; and the Homes for All Act, sponsored by Representative Ilhan Omar, which proposes the construction of 9.5 million new public housing units. One difference between then and now, however, is that both of these recent, unrealized measures belong to a broad “divest-invest” strategy grounded in racial justice — divest from prisons and policing, invest in housing — aimed at abolishing carceral practices built on decades of housing segregation and economic dispossession; whereas the White violence that stalks nearly every page of Black Metropolis is barely visible in Modern Housing.

That is because Modern Housing masks the joint venture of economic exploitation and racial segregation in the equivocal language of “slum clearance.” Unlike many social workers and other reformers with whom she sometimes made common cause, Bauer opposed the demolition of “blighted” housing to build new units, arguing instead for planned neighborhoods comparable to the Siedlungen that were built on the outskirts of German cities. A sympathetic reader of Friedrich Engels, who tore through bourgeois reforms with biting sarcasm in “The Housing Question” (1872), Bauer nonetheless regarded Engels’s hardline approach as anachronistic dogma. In her steadfast support for the municipalization or nationalization of working-class housing, Bauer was, like many European social democrats at the time, more narrowly anti-capitalist. A housing shortage and high land prices made “slums” profitable; “clearing” them at public expense only rewarded the rentiers. As Bauer’s ally in the legislative trenches, the New York housing administrator Nathan Straus, testified, “Slum clearance with the taxpayer’s money is aid to the needy — aid to the needy mortgage holders of tenements, but not aid to the needy home-seeker.” 6

Left to right: St. Clair Drake, ca. late 1940s. Horace Cayton and Richard Wright, studying plans for a community house in Chicago, ca. late 1950s. Catherine Bauer, undated photo.
Left to right: St. Clair Drake, ca. late 1940s. [Roosevelt University] Horace Cayton and Richard Wright, studying plans for a community house in Chicago, ca. 1940. [Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, Chicago Public Library] Catherine Bauer, undated photo. [William and Catherine Wurster Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley]

If anything, Drake and Cayton register Black ambivalence regarding segregation, which paradoxically strengthened some racial enclaves, while unambiguously condemning the economic exclusion that governed Black Metropolitan life. Rent-seeking landlords and land speculators ghettoized Bronzeville with the help of restrictive covenants and the redlining of Black homeowners out of White neighborhoods. Black Metropolis tracks the ensuing color line into every nook and cranny of life on Chicago’s South Side, from Black newspapers to businesses to churches, along with their representative “Race Leaders” and “Race Heroes.” In doing so, Drake and Cayton record the intimacies that connected Bronzeville’s “Black ghetto” with the skyscrapers clustered in the towering Loop, among which were the intimacies of the elevator.

Black Metropolis tracks the ensuing color line into every nook and cranny of life on Chicago’s South Side.

Meticulously, the authors document the “job ceiling” imposed by White employers on Bronzeville’s residents, which shut out most Black workers from managerial or even clerical jobs in the offices stacked one atop the other downtown. On the eve of the Depression, according to Drake and Cayton, 25 percent of Black men and over 50 percent of Black women were employed in “some kind of servant [service] work.” Among the men, the occupation with the highest percentage of Black workers (at about 95 percent) was that of railroad porters — a group organized, not incidentally, in 1925 under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Although they represented the lowest overall percentage (about ten percent), elevator operators comprised the highest absolute number of Black male service workers living on Chicago’s South Side. Though much smaller in absolute numbers, Black women comprised over 40 percent of all women employed as elevator operators in Chicago in 1930. 7

Most of the elevators were in the skyscrapers and other multistory buildings in the city’s central business district. But where did the Black service workers live? In 1945, there was only one public housing complex in Bronzeville. The Ida B. Wells Homes, which opened in 1941, were built and operated by the Chicago Housing Authority under the auspices of the USHA’s predecessor, the Public Works Administration. A federal regulation established by the USHA under Ickes, known as the “neighborhood composition rule,” required that the racial composition of public housing reflect that of the surrounding neighborhood. The residents of the Ida B. Wells Homes were thus predominantly Black, reproducing the segregation that for decades had been fiercely promulgated and defended by Chicago’s landlords and real estate speculators. In subsequent editions, the authors of Black Metropolis document the miles of segregated public housing eventually built at Bronzeville’s western edge. Thus, in Chicago as elsewhere, a program co-authored by Bauer to compensate for capital’s economic exclusions wound up reproducing these as racial exclusions.

In Chicago as elsewhere, a housing program created to compensate for capital’s economic exclusions wound up reproducing these as racial exclusions.

In a 1957 reassessment, Bauer, a committed anti-segregationist, criticized the Wagner-Steagall Act’s two-tiered system, which separated “slum rehousing” from the subsidized mortgages with which (in her words) “lily-white suburbia” was built. 8 A few years earlier, Bauer had been investigated for alleged ties to communist organizations, of which she was cleared. 9 It is perhaps understandable, then, that she limited her critique to the worst offenses of urban renewal, recommending instead more “freedom and flexibility” in lifestyle choice, and stopped short of the point when anti-racism necessarily becomes anti-capitalist. For their part, Drake and Cayton abjure such “anti-” language, and add a note of caution when summarizing the activities of Black communists in the 1930s and Black radicals in the 1960s; yet the vivid facts they compile amount to nothing less than a comprehensive indictment of racial capitalism.

To a large extent, the New Deal’s most progressive policies — benefitting mostly White workers — were the result of labor activism like Bauer’s. In 1934, while Rockefeller Center was under construction, New York elevator operators went on strike. One outcome was the unionization of those operators working in Manhattan’s midtown garment district, as local 32-B of the Service Employees International Union, which, unlike many of the construction unions that built the city’s early skyscrapers, comprised both Black and White workers. Thus, what may be most delirious about Delirious New York, in which Koolhaas described the skyscraper as an “automonument,” is its masking of those elevator operators in the neo-Surrealist automatic writing of capital’s “paranoid-critical method.” 10

Atlas, Rockefeller Center, New York, July 2020.
Atlas, Rockefeller Center, New York, July 2020. [Courtesy of Brecht Bug © via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

In its allegorical brilliance, Delirious New York remains an unabashed ode to Wall Street and to titans of industry like John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr., who put their formidable liquidity to work during the Great Depression to exploit the vulnerabilities of “cheap” labor, feeding an intoxication with financial risk materialized as architecture. Koolhaas’s book appeared in 1978, toward the tail end of New York’s desperate fiscal crisis. Some at the time may well have found its passions a welcome antidote to the disinvested pessimism that dominated what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein has called “Fear City.” 11 Since then, however, several generations of architects and scholars have read Delirious New York mostly for what we might call a deformed “optimism of the will,” a Promethean optimism that celebrates nothing less than the gilded triumph of whitewashed capital. That triumph finds its antithesis when we recognize Rockefeller Center’s masked Prometheus, a figure of revolt, as Black. 12

Perhaps the masks will serve as a reminder that reading different books can lead to different conclusions.

This is one way, then, to read the intertwining of all-too-human Black lives spent operating architecture’s elevators with the lives of their “lily white” passengers. In addition to Prometheus, Paul Manship supplied several other sculptural adornments to modulate Rockefeller Center’s scale. Among these was the gilded figure of Prometheus’s brother, Atlas, condemned to bear the Earth upon his shoulders. In 1957, as Bauer surveyed what she called public housing’s “dreary deadlock,” Ayn Rand, from whose pen had sprung the architect-entrepreneur-rapist Howard Roark, urged Atlas — capital’s doppelgänger — to shrug with self-pity at the narcissistic burdens of White male virility. 13 In June, Manship’s Atlas also received a symbolic blue mask. As yet, however, those generations of architect and urbanist readers of Delirious New York have been unable collectively to manage much more than a resigned shrug when presented with the earth-shattering, life-depriving violence of the neoliberal city. But perhaps the masks will serve as a reminder that reading different books can lead to different conclusions. In this case, not merely the conclusion that the failures of modern housing reproduce the grim realities of the “Black ghetto,” but that Modern Housing could yet become an abolitionist companion to Black Metropolis, should its masked anti-capitalism be properly unbound.

Editors' Note

A note on style: We are persuaded by the arguments of Nell Irvin Painter and Kwame Anthony Appiah that “White” as well as “Black” should be capitalized when the terms are used to refer to racial groups. As Appiah argues: “Black and white are both historically created racial identities — and whatever rule applies to one should apply to the other.” This is the first article in the journal to reflect this new policy.

  1. Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., “Leonardo Nole, 91, Prometheus Statue’s Model,” New York Times (27 February 1998); Brent Staples, “How Italians Became ‘White,’” New York Times (12 October 2019).
  2. Catherine Bauer, Modern Housing [1934], new foreword by Barbara Penner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020); St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City [1945], new foreword by Mary Pattillo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  3. W. Lloyd Warner, “A Methodological Note,” Black Metropolis, 775–777. See also Henri Peretz, “The Making of Black Metropolis,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 595 (September 2004): 168–175,
  4. Richard Wright, Introduction to Black Metropolis, lxvii, lxxii,
  5. H. Peter Oberlander and Eva Newbrun, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999), 130–158.
  6. Oberlander and Newbrun, Houser, 143.
  7. Drake and Cayton, Black Metropolis, 220–221.
  8. Catherine Bauer, “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” Architectural Forum (May 1957), reproduced with an introductory essay by Barbara Penner, “The (Still) Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” Places Journal (October 2018),
  9. Oberlander and Newbrun, Houser, 256–260.
  10. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). Compare Adrienne Brown, The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
  11. Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017).
  12. Jared Hickman has shown how, throughout the age of Atlantic slavery, Prometheus doubled as a figure of Black revolt. Black Prometheus: Race and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  13. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957). For Howard Roark, see Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943); the rape scene is on pages 217–218. I am grateful to Nancy Levinson for the timely reminder of this unambiguous narrative fact.
Reinhold Martin, “Prometheus Unmasked,” Places Journal, September 2020. Accessed 30 Sep 2023.

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