Skyscraping Frontiers

The Skyscraper as Heterotopia in the 20th-Century American Novel and Film

by Sascha Klein (Author)
Thesis 316 Pages
Open Access


As a space of extremes, the skyscraper has been continually constructed as an urban frontier in American cultural productions. Like its counterpart of the American wilderness, this vertical frontier serves as a privileged site for both subversion and excessive control. Beyond common metaphoric readings, this study models the skyscraper not only as a Foucauldian heterotopia, but also as a complex network of human and nonhuman actors while retracing its development from its initial assemblage during the 19th century to its steady evolution into a smart structure from the mid-20th century onward. It takes a close look at US-American literary and filmic fictions and the ways in which they sought to make sense of this extraordinary structure throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. More traditional poststructuralist spatial theories are connected with concepts and methods of Actor-Network Theory in a compelling account of the skyscraper’s evolution as reflected in fictional media from early 20th-century short stories via a range of action, disaster and horror films to selected city novels of the 1990s and 2000s.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: A Space of Extremes
  • 1. The Skyscraper as a Hybrid Network of Hybrid Actors
  • 1.1 Rethinking the Social and the City with Actor-Network Theory
  • 1.2 Reassembling the Skyscraper as an Actor-Network
  • 1.3 The Frontier in the Sky: The Skyscraper as Heterotopia
  • 2. The Networks and Frontiers of the Skyscraper in Science Fiction and Modernist Literature of the 1900s to 1920s
  • 2.1 Clerks into Cowboys, New Girls into ‘True Women’ – the Skyscraper as a Frontier Space in the Early American Science Fiction Short Story 1898–1920
  • 2.2 Following the Actors through the Modern High-Rise City in John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925)
  • 3. Reconfiguring the Skyscraper in the Shadow of Smart Technologies from the 1950s onwards
  • 3.1 From Discipline to Control: Making the Skyscraper Smart
  • 3.2 Smart Antagonists: Tales of (Losing) Control
  • 3.2.1 The Skyscraper as Antagonist and Smart Prison in late 20th and early 21st Century American Films and Novels
  • Cowboys on the Vertical Frontier – The High-Rise Antagonist in the Disaster Action Movies The Towering Inferno (1974) and Die Hard (1988)
  • The Towering Inferno (1974)
  • Die Hard (1988)
  • Damsels under Control? – Escaping the Smart High-Rise Prison in the Neo-Noir Thrillers Scissors (1991) and Sliver (1993)
  • Scissors (1991)
  • Sliver (1993)
  • High-Rise Horror and the ‘Bloxploitation’ Genre 1970s–90s
  • 3.2.2 Smooth Execut(ion)ers – Architecture’s Uncanny Collaboration in American Psycho (1991/2000)
  • 3.2.3 Blasting Black Boxes – Fight Club (1996/1999) as a Tale of Late-20th-Century Luddism
  • 3.2.4 “There Is No Outside”? – Mapping the Smart Spaces of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003)178
  • Conclusion: Open and Closed Systems
  • List of Figure
  • List of Table
  • Series index

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Introduction: A Space of Extremes

When after more than twenty years in Europe, Henry James, eminent American writer and critic, returned to the United States in 1904, he found his hometown New York City fundamentally transformed. While at his departure Trinity Church had still topped the Manhattan silhouette, it was now hardly visible among the many

“tall buildings,” which have so promptly usurped a glory that affects you as rather surprised, as yet, at itself, the multitudinous sky-scrapers standing up to the view, from the water, like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted, and stuck in as in the dark, anywhere and anyhow […]. (James, The American Scene 76)

Not only forlorn in the Manhattan “pin-cushion” with its “loose nosegay of architectural flowers” (76–77), those palisades of new commercial towers, “poor old Trinity” on closer inspection seemed almost beleaguered by the new architectural giants:

[…] I gazed across at the special sky-scraper that overhangs poor old Trinity to the north – a south face as high and wide as the mountain-wall that drops the Alpine avalanche, from time to time, upon the village, and the village spire, at its foot […]. (83)

During James’ absence, New York had grown vertical at such an amazing pace, literally having turned into another, a ‘new’ New York that it recurrently left him rather disoriented with several of “the new landmarks crushing the old quite as violent children stamp on snails and caterpillars” (81). The increasingly vertical city not only offended James’ refined sense of aesthetics and cultural tradition but also deprived the native son of his sense of home, thus rendering many of his rich memories of the ‘old’ New York obsolete. In a most painful way James had to experience the meaning of rapid urban change upon discovering that the very place of one’s individual rootedness, of local belonging, namely his birth place at Washington Place had also been replaced by a tall building of the new type:

That was where the pretence that nearly nothing was changed had most to come in; for a high, square, impersonal structure, proclaiming its lack of interest with a crudity all its own, so blocks, at the right moment for its own success, the view of the past, that the effect for me, in Washington Place, was of having been amputated of half

my history. (91)

Indeed so much had New York, and as James was to discover on his journey cross-country, so much had almost all of America changed, that his travel notes, published in 1907 under the title The American Scene, read like the report of an ←7 | 8→ethnographer exploring a foreign culture, similar to such well-known European visitors to the U.S. as Alexis de Tocqueville over half a century before or Jean Baudrillard almost a century after James.1 In James’ harsh judgment, the turn-of-the-century United States was a country driven by short-sighted commercial gains, by “that perpetual passionate pecuniary purpose” as well as a “universal will to move – to move, move, move, as an end in itself, an appetite at any price” (111, 84) – an America, therefore, that privileged a restless will to change, indeed to modernize itself over all possible rootedness in custom and tradition, in preserving a cultural identity which, to James, also manifested itself in the nation’s architecture.

No wonder then that James could regard New York’s new giant buildings as nothing but “impudently new and still more impudently “novel” – this in common with so many other terrible things in America – and [as] triumphant payers of dividends; all of which uncontested and unabashed pride, […]” (76). To James, Manhattan’s tall office buildings were “monsters of the mere market” built for no reason other than to extract as much profit, to pay as high a dividend from as small a piece of downtown land as possible (80). As creatures of the market and its shifting moods, he saw in these towers nothing but provisional structures:

Such growths, you feel, have confessedly arisen but to be “picked”, in time, with a shears; nipped short off, by waiting fate, as soon as “science,” applied to gain, has put upon the table, from far up its sleeves, some more winning card. Crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history, and consecrated by no uses save the commercial at any cost, they are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself. […] One story is good only till another is told, and sky-scrapers are the last word of economic ingenuity only till another word be written. (77)

In fact, around the turn of the century, high-rise buildings were objects of a restless financial speculation that often demanded a rapid replacement of older structures by still higher ones. Being almost as quickly razed as new towers were erected, many Manhattan skyscrapers were expected to have a ‘life expectancy’ of a mere 15 to 20 years in this era of excessive housing speculation (see Yablon, “The Metropolitan Life” 313–315, Page 27–28). Amidst the frenzy of an overheated real estate market and despite his fears that New York might end up as “a huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient ←8 | 9→graces” (92), James was not the only one to expect that most of these crude structures were all but temporary phenomena and that Manhattan would shrink again as soon as the speculative bubble burst.

As a result of their ephemeral fate as products of a heated market, James felt that “[t];hey never begin to speak to you, in the manner of the builded majesties of the world as we have heretofore known such – towers or temples or fortresses or palaces – with the authority of things of permanence or even of things of long duration” (77). And in case those many early skyscrapers, especially in New York, that willfully emulated historical forms and styles and hid their modern steel frames behind lavish masonry in order to ‘feign’ tradition, James mercilessly debunked the “insincerity of the effect of the sky-scrapers” which, to his mind, only too obviously betrayed “that unmistakable New York admission of unattempted, impossible maturity” (111).2

And yet, as Tamara Follini has noted, “James was not immune to the aesthetic appeal of these buildings” (Follini 37). Indeed, he had to admit that

after all that those monsters of the mere market, as I have called them, had more to say, on the question of “effect,” than I had at first allowed? – since they are the element that looms largest for me through a particular impression, with remembered parts and pieces melting together rather richly now, of “downtown” seen and felt from the inside. (James, The American Scene 80)

For all their commercial crudity and false maturity, James observed that in the “lights and shades of winter and summer air, […], when refinement of modeling descends from the skies and lends the white towers, all new and crude and commercial and over-windowed as they are, a fleeting distinction” (81). And even “the vast money-making structure [shadowing Trinity Church] quite horribly, quite romantically justified itself, looming through the weather with an insolent cliff-like sublimity” (83).3

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Yet the true ethnographer James proved to be in The American Scene, not only passed his judgment on these new architectural giants predicated on their outward impressions and aesthetic effects but also set out to explore them on the inside. And it is on the occasion of these explorations that he, among the very first and most eloquent observers, delivered a number of interpretations of the skyscraper and the ‘high-rise’ way of life that were shared by many of his contemporaries just as much as they were echoed by a great many of future observers engaged with these extraordinary buildings. Similar to his sublime and thus inherently ambiguous vision of these towers from the outside, James’ ‘inside report’ is marked by an array of ‘awe’-ful experiences, both in the positive and negative sense of that opalescent word.

The morning I speak of offered me my first chance of seeing one of them from the inside – which was an opportunity I sought again, repeatedly, in respect to others; and I became conscious of the force with which this vision of their prodigious working, and of the multitudinous life, as if each were a swarming city in itself, that they are capable of housing, may beget, on the part of the free observer, in other words of the restless analyst, the impulse to describe and present the facts and express the sense of them. Each of these huge constructed and compressed communities, throbbing, through its myriad arteries and pores, with a single passion, even as a complicated watch throbs with the one purpose of telling you the hour and the minute, testified overwhelmingly to the character of New York – and the passion of the restless analyst, on his side, is for the extraction of character. (81–82)

What the “restless analyst” describes here as “a swarming city in itself” is one of the first written instances of interpreting the skyscraper as a vertical city that houses a massive “compressed community” within its confined, yet at the same time abundant spaces. While James may certainly harbor ambivalent feelings regarding the clockwork-like rationality at work in the skyscraper, it also seems doubtless that the sheer mass and complexity of both the high-rise’s spaces and population filled him with amazement and thus prompted yet another vision of sublimity. As David E. Nye has convincingly demonstrated, the skyscraper emerged early on as an instance of what he calls the “American technological sublime”: Traditionally associated with overwhelming experiences in the face of nature, the sublime may also be evoked by man-made structures, especially when they are as tall and massive as the modern skyscraper that certainly redefined people’s sense of dimension when it first emerged in downtown Chicago and Manhattan at the end of the 19th century (see Nye 87–108). Just as with natural ←10 | 11→phenomena, these super-tall buildings could be experienced as sublime, as their sheer size and dimensions proved aesthetically and intellectually thrilling but also deeply disturbing and frightening in the way that their vastness and complexity might reduce one’s own small existence to virtual nothingness and thus plunge one into a crisis of the self.

The same ambivalence inherent in the sublime experience may speak from James’ recurring commentary on the “over-windowed” nature of the tall edifices populating downtown Manhattan: While aesthetically despised by James, the towers’ vast and orderly structured faces of myriads of windows also seem to have stirred a terrifying sense of rationality and mass-observation in him. At night, however, the “flash of innumerable windows and flicker of subordinate gilt attributions, is like the flare, up and down their long, narrow faces, of the lamps of some general permanent “celebration””, thereby momentarily revealing a playful, irrational, and thus also transgressive character of these seemingly so rational and coercive high-rise spaces (James, The American Scene 76).

And while looking out from high above promised new and thrilling vistas to James the passionate esthete4, the travel upward, indeed that kind of “invasion of the air” by way of the elevator, a technological innovation of the 19th century that made living and working in such heights possible and comfortable, proved to be an excruciating experience to James (186). Not only did one have to “wait, perpetually, in a human bunch, in order to be hustled, under military drill, the imperative order to “step lively,” into some tight mechanic receptacle, fearfully and wonderfully working, […] something that slides or slams or bangs, operating, in your rear, as ruthlessly as the guillotine”, but also “the packed and hoisted basket” appeared to James as “an almost intolerable symbol of the herded and driven state and of that malady of preference for gregarious ways” of which he suspected his hometown in general (187).

James, however, was neither the first critic to engage aesthetically with these new buildings nor was he the first to note their quality for evoking the sublime. In fact, eight years prior to James’ return to New York, Louis Henry Sullivan, one of the early and most influential architects of the Chicago School of skyscraper architecture, even seemed to have advocated the ability to stir the sublime in the observer – although not mentioning the concept directly – as the skyscraper’s defining and foremost quality. In his important 1896 article “The Tall Office ←11 | 12→Building Artistically Considered” (he does not yet call it a “skyscraper”) he argues as follows:

What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. […] It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line,-- that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions. (Sullivan 406)

This ideal of sublime loftiness, however, cannot be attained by going back to the respected traditional forms of architectural history – regardless of how lofty and sublime such historical models may ever be in themselves. Not only would an American architect designing skyscrapers in that way “merely speak[…] a foreign language with a noticeable American accent” and thus simply arrive at what James would shun as “insincerity of the effect” and “impossible maturity”; such “display of architectural knowledge in the encyclopedic sense” would also amount to an architectural “miscellany [that] is abhorrent” – also in an aesthetic sense (Sullivan 409, 407; James, The American Scene 111).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (April)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 316 pp., 3 fig. b/w, 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Sascha Klein (Author)

Sascha Klein has studied History and English Studies with a special focus on US-American literature and culture at the University of Cologne. He completed his PhD as a doctoral fellow at a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities and works as a free lecturer at the University of Cologne. His fields of interest range from American culture, media, and film studies to architecture and urban studies.


Title: Skyscraping Frontiers
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318 pages