|Still from West Side Story, 1961 (source)
West Side Story, a musical rendition of New York City turf wars, obfuscates a history of violence, presenting 1950s urban warfare as a quaint phenomenon entirely unrelated to the racial tensions which motivate many of today’s gangs. The play’s chorus lines and musical numbers differentiate a historical tension from its contemporary incarnation. Twenty-first century gang members do not dance, do not sing their woes, do not fall in love, not the way Tony does, anyway.
The film version of West Side Story, released in 1961, was accompanied by an iconic image — the silhouette of fire escapes on a red background. Those fire escapes, typical of the West Side buildings of the story’s setting, reveal an era and a place, symbolize a Manhattan before. What was a site of urban blight and disrepair, a stage for violence and tension, is now sanitized. It is a place which is more connected to musical theater than to the history which inspired it.
But West Side Story’s images reveal, despite themselves, those spatial continuities which link the embittered across time and musical note. Staged on reconstructed underpasses covered with graffiti-by-design, the most benign of theatrical productions features the visual tropes of our angry youth.
If the iconic image of the fire escape, in red and black, stands for young adulthoods past, certainly something must stand for twenty-first century teenagedom. The now anachronistic balconies and fire escapes of West Side Story persist in parallel spaces, in other liminal stages for adolescence. Extensions of interiors, elevated above the street and somehow therefore, between public and private, the metal grating of fire escapes, make space for illicit love and confrontation.
|Portrait of Adolf Loos(source)
The identity of a gang is contingent on the definition of its territory through the acts of protection and expansion. These efforts to guard and gain territory often result in disputes when their established borders are breached.
On the HBO show The Wire, drug gangs like the Barksdale Crew defend their turf from rival Marlo Stanfield’s crew, but find themselves also having to deal with lone rogues like stick-up man Omar Little, who operates outside the rules of ‘the game’ and routinely interrupts the continuity of their work, stealing money and drugs while acting as an informant for the local police.
Within the architectural discourse, stylistic movements also find themselves protecting their terrain from those playing outside the rules, without allegiance to a particular group. In the case of the Viennese Secessionists, they defended their intellectual terrain from the attacks of miscreants like Adolf Loos who argued for craftsmanship over what he perceived as the Secessionist’s gratuitous use of ornament. Like Omar, Loos occupies no collective territory, gangless, he walks alone.
Transgressions disrupt boundaries and destabilize territorial integrity. Omar undermines the Barksdale Crew by introducing a contrarian element within their space. In a similar struggle, Loos brings down the Wiener Werkstätte by revealing the Secessionists as less than modern.
Erandi de Silva