News
02.10.2012
Review> Net Advantage
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 at the Museum of the City of New York through April 15.
C. Bachman's View looking south from Union Square, 1849.
Courtesy MCNY

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011
Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue
Through April 15

Gridlock—the word has become metaphorically indispensable in dealing with Washington as well as New York. But in the beginning was the grid, the Manhattan street pattern itself, laid out in 1811, whose 200th anniversary is commemorated with an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), curated by architectural historian Hilary Ballon.

Not until the 1980s did the word “gridlock” come along, the exhibition tells us. Formally certified on March 22, 1811, the report of the “Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York” offered a plan its authors promised would “unite regularity and order with the Public convenience and benefit.” The ur-grid, the Commissioners’ Map, is on display as the centerpiece of the show.

 
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811.
 

The report justified the grid pattern with the reasoning that “a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” The words fairly drip with contempt for “circles, ovals, and stars” and other ornamental shapes. The grid, with its 12 avenues and 155 streets laid out under the director of chief surveyor John Randel, became the grammar of the city. In its interaction with older streets and buildings, it produced such irregular effects as the mad intersection of 4th Street with 11th and 12th streets. Or the absent block of 11th Street at Broadway where James Renwick’s Grace Church sits. The grid is also the basis of Manhattan architecture, providing unconscious, de facto specs for builders. The grid’s champions praise the architectural creativity it has engendered. Its critics condemn the grid as generating architectural mediocrity and providing few public spaces and structures.

The exhibition is visually rich, dominated by a wonderful group of maps. With their deep shadings and contours they recall the topography that the grid plan leveled out. Yellowed documents are the original embodiment of the grid and its rules; the whole display put me in mind of the old Freedom Train displays, born in Cold War days, of founding political documents.

Also on display are artifacts of the surveying methods that created the grid. Theodolites and drafting tools remind us that surveying was the high tech of 1800, embodying an idealistic Cartesian vision as compelling in its day as Google’s vision of the Internet today. (That Washington and Jefferson were both working surveyors, amateur architects, and land speculators says a lot about the cultural basis of the nation.) There is an example of a Gunter’s chain, the basic land measure that ruled land layout—a 100-foot block is really 99 feet, three 33-foot chains. A hewn stone land-marker is the closest thing possible to a physical embodiment of the theoretical grid.

The grid was at least as much a product of political expedience as of soaring vision. It provided the commercial advantage of generating neat modules of real estate and standardized building plots. But rather than creating standard architecture, champions of the grid argue that it forced architectural creativity, in the sense that greenhouses force plants.

Rem Koolhaas celebrates the grid in Delirious New York, calling it “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied, the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms…” He argued that the grid made the city resistant to any overweening large architectural scheme, while the uniformity of blocks demanded variety in architecture. “In the single block—the largest possible area that can fall under architectural control,” he wrote of the grid, “ it develops a maximum unit of urbanistic Ego.” The grid was the studio system behind the stars of the skyline, perhaps. John Kouwenhoven, in his classic essay in The Beer Can by the Highway, compared the grid to jazz. He associated the grid with jazz’s basic 4/4 or 2/4 beat and the skyscrapers towering above the grid with improvisational solos.

Critics of the grid focus on its failure to provide public space. The New York grid lacked the many public squares of other grid plans, notably those of Savannah and Philadelphia, noted Vincent Scully, who saw it as the beginning of America’s neglect of shared spaces. “The grid so applied might be slapped down anywhere,” he wrote, “and usually all too little public space is left free in the process. The later American tendency toward private luxury and public squalor was already well enough in evidence here.” John Reps, the eminent historian of the American city, saw the New York grid as the first fatal step toward the dull gridded cities of the West.  Henry James called it a “primal topographic curse.”

The plan did call for two large publicly owned common spaces, a military parade ground uptown and a market place, but neither was realized as planned. Instead, the exhibition documents, now-familiar public spaces originated in periodic fits of public idealism, private generosity, and speculative innovation. Parks and squares showed up in odd-shaped parcels left by accidents of the map and the land. Mayor Philip Hone led the creation of Washington Square, which served as an early drilling space for militia, while Gramercy Park was laid out on swampy land by a developer with the Dickensian name of Samuel Ruggles.

Thomas Howdell's A South East View of the City of New York in North America, 1763.

 

Manhattan’s grid presents practical drawbacks to daily life. The cultural geographer J. B. Jackson famously praised city plans with alleys that provide access for deliveries and removals. But on the grid, garbage sits waiting for pickup beside the entrance to even the most stately mansion.

Another of the critics of the grid was Frederick Law Olmsted, whose looping, biomorphic paths in Central Park map a visual reproach to the angles of the city street. Olmstead also attacked the grid as a handicap to architecture. “There is no place in New York where a stately building can be looked up to from base to turret,” he wrote, “none where it can even be seen full in the face…none where it can be viewed in advantageous perspective.”

And—in a famous sentiment displayed in large type on the gallery wall—Olmsted lamented the decentralization the grid imposed. “Such distinctive advantage of position as Rome gives St. Peter’s, Paris the Madeleine, London, St. Paul’s, New York, under her system, gives to nothing.”

But a city without a central cathedral or palace was more a democratic society and, in a city without a center, anywhere could be central. The grid may have democratized land ownership, as some historians argue, assisting in the distribution of large estates into the hands of mechanics and merchants. It allowed the economic and cultural center of the city to move uptown, through the porous sponge of the grid. “This is the purpose of New York’s geometry,” Roland Barthes wrote. The grid might lack a cathedral but it let the name of Frank Woolworth tower above all, for at least a few years.

 
A pile of rocks at 81st Street and 9th Avenue in 1886 (left) and Riverside Drive at 94th Street in 1890. (right).
 

But bringing into the gallery the sense of the grid as perceived on the street or in the popular mind is harder. How to represent the mesmerizing quality of the short blocks that make people walk farther than they plan, or the flickering passage of street numbers in a taxi window, like shuffling cards? First-time visitors to Manhattan tend to comment first on its winds and shadows, because just as the grid defied topography, it defied the sun and wind and sought to align itself with the compass, so the prevailing westerlies whistle through darkened skyscraper canyons—the word has become unavoidable.

In Waterfront: A Walk around Manhattan, Phillip Lopate writes while “one hears the Manhattan grid disparaged today as merely a capitalist device for real-estate speculation, to me it is a mighty form, existential metaphor, generator of modernity…it inspired Mondrian, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, and that’s good enough for me.” Mondrian’s iconic Broadway Boogie Woogie is a reminder that the grid represents only one aspect of the city’s spiritual map: its counterpoint is the defiant, dynamic sash of Broadway. Broadway was the avenue of dreams, the impetuous id in contest with the responsible superego of the grid.

Towles' Map of the Upper Part of New York City, West Side Improvements, 1868.
 

Such “dramas of triangulation” are the focus of one of the entries in the MCNY’s companion exhibition, The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan, a set of projects by architects on the theme of the future of the grid. The entry called Projective Exceptions, by Grant Alford assisted by Spencer Lindstrom, was inspired by the Flatiron building neighborhood and suggests three new angled exceptions to the grid.

The sidebar show was curated by Gregory Wessner and sponsored by the museum, the Architectural League, and Architizer. The more than 120 entrants were asked to speculate on how the grid might be adapted, extended, or transformed. The eight projects picked by the jury offer a refreshing mix of ground-level innovations with grand thinking. One effort, 6 1/4 Avenue, by ksestudio and others, offers ideas for a new corridor of mid-block open space that has informally sprouted up between 6th and 7th avenues. Dissociative New York by Joshua Mackley and Mathew Ford experiments with a new kind of regulatory structure “that would remove absolutely all regulations (zoning, preservation) from the avenues, while simultaneously freezing in their current state all the streets in perpetuity.” In Tabula Fluxus: A New Topography for Tourists, Yikyu Choe, Michael Chaveriat, and Myung Kweon Park appreciate Manhattan’s grid so much they suggest building a second one—700 feet above today’s street level.

Clearly, where the grid is most firmly locked is in the thinking of those on its streets.

Phil Patton

Phil Patton writes on design and culture for the New York Times and teaches in the SVA Design Criticism program.