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Does anything delight a designer more
than having one’s work blown up from drafting-board scale to
actual-landscape size? To see the lines of a map transferred from paper
to earth? Such was the rare experience enjoyed by the drafters of the
map of Manhattan two centuries ago, who drew up the grid of Manhattan’s
city streets, embodied in the Commissioners’
Plan of 1811. As this year marks its bicentennial, it’s an
appropriate time to celebrate, criticize and contemplate the pattern
that established the bones and basis of the city.
A modern redrawing of the 1807 version of the Commissioner’s grid
plan for Manhattan, adopted in 1811. (source: Wikipedia)
The 1811 report was the work of a committee headed by Gouverneur
Morris, a founding father who helped write the Constitution, and created
by the New York state legislature in 1807. The “Commissioners of
Streets and Roads in the City of New York” were enjoined to survey the
existing city and offer a plan that would “unite regularity and order
with the Public convenience and benefit.” Although the Commission set to
work in 1807, “it was not until March 22, 1811…that they were able to
file their official plan and their report justifying their design for
the future metropolis.”
The new map gave shape to the basic module of the long narrow New
York block, from 14th Street north, and aligned it with the rest of the
country. Each summer knowledgeable New Yorkers celebrate “Manhattanhenge,”
when the streets of the grid align with the setting sun, like the stones
of Stonehenge. Because the Manhattan grid is offset by 29 degrees from
the east-west of the latitudinal grid, the sun aligns with New York’s
grid twice, roughly on May 28 and July 12.
Many cities have grid plans, of course, but the New York grid has its
own shape and its own culture. It inspired Piet Mondrian’s painting Broadway
Boogie Woogie, an artistic testament to the city’s energy, and gave
us the word “gridlock.”
It may have made New York especially amenable to other grids, too, in
art and design.
City grids go back to ancient times and the Greek planner Hippodamus,
but the advance of Cartesian geometry gave them new appeal. Savannah
and Philadelphia were two American cities famously laid-out with
grids—their plans are ubiquitous in American urban design books. New
York had experimented with a grid plan before 1811. From time to time,
the city had sliced off pieces of land owned in common to sell or lease
for revenue. Casimir Goerck, a city surveyor, had used a grid system for
this purpose in the 1790s.
What was new in the New York plan was the standardized system of long
narrow blocks—and the almost complete absence of spaces or circles to
relieve the relentless geometry of the grid. The grid was not laid out
primarily with transportation in view. Rather, the purpose of the grid
was the rational exploitation of real estate. The city of the era relied
on water transportation at its periphery. Today, of course, the keynote
of transportation is overcoming the obstacles that water raises to
transport by rail and automobile.
In 1807 the New York state legislature authorized a panel to
determine future outlines for city pattern after local leaders
complained that none of its plans achieved acceptance by business or
government. The actual surveying of the island was difficult in itself.
Surveyors were menaced with shotguns or pelted with heads of cabbage.
The wide, roughly north and south streets were to be called avenues.
The cross streets were narrower but occasionally interrupted by wider
ones—familiar today at 14th, 23rd, 42nd and so on. The broad bold sash
of Broadway was already in place to slice across the grid on the
diagonal. The system was retroactively applied in part south of 14th
street, producing such effects as the mad intersection of West 4th
Street with 11th and 12th Street.
Only a couple of open spaces were considered: the wide green, or
Parade (Central Park was not planned until the 1850s), and a future
market. The report justified the neat grid system and its rejection of
such planning fripperies as “circles, ovals, and stars” 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 grid system provides the basic grammar of the city. Architectural
historian Hilary Ballon, author of Robert Moses and the Modern City,
describes it as “the first great public works in the city’s history and
a landmark in city planning.” She also calls it the “the greatest
grid.” But not everyone agrees. Henry James called it a “primal
topographic curse.” Columbia urban planner Peter Marcuse describes it as
“one of the worst city plans of any major city in the developed
countries of the world.” The grid was far more a product of political
expedience than soaring vision. There had been alternative plans like
that of Joseph Francois Mangin, the architect of New York’s City Hall.
The grid had the advantage of generating neat modules of real estate.
The blocks set the dimensions of lots, which shaped the architectural
spaces in which people lived. Think of those 1880s
photos of two or three brownstones filling otherwise empty uptown
By one view, the grid system facilitated breaking up large estates,
the legacy of loyalist landowners, for purchase by middle class
mechanics and merchants. The rigidity of the grid format led to the
leveling of hills and filling of valleys in Manhattan. It contrasts with
the biomorphic shapes of early, planned suburbs, like Frederick Law
Olmstead’s Riverside, whose streets not only followed the curves of the
landscape, but in some cases created “natural” curves for their own
Perhaps the most famous champion of the Manhattan grid is architect
Rem Koolhaas, whose paean is found in his book Delirious New York
book’s original cover wittily deploys the grid as a rug). He calls
the Manhattan grid “a graphic projection,” “the most courageous act of
prediction in Western civilization: the land it divides, unoccupied, the
population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates,
phantoms....” The uniformity of blocks, Koolhaas argued, demanded that
architecture provide variety. The grid was fertilizer to the star system
of the skyline.
Vincent Scully, the famed Yale historian of architecture and
urbanism, saw the application of the grid in 1811 as a symbol of the
beginning of America’s neglect of its shared spaces. “The grid so
applied might be slapped down anywhere,” he writes, “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.”
By contrast, Scully pointed to the happy harmony of open and closed
spaces in Savannah’s pattern of regular parks. There were practical
drawbacks to the grid as well. J. B. Jackson famously praised city plans
with alleys, like Chicago’s. Alleys allow for access for deliveries and
removals separate from primary arrivals. In New York, without alleys,
garbage sits awaiting pickup in front of even the most stately
Yes, admits Phillip Lopate, praising the grid in his book Waterfront:
A Walk Around Manhattan, but there was more. He writes, “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, Procrustean bed, call it what you
will, a thing impossible to overpraise... it inspired Mondrian, Sol
Lewitt, Agnes Martin, and that’s good enough for me. Those who maintain
it makes for monotony are at a loss to account for the vitality of
Manhattan street life. They overlook this particular grid’s power
to invoke clarity, resonance, and pleasure through its very
repetitions; they ignore the role of Broadway as a diagonal ‘rogue’
street creating dramas of triangulation whenever it intersects an
It is tempting to see the interplay between the grid and Broadway as
metaphor—as a source of urban energy, a legacy of wisdom like the
bicameral congress or even a primal contest between the Apollonian order
of the grid and the manic inspiration of Dionysian Broadway. Broadway
was the avenue of dreams, the corridor of showbiz, the drive of the id
in contest with the responsible superego of the grid.
No wonder the grid figures in so many popular images of New York,
including souvenir handkerchiefs
sold at Muji and illustrator Peter Sis’s cover for the
book Rats. Architect and designer Emily Fischer of Haptic
Lab in Brooklyn has produced a map quilt
that makes the Manhattan grid touchable as well as visible.
So dominant is the grid that we almost forget the other ways to
divide the city. Claes
Oldenburg rendered it by zip codes. Paula
Scher painted its neighborhood names. Still, the grid has long
dominated our mental maps as well as physical ones of the city.
Boogie Woogie expresses the interplay of grid systems—of the
streets but also of buildings and signs and regular sounds; the gallery
text on MoMA’s website sums it up well: “Bands of stuttering chromatic
pulses, paths of red, yellow, and blue interrupted by light gray suggest
the city's grid and the movement of traffic, while the staccato
vibration of colors evokes the syncopation of jazz and the blinking
electric lights of Broadway.”
In her book Terrible
Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, cultural historian Ann
Douglas cites John Kouwenhoven, who in The
Beer Can by the Highway sought to explain jazz with an urban
metaphor. He compared the city’s grid, she notes, to jazz’s basic 4/4 or
2/4 beat while the skyscrapers towering above that grid are its solo
For Mondrian, boogie woogie was also a music to dance to. He felt his
painting summed up the pace of modernity in the city. But the grid
hails back to much older ideals. It is tied to the unforgiving Cartesian
grid of rationalism and the enlightenment and forward to the modernist
grid of Miesian buildings and Swiss graphics. (How ironic that the
abstracted 1970s subway map by Massimo and Lella Vignelli, masters
of the grid, was criticized for its failure to express the relationship
of the underground rail’s net to the street’s grid. It was a diagram,
explained the Vignellis, not a map.) It may not be too much to speculate
that living with the grid made Manhattan welcoming to European graphic
ideas based on the grid—and to other aesthetic grids.
The city’s skyscrapers are shaped by the grid, as Koolhaas argued,
but were themselves also fabricated of grids—the grids of the steel
frame and, in structures such as the Seagram’s building, the grid of the
glass and steel curtain wall. The city grid seems to have inspired the
minimalist art created within by such artists as Lewitt and Carl Andre,
whose work makes heavy use of the grid.
The New York grid also touches on the greater American grids, slapped
down over the continent. (Today we speak of getting “off the grid,”
detaching from electricity, telephone, water and information, but we
don’t mean leaving the legal lines of ownership.) After the arrival of
Europeans to America, Cartesian grids were laid over the whole country
to “conquer” a varied and often uncooperative landscape. New York’s grid
is a cousin to the Land Ordinance of 1785, which was championed by
Thomas Jefferson and chopped up common lands into acres, sections and
townships. (It also reserved land to support schools and the
Jeffersonian vision of rationalized land use and ownership.) Just as
Manhattan’s grid ignored hills and valleys, the national land grid
ignored the difference between dry desert and fertile prairie. (A key
book explaining this process is Andro
Linklater’s Measuring America.)
The idealized western towns that speculators built on this larger
grid of land promoted themselves with imagined visions of their own
local grids, evoking eastern cities like Manhattan, filled out by the
artist with real houses and stores. In fact they often existed only in
the minds of surveyors and boosters.
The limits of the grid are the subject of architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy’s shrewd
essay, “Defying the Grid: A Retroactive Manifesto for the Culture of
Decongestion” (Perspecta 30, 1999). Esperdy writes that the
grid was perceived by urban critics to have created congestion and
squalor. The immigrant Lower East Side had more residents per square
mile than Bombay, went the charge in the early part of the 20th century.
As the grid was adopted by other cities, especially in the developing
western states, she notes, its limits became clear. “The grid’s
congestive pathologies were becoming all too apparent... what had been
conceived as an initiatory gesture of order had, by 1900, fostered the
decided disorder of rampant, archaic real estate speculation.” The urban
blocks of the grid inspired strategies for “de-congestion,” urban
renewal, slum clearance, and new town developments that broke up the
grid with curved streets or superblocks.
Love it or hate it, New York’s grid is 200, and it deserves for
designers and historians to mark this bicentennial with a celebration
and an ongoing exploration of its origins and meaning.
Grid’s Birthday, Beautiful Manhattan Maps,” The Wall Street
Birthday for the Map that Made New York” with interactive
map of the grid, The New York Times
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