200 Years on the Grid

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.

The Commissioners Map of the City of New York, 1807

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 blocks.

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 sake.

Perhaps the most famous champion of the Manhattan grid is architect Rem Koolhaas, whose paean is found in his book Delirious New York (the 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 brownstone.

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 avenue....“

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. Mondrian’s Broadway 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 improvisations.

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.  

Further reading

On Grid’s Birthday, Beautiful Manhattan Maps,” The Wall Street Journal

200th Birthday for the Map that Made New York” with interactive map of the grid, The New York Times

About the Author: Phil Patton is the author of many books, including Autodesign International, Made in USA, Open Road and Dreamland. He writes regularly on automobile design for The New York Times and has been a contributing editor to I.D., Wired and Esquire. He teaches in the MFA Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts and has served as a curator for several museum shows, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for a New Century.”