Randel Farm Map no. 55, vol. 1, p. 16, showing 101st to 109th Street, from Third Avenue to the East River, July 21, 1820. Used with permission of the City of New York and the Office of the Manhattan Borough President.
Randel Farm Map no. 55, vol. 1, p. 16, showing 101st to 109th Streets, from Third Avenue to the East River, July 21, 1820. Used with permission of the City of New York and the Office of the Manhattan Borough President.

Mash-up at Right Angles

 

The 1811 plan mandating an orthogonal street grid helped make Manhattan a paragon of urban form. Today we take rectilinear New York for granted, and love its vitality. An exhibition reveals both prescience and problems in the grid’s rich history.

 

The British Headquarters map of Manhattan (circa 1782) shows a convoluted shoreline and irregular topography. Networks of streams and marshes nearly render the island an archipelago. The map conjures a complex unspoiled landscape. Engravings from that time similarly depict vistas of unordered nature. Settlement in the late 18th century was still clustered in a disorganized little town at the island’s southern tip. In those engraved views of Manhattan’s hinterlands, only distant steeples and masts suggest the forces of culture and commerce that were already transforming the place.

 

Pressured by rapid growth, it wasn’t long before civic leaders acknowledged the need for a plan. The owners of large tracts north of the colonial-era settlement thwarted their first attempts, so they asked the state legislature to mandate the creation of a binding scheme. The result was the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. It established the orthogonal grid that helped make Manhattan a paragon of urban form. This plan and its results are the subject of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York through April 15.

 

Today we are familiar and comfortable with rectilinear, paved-over Manhattan. And we are in love with the cultural and economic vitality it engenders. So the most emotionally affecting aspect of the exhibition is its exposure of the rawness—the violence, even—that accompanied the establishment of the grid.

 

Several of the Randel Farm Maps, made between 1818 and 1820 at a scale of 100 feet to the inch, are on view. These were drawn to lay the measured, coordinate geometry of the grid onto the island’s then-random patterns of topography, land ownership and settlement. They yield hallucinatory images: you look right through the familiar pattern of Manhattan blocks at the ghostly representation of long-obliterated farmsteads, hillocks and country roads.

 

Egbert L. Viele, View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street, 1861. Museum of the City of New York, 28.153.215

 

Marvelous lithos and photos made as the grid was being extended northward during the 19th century show the results of shoving streets through rocky, undulating terrain. That took rough surgery, and it left scars. Houses remain stranded on bits of high ground. Huge outcroppings await dynamite in the gaps between newly constructed apartment blocks. Then there were the cycles of real estate frenzy, evoked by subdivision maps and breathless auction posters. Photos of sketchy, muddy neighborhoods dotted with forlornly isolated new buildings (and doomed squatters’ shacks) resonate disturbingly with images, from our recent speculative bust, of suburban developments abandoned and unfinished. But Manhattan’s grid has long since been built out, those scars covered over.

 

New York’s plan had its critics, and over time the grid was altered in many ways, typically for the purpose of increasing public space. Small parks, including Washington, Union and Thompkins Squares, were not originally envisioned but added later. Negative reactions to the grid’s rigidity partly led to the creation and rusticated design of Central Park. In turn, Central Park’s modeling of an aesthetic of the picturesque inspired further modifications, and additional naturalistic parks like Riverside and Morningside, on the Upper West Side and north of 155th Street where the terrain can be especially steep. The 1811 plan specified that streets on the East Side would have blocks an unmanageable 920 feet long; so Madison and Lexington Avenues were cut through to make shorter blocks and ease circulation. Broadway was allowed to continue its angled route north of where it was to have stopped at 23rd Street, resulting in asymmetrical open spaces including Times, Madison and Herald Squares and Columbus Circle. And in the 20th Century, desire for more open space led to modifications the wisdom of which is now debatable: the amalgamation of superblocks for towers-in-the-park housing projects; tradeoffs with developers allowing greater building height in exchange for setbacks and street-level plazas and for POPS, the “privately owned public spaces” like Zuccotti Park, whose murky legal and social role Occupy Wall Street has recently illuminated.

 

J.S. Johnston, Aerial View of Madison Square, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.2407

 

New York’s was hardly the first plan with an x/y grid. By 1811, several American cities including Savannah, Philadelphia, Albany and even little Hudson, New York, 120 miles upriver, had such layouts. The 1573 Law of the Indies had required that Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas comprise grids of streets extending from central squares, and precedents for that form date back to the Roman Empire. New York’s was also not the last. The majority of North American towns and cities established after the colonial era were built as grids where terrain permitted – and even in places, like San Francisco, where terrain was a challenge. And today, after decades of mass amnesia have allowed the dysfunctional dendritic form of cul-de-sac suburbia to dominate American placemaking, planners and citizens are coming again to value the connectivity, both functional and social, that comes from having lots of streets crossing close together.

 

What’s different about New York’s grid from those of other cities? Presciently or accidentally, the Commisioners’ Plan had qualities that allowed—perhaps even encouraged—Manhattan to become tremendously dense but still remain livable. For example, no land is given to mid-block alleys, and buildings front directly on the public way. The hierarchy in which cross streets at (more or less) regular intervals are wider than the standard not only accommodates frequent retail districts but also makes viable a public transit network that could not have been envisioned at the time. Unlike some cities’ grids— Savannah’s, with its rectilinear pattern frequently broken by public squares; Washington’s, with many diagonal avenues creating odd spaces for both small parks and monumental sculptures—New York’s streets and avenues are almost entirely uninterrupted. Today they form long corridors framed by tall buildings. You get seemingly endless perspectives down the avenues, and crosstown views that extend similarly, for example west across the magnificent Hudson River to the New Jersey Palisades. When a city is built low to the ground, long unpunctuated thoroughfares can feel empty and disconnected; think of Salt Lake City, or Chicago’s vast bungalow neighborhoods. But population growth and the elevator hurtled New York’s grid up into three dimensions. New York exists at a much larger scale than most cities. Intimate outdoor rooms resulting from truncated vistas may not quite be appropriate here, after all—but sensations of exhilarating possibility induced by hugeness certainly are. New York is a hive of polity, creativity and wealth as a result of many factors. The grid itself is not alone responsible, but the grid supports its greatness.

 

This is a rich and rewarding exhibition, and its apparently strong attendance is a heartening sign of the growing general concern for urban design. After viewing it, you might want to take a break to let your mind shift orientation from past to future before going upstairs. There, eight winning projects from a competition (sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, Architizer and the museum) are on display in a companion show called “The Unfinished Grid, Speculations for Manhattan.” These concepts are edgy and provocative, variously doable and improbable, but engagingly presented. One reads like a fragment from a novel, about an unhappy couple’s visit to a dying relative in a miles-high structure at the northern edge of Central Park. One proposes erecting another grid, a single connected structure 700 feet above street level, interlinking skyscrapers and adding new buildings “by hanging.” One lays a virtual grid over the real city and asks citizens to use their smartphones to express ideas for urban interventions to architects who are presumably standing by to design and (virtually) put them in place.

 

It is rare to have the opportunity to examine these kinds of theoretical solutions while their real-world context is so freshly and clearly in mind. This makes them easier to comprehend—and to critique as well as be dazzled by. To take them in total seriousness, you have to agree with their starting assumptions that Manhattan as a built environment is riddled with voids, or offers only limited possibilities, or fails to meet the demands upon it, and so on. The city’s built form is hardly perfect now, and it will always be challenged to evolve. But you come away from “The Greatest Grid” with a powerful sense of its intelligence and resilience.

 

John Randel, Jr., The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives.

Comments

  1. The exhibit design itself –a grid of 3D blocks with the historical artifacts mounted on their “facades”– simply and clearly (and perhaps too metaphorically) emphasizes the density and slight claustrophobia of the built city on the ground. Meanwhile, a video installation features the people of New York locating themselves by their intersections. Manhattan/New York: a completely constructed and fully occupied habitat made possible by vision for the long term and investment in democratic infrastructure.

    > Reply
  2. Nice review, Jonathan. If readers are not on Manhattan and want to see where they would be if the city’s grid were extended to every point on earth go to http://www.extendny.com

    > Reply
  3. Great review, Jonny. I’ll pass it on to Manhattanites.
    Julia

    > Reply
  4. This is a lovely review Jonathan, thanks. The question of public space for public assembly is really crucial here.

    I used this exhibit (and a few other events) to weave together a narrative about the fate of public space in a plan that was entirely commercial – please have a look at http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2012/01/perceptions-of-freedom-some-geographies-of-urban-protest.html and feel free to leave comments.

    Christian – nice catch on the meta-commentary of the show’s design itself. I was struck by this as well.

    > Reply

> Submit

Select filter(s):
al-gs-trace

TraceSF launches City Makers salon

This month TraceSF introduces City Makers, a new salon series at StoreFrontLabHosted by Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects and Emily Gosack of Jensen Architects, City Makers grew out of a desire to hear more from the women at the forefront of City Making. John Parman, a founding editor of TraceSF, spoke with Amanda and Emily about the series, which opens on October 28 with  Laura Crescimano, a principal of SITELAB urban studio.

> Read More

MWprofile

Contributor Profile: Michael Willis

Michael Willis is a well-known Bay Area architect.

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day's session. Photo: Michael Willis

Knowledge City: Rethinking Heidelberg

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day’s session. Photo: Michael Willis

Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest university towns, is looking at its future. Here’s a firsthand account of what’s ahead and what it might means for university towns here. > Read More

Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969”, photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Carlo Scarpa In Person

“Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969,” photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

 

When one turns the page of an architecture magazine and the work of Carlo Scarpa appears unexpectedly, a quiet inner thrill is felt. Since his passing in 1978, we seem increasingly moved by Scarpa’s caress of material, his strange but faultless sense of placement and proportion, the contemplative nature of his details. These appreciations are heightened by the knowledge that his output was relatively limited. > Read More

Max Levy Portrait for Trace SF_credit Rebecca Thaden Photography

Contributor Profile: Max Levy

 

A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1970), Dallas architect Max Levy, FAIA, established his studio in 1984. He is best known for designs that connect people with nature in both rural and urban settings. > Read More

IMG_Banner

Planned Growth or Unplanned Strife?

 

Will San Francisco follow through on its carefully laid plans to accommodate a growing population, or will it continue to fight the same battles time and time again?

> Read More

Hogan_headshop landscape

Contributor Profile: Mark Hogan

 

Mark Hogan AIA, LEED BD+C is a licensed architect in the states of New York and California. His primary interests lie in housing, sustainable urban design and in enhancing digital design workflows. > Read More

TPX_header

Urban Activation Device & TXP

Spanish art & architecture collective Todo Por La Praxis is seeking collaborators and participants for their experimental research on activating the urban void. > Read More

Child running home in the destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in the hot summer of 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

When Cities Fall: Urban Histories and Political Memory

Destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

Our experience of the present is shaped by our understanding of the past. By ignoring the urban narratives of  monuments, structures, city parks, memorials…what messages are we missing for the present?  > Read More

Figure 2_607x405

Save SLO County!

Heading into Paso Robles from the west, 2013

 

Will San Luis Obispo (SLO) County remain predominantly agricultural, or will it sink into the same morass of rural sprawl that took out Orange County? It could go either way, but there’s still hope if we act now. > Read More

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure is launching a public art program, The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra, the first West Coast performance project by the artist Liz Magic Laser and her collaborators, the actors Audrey Crabtree and Michael Wiener. > Read More

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The Floods in Budapest

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The stone banks alongside the river contain the city. Despite them, here is the river, rising.  Silently, swiftly the waters swarm downstream; the swell of water does not much alter the river’s appearance.  You know there is more of it now only because benches, parks, and the bike road are being submerged.  It has not yet risen to the main city wall, about 20 feet higher; three more days of flooding expected.  

> Read More

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Contributor Profile: Elizabeth Snowden

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Elizabeth Snowden is a Berkeley-based writer and editor. A graduate of Bard College, she has edited catalogues raisonnés on Picasso and Gris for Wittenborn Art Books in San Francisco.

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

Mr. Waka’s Dog House

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

 

“Get out at the Sakuragaoka post office. Turn around and you’ll see a Lawson’s. Walk to it and then turn left. Walk up that street and you’ll see the Dog House on the right.” Typical Tokyo directions from the art impresario and entrepreneur Joni Waka. > Read More

130412 Invitation-04

Lost in Translation

At Roundhouse One Gallery: Lost in Translation: How prototyping is reshaping architecture, an exhibit (12 June – 9 August) and panel (27 June). > Read More

Photo by Lucas Saugen.

Bay Lights Ignite: One Part Business, Two Parts Pleasure

Photo by Lucas Saugen, courtesy thebaylights.org

 

Perched on a bar stool at Sinbad’s Pier 2 Restaurant with a friend, I sipped a glass of white wine on a warm spring night. Sinbad’s is definitely a touristy establishment with its wonderful view of the Bay Bridge. And that is why I was there—to take in the recently ignited “Bay Lights” project on the Bridge’s Western span. > Read More

INVITATION_16_resized

WHY? WHY NOT?…& more

 

Join San Francisco design doyenne (and TraceSF fan) Barbara Stauffacher Solomon at the launch party for her autobiographical book, Why? Why Not?: 80 Years of Art & Design in Pix & Prose, and her experimental Utopia Myopia: 36 Plays on a Page, May 3, 2013, 7–9 p.m., McRoskey Mattress Co., 1687 Market @ Gough, third floor. $5 or free with book purchase.

 

Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” at the terminus of the Louvre-Lens’ grand gallery. (Photo by Richard Ingersoll.)

SANAA’s Anti-Louvre

Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” at the terminus of the Louvre-Lens’ grand gallery. (Photo by Richard Ingersoll.)

Just before Christmas a superb new museum—a subsidiary of the Louvre in Paris—opened in the ex-coal mining city of Lens in northern France. To promote this breakthrough in museology, the curators chose the familiar icon of revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” one of some 200 artworks on loan from the parent institution, the world’s most popular museum. Richard Ingersoll paid a visit. > Read More

Did Muji take a wrong turn in San Francisco?

Where’s Muji? The Japanese chain opened its first West Coast store on a challenging block of Ninth Street last fall.

 

Muji finally opened in San Francisco late last year, ending a low-grade yearning that has nagged local devotees since the Japanese chain landed in New York in 2007. But unlike the fanfare that greeted Uniqlo, another Japanese brand that debuted here last fall, Muji’s arrival was more akin to sneaking in the back door—literally. > Read More

FIG.00_Acadia.header

ACADIA 2012: Synthetic Digital Ecologies

 

The Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) convened late last fall at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco for its annual four-day conference, organized this year by CCA’s Jason Kelly Johnson.[1] It headlined an impressive list of international speakers, including Manuel DeLanda, Saul Griffith of otherlab, Greg Lynn, and Achim Menges. > Read More