Lab Notes I

Order and Adaptation: What the New York Grid Teaches Us about Contemporary Urbanism

"For all its modifications, the grid has remained the nervous system of a thriving city."

It’s not quite true that Manhattan’s street grid is two hundred years old. In fact, the year 2011 marked the bicentennial of the project of establishing a regular and continuous grid north of 14th Street. The plan was at first far-fetched, authoritarian, and utopian. For the grid started out as an elaborate Cartesian fantasy, a diagram seemingly irreconcilable with the material realities of topography and existing settlement in the young city of New York. The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (through April 15), shows how an abstract plan came to serve as the “remarkably flexible framework for 200 years of city living.” Curator Hilary Ballon also invites us to speculate on how this “vision of brazen ambition” can be further adapted to serve coming generations. What does the legacy of New York City’s master plan teach us about urbanism?

The exhibition displays a shifting interplay between total structural order and the special cases that constantly challenge and modify that order. This theme should appeal to urbanists around the world, as open-source theory, grassroots activism, and “informal” development vie with traditional planning techniques for control over the shaping of cities. While the definitive 1811 Randel map of Manhattan shows a pure and uncompromising street system on a nearly blank slate, subsequent maps begin to reflect a more layered urban situation.

For example, the William Bridges map of 1811 projects the grid over a more expressively rendered topography. Chief surveyor John Randel’s exquisite “farm maps” of 1818–20 overlay the regular grid with the irregular lines and features of preexisting farms, estates, roads, and paths, as well as streams and woods—reflecting a decade of pushback from landowners and the complexities of land clearing, filling, and grading. Later maps by Hanson and Dripps similarly reveal a multilayered cityscape in the process of becoming.

William Bridges map, 1811, and detail. Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan, as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the legislature, April 3d, 1807.  William Bridges, city surveyor, engraved by P. Maverick. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Randel farm map with street grid overlay, 1820. Randel Farm Map no. 55, vol. 1, p. 16, showing 101st to 109th Street, from Third Avenue to the East River, July 21, 1820. By Chief Surveyor John Randel, Jr. Used with permission of the City of New York and the Office of the Manhattan Borough President

The giant green patch in the seamless gray fabric of the grid—Central Park—wasn’t conceived until the late 1850s. Quickly emerging as one of the most powerful built environments in the city, it acted not against the grid but in counterpoint with it. Unfortunately not all districts had access to such open public spaces. Andrew Haswell Green, a planner who commissioned Olmsted and Vaux to design Central Park and helped establish some of the museums along the park, continued to propose modifications to the grid that resulted in the creation of Columbus Circle, Riverside Park, Morningside Park, and St. Nicholas Park, as well as a realigned and replanted Broadway.

Additional avenues were added in between the original ones on the East Side—and were given proper names like Lexington and Madison rather than numbers, starting a trend in which the flat transparency and accessibility of the numeric naming system absorbed cultural references that evoked plural histories and identities. The speculative work displayed in The Unfinished Grid, a complementary exhibition organized in collaboration with the Architectural League and Architizer, offers further evidence that the grid can be understood as a kind of polyrhythmic system.

For all its modifications, the grid has remained the nervous system of a thriving city. Its monotonous code may be generic, but it is also generative: serving as a kind of user platform, it enables us to build upon it whatever we might wish, albeit within complex social constraints. The results are heterogeneous (and sometimes cacophonous, humorous, or vertiginous) and always subject to change. The grid thrives as it splices and overlaps with local particularities. Anomalous spaces such as Union Square, Broadway, Morningside Park, and the High Line may cause headaches for traffic engineers and property developers—but these exceptional junctures and overlays breathe vitality into the grid and fuel the life of the city. For the grid is an open-ended project for growth and change, not a closed system or a finished work. The Greatest Grid celebrates a classic example of Big Planning, while showing how the plan’s resilience lies in its adaptability.

Photo used by permission under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) from Zemlinki

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the first is the Rise of Open-Source Urbanism

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