The Tissue of Straight Lines

Long before New York became the agreed-upon center of the universe, in 1811, its commissioners codified its grid in a plan that filled the unbuilt majority of the island—between 23rd and 155th streets, thereafter—with uniform city blocks. Rem Koolhaas has called Manhattan a “mountain range of evidence without a manifesto” in his own retroactive manifesto for the island, underrating the rectilinear pattern that is both the evidence and the manifesto itself. The city’s open grid extends its lines into infinity, presupposing its relevance at every point on the earth’s surface, and generously offering a mechanism for aligning any location on the globe with the Commissioners’ Plan. Such arrogance seems justified now—the grid’s worldwide reach is more symbolically apt than ever, thanks to the global finance-media-culture cloud of which New York is a principal control center—but to even assume in the early 19th century that Manhattan would fill with people and buildings, requiring the grid’s gentle guidance, was optimistic. If fortune had soured upon New York’s location, as it has so many other would-be boom towns, that plan would have become yet another ghostly trace of an unfulfilled growth prophecy, casting Manhattan as an oversized parking lot for a half-vacant shopping center at the island’s southern tip.

Manhattan’s grid is not the first, nor the purest, nor the most expansive. But Manhattan’s matters the most, even beyond the inflated value at which New Yorkers assess their own version of everything. To argue otherwise is to argue that the physical urban environment has nothing to do with the culture it produces. Le Corbusier wrote, in praise of the grid, that “Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going.” While he was not referring to New York in particular, it is difficult to imagine a city that fulfills his vision of that condition more perfectly. Ironically, Le Corbusier’s more visible legacy has been the appropriation of his theories to weaken the grid in American cities, via the superblock and the tower in the park. Nevertheless, he correctly associated the grid’s perfectly straight lines and right angles with rationality, efficiency, and everything else that had come to epitomize the machine age, and there is still no better spatial array than the grid if your goal is to stack as much concrete, steel, and human activity as possible upon 23 square miles of land.

Although Le Corbusier made his pronouncement in 1924, the Commissioners’ Plan had established Manhattan’s grid in a prior era, at the early dawn of the industrial age. During the 200 years that followed that grid’s genesis, the urban condition has changed dramatically in New York and everywhere else. Manhattan, as the theater where many of these changes have played out most dramatically, enables us to observe that historical flux against the consistency of the grid. In 1811, the grid presented the easiest possible system for dividing land into lots that could be bought and sold on the open market, and the most efficient street system for moving carriage traffic. The subsequent century saw the city’s full maturation into an industrial capital. The grid layout both facilitated that economic vitality and worsened the filth and congestion that accompanied it, allowing efficient production and movement of goods while offering residential blocks too small for properly-ventilated tenement housing. The modernist rebellion against these conditions, joined by Le Corbusier himself, would therefore require a rebellion against the urban grid as well.

Though not ideal, the grid was certainly an appropriate form for the 19th-century industrial city—a fit that the rise of the automobile would undermine. City streets, built for horse-powered transportation, increasingly needed to accommodate speed as the 20th century progressed. The grid proved to be anything but optimal for the flood of cars that poured into Manhattan in ever-greater numbers, linked to the island’s suburban environs by newly built bridges and tunnels. Modernism had an answer for this predicament, prescribing superblocks with internal circulation routes linked by higher-speed arterial roadways. As mentioned above, Le Corbusier’s own writing suggested these solutions, and his own plans for cities like Chandigarh in India would later realize them, as would younger cities and their suburbs in the United States. New York and its grid, however, proved resistant to this new kind of machine-like efficiency and clung to its historical grid. When Robert Moses infamously proposed that a series of arterial highways should cut across Manhattan, it amounted to a direct assault on the city’s grid and the rationale for its existence. While Moses got his way in other adjustments to Manhattan’s built environment, his most drastic highway plans fell short of fruition. New York, it seemed, was destined to remain more than just a smoothly-operating machine. Jane Jacobs, the best-known antagonist to Moses in the narrative of his career, eloquently praised the grid’s support of vibrant street culture in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It is no accident that the mythologized battle between Moses and Jacobs aligns with two conflicting visions for Manhattan’s grid, because each imagined wildly different goals for the city.

Still, it was hard to deny that, in 20th-century New York, the grid was the product of a waning era. Cities are rarely destroyed and rebuilt from scratch, however, so the anachronism remained the city’s most indelible feature. Those who lived in New York could not escape its influence. “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us,” said Winston Churchill, and his aphorism is at least as true of our urban environments. The grid, shaped by New York’s commissioners a century prior, had come to shape the lives and minds of its inhabitants in fascinating ways, and their responses to it were equally fascinating. One such response, Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, perfectly reflects the grid’s influence while symbolizing its role better than perhaps any other work. Mondrian finished his masterpiece in 1943, three years after moving to Manhattan to escape European fascism. Though his art had incorporated grids long before his move to the United States, Broadway Boogie Woogie displays the intensity of color and movement possible within the straight lines and right angles of a simple grid, clearly alluding to the jazz that Mondrian encountered within the boiling cultural cauldron that was New York’s literal urban grid in the 1940s. Rather than dulling the sensory experience, Mondrian’s grid intensifies that experience through its rigorous limitations. While the urban grid was an inconvenience in the New York that Robert Moses envisioned, Mondrian announced its unusual beauty and the life that it fostered. Our environment does shape us after all, and New York’s most recent century proves that the grid accomplishes far more than simply making man walk in a purposeful, unimaginative straight line.

The interplay between looseness and rigidity that Mondrian painted was the ultimate affirmation of Manhattan’s grid in a century when, to some observers, that pattern finally outlived its usefulness. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof later articulated what Mondrian had implied so vividly: “The premise of the grid is that city-form, as a tissue of lines on the ground, is the inscribed set on which our lives are played…It is repetitive, homogeneous, even redundant. And because it is so, it calls us both to respect it and to complete it.” No cityscape can possibly change fast enough to keep up with the world, but Manhattan proves that we are better off when the basic structure of that cityscape stays constant, creating an unbiased theater for our actions to take place. The grid that originated in 1811 will never be finished as long as it remains in place, because it will never stop challenging its inhabitants to infuse its neutral, rectangular blocks with the vibrant content of humanity and culture.

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One Comment on “The Tissue of Straight Lines”

  1. [...] The Tissue of Straight Lines: a meditation on NYC’s grid street network from Kneeling Bus, one of the few blogs I read which leaves me saying, “I wish this guy wrote more articles.” [...]

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