In a deceptively modest-seeming exhibition hall on the first floor of the Museum of the City of New York is a show titled The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, a history of the 1811 plan for Manhattan’s grid, now celebrating its 200th anniversary. The size of the exhibit is cleverly misleading. Upon closer inspection its historic scale and range are immense and provide that rare feeling that one has discovered the secrets of the city.
One floor above the historical exhibit are, fittingly, projections for the future of Manhattan’s grid in the companion exhibit The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan – eight proposals chosen from over 120, in a call for ideas sponsored by the Architectural League in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York and Architizer. [For more information about the two exhibitions, see this piece by Unfinished Grid curator Gregory Wessner. -Ed.]
At the Museum last Saturday afternoon, the Architectural League’s Gregory Wessner, the curator of The Unfinished Grid, moderated a panel discussion with Amale Andraos of WORKac, Ken Smith of Ken Smith Landscape Architect, and Mark Robbins, Dean of Syracuse University School of Architecture (Andraos and Robbins had served on the jury for the Unfinished Grid competition). The group discussed the living legacy of the 1811 plan and the new proposals imagining Manhattan’s infrastructural future.
The grand scale and defyingly disciplined solution that the 1811 Plan imposed on the map of Manhattan (in most instances keeping to the original plan within a hundredth of an inch) has had a humbling and inspiring effect on many architects and designers, including those on the panel. When asked to explain this enduring influence, Amale Andraos pointed out that, “Compared with the Roman grid, the Manhattan grid was created to create difference and expressiveness on its own. It’s funny that it seems so inevitable, so straightforward. It’s also [a] very egalitarian ideology, not like the Continental grid. There’s no preferred access.” Indeed, as early as 1877, Frederick Law Olmsted made a similar observation, as provided in the exhibit along with quotes by other memorable observers: “Such distinctive advantage of position that Rome gives St. Peter’s, Paris the Madeleine, London St. Paul’s, New York, under her system, gives to nothing.”
While neutralizing and egalitarian in this respect, and in its use of a numbering system rather than the Continental preference for important names, the grid also presents to many as oppressive and constricting. Ken Smith noted that “it was criticized for its relentlessness at first; [but it also presented the] the genius of pure infrastructure – it frames and then individuates.” Mark Robbins then fondly recalled the tag line for The Naked City: “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” The panelists pointed out this expressive effect of the grid, that most of the individual expression and innovation occur within the interstitial spaces in the city, the ones the grid gives rise to and organically encourages.
Of course, not everyone feels the grid’s oppressiveness as a catalyst to greater flourishing of city life. One member of the audience felt quite dismayed at the unanimous adulation the panel seemed to give the grid. He echoed a not unpopular sentiment when he said, “I’m a little disheartened that you are so cheerful about the grid. For example, every street is a through street — you can’t find respite, can’t get away from it.”
Andraos countered that what he perceives as problems natural to the grid may actually have more to do with how we conduct daily life in the 21st century — garbage collection, street cleaning and traffic issues. She pointed to Barcelona’s new pneumatic trash management system that helps reduce garbage truck traffic as an example of how creative solutions can address many of these issues. When prodded by another audience member, an Englishwoman who bemoaned the lack of green space, especially as compared with London, Andraos pointed out the immense environmentally adaptive qualities of the grid. Although it was created in the first half of the 19th century, when the city could only count a population of 100,000 on the island of Manhattan, the grid made possible an efficient future sewage system, subway system, and pedestrian traffic. Within its rigidity it provided a flexibility that could accommodate this ambitiously growing and densifying city.
One of the central questions of planning in New York did creep its way into the discussion when someone asked about he pros and cons of landmarking in New York City 200 years into the future. The panelists agreed that, as Andraos replied, “We can’t and shouldn’t turn the entire city into a museum.” It’s also a question of allowing for the life of the city to continue. Wessner added that “Preserving the spirit of New York as place of change and new ideas, and balancing that with the city’s past – it’s a big question. Also, there’s a difference between preservation for historic value versus preservation efforts that are meant to keep development from happening.” This tension between development and preservation seems to underlie almost every discussion about planning, those about grand scale projects especially. Mark Robbins acknowledged this “anxiety about fabric going away in New York,” but, he pointed out, “(it) seems to be remarkably resilient.”
The panel did appraise some of the eight projects on display that project the grid’s potential into the city’s future. However, the panelists and jury members seemed a bit surprised by what they saw as a common “back to the future” sensibility of many of the entries and a relatively timid approach to thinking 200 years ahead. For example, they noted that none of the environmentally-oriented submissions were chosen as winners, partly because they were not radical enough or because many of their plans for the future are already a contemporary reality. Green plans for rooftops in Manhattan and urban farms, for instance, have been sprouting for a while now.
Maintaining New York as a place that inspires big ideas and gives them traction seems a bit more difficult 200 years on. We may recognize that planning of such sweeping scope can’t or won’t happen today, but this show serves to kindle the desire to imagine on a grand scale — the resilience of the grid speaks well to the impact of ambitious spirit. Thinking big might be okay again.
Yael Friedman writes about art and culture, and often about sports. She lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Tel Aviv and Rockaway (Bauhaus heaven and unapologetically homey beach town, respectively). You can check out more of her stuff at Ida Post.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.