On the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for New York, the foundational document that established the Manhattan street plan from Houston Street to 155th Street, the Architectural League invites architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and other design professionals to use the Manhattan street grid as a catalyst for thinking about the present and future of New York. For two centuries, the Manhattan street grid has demonstrated an astonishing flexibility to accommodate the architectural gestures and urban planning theories of successive generations of architects, urban designers, private developers, and city officials. Given its capacity for reinvention, how might the Manhattan grid continue to adapt and respond to the challenges and opportunities–both large and small–that New York faces now and into the future?
Up to ten selected proposals will receive an honorarium of $1,000 and will be included in an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, beginning in December 2011, concurrently with the exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan.
September 26, 2011
In 1807, frustrated by years of uncontrolled development and a decade of public health epidemics attributed to lower Manhattan’s cramped and irregular streets, New York City’s Common Council (the predecessor to today’s City Council) petitioned the State Legislature to develop a street plan for Manhattan above Houston Street, at that time a rural area of streams and hills populated by a patchwork of country estates, farms, and small houses. The adoption in 1811 of the Commissioners’ Plan for New York laid out in a single bold stroke the Manhattan street plan up to 155th Street (leaving the area north of there for future planners to address). Though it would take the rest of the 19th century to build, this gridiron of twelve north-south avenues and 155 east-west streets would fundamentally shape the future of New York and become an emblem of the city itself.
In celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan, the Museum of the City of New York will present The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, a major exhibition curated by Hilary Ballon that traces the origins and evolution of the grid over two hundred years. As inevitable — or perhaps invisible — as it may seem to New Yorkers today, the Manhattan street plan was an act of breathtaking vision and ambition on the part of city officials and citizens alike, one that required the mobilization of vast resources and decades of sacrifice and inconvenience. Grid plans, of course, were not new; Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Savannah, to name just a few colonial examples, all used a grid in one form or another. What was notable about the Commissioners’ Plan was the relentlessness with which the grid was deployed: 2,028 seemingly identical blocks with little provision for public space and none of the expressive urban gestures then fashionable among city planners — the “circles, ovals, and stars” that, in the commissioners’ own words, “certainly embellish a plan” notwithstanding “their effect as to convenience and utility.” Moreover, the plan displayed a complete disregard for the existing topography of Manhattan, transforming what had been an island of hills, valleys, and streams into the (relatively) level plane necessitated by the straight lines of the plan’s streets and avenues.
Alternately vilified and celebrated over its two hundred years, the Manhattan grid has nonetheless demonstrated a remarkable flexibility to accommodate the architectural gestures and urban planning theories of successive generations of architects, urban designers, private developers, and city officials. Central Park and the super-block housing developments of 1960s urban renewal; Broadway and Madison and Lexington Avenues; the automobile and the subway; the skyscraper and the sliver building; the water system and the electricity grid; zoning resolutions and preservation districts — these are just some of the amendments and additions that the Commissioners’ Plan has accommodated since 1811. Given the grid’s capacity for reinvention, how might it continue to adapt and respond to the challenges and opportunities — both large and small — that New York faces now and into the future?
Amale Andraos, WORKac
Hilary Ballon, Curator, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan
Sarah Henry, Chief Curator, Museum of the City of New York
Wendy Evans Joseph, Exhibition Designer, The Greatest Grid; Cooper Joseph Studio
Marc Kushner, HWKN; CEO, Architizer
Mark Robbins, Dean, Syracuse University School of Architecture
Bernard Tschumi, Bernard Tschumi Architects
Gregory Wessner, Curator, The Greatest Grid: Call for Ideas; Digital Programs and Exhibitions Director, The Architectural League
Sarah Whiting, Dean, Rice University School of Architecture
The Greatest Grid: A Call for Ideas is organized by the Architectural League of New York and curated by Gregory Wessner. Funding has been provided by the J. Clawson Mills Fund of the Architectural League. League programs are also made possible, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan is organized by the Museum of the City of New York and curated by Hilary Ballon.
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan is made possible, in part, by the generous support of The Dyson Foundation, ConEdison, The Durst Organization, Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Todd De Garmo, Jill and John Chalsty, Nixon Peabody, Ronay and Richard Menschel, and Vornado Realty Trust.
Additional support is provided by the 42nd Street Development Corporation, Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, Structure Tone, Gardiner & Theobald, American Continental Group, AvalonBay Communities, Benchmark Builders, Robert Derector Associates, VVA Project Managers and Consultants, and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.
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The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.