The Grid: A User’s Guide

2012

Rem Koolhaas wrote that it’s “sometimes important to find out what the city is, instead of what it was, or what it should be.” That’s where this User Guide comes in. The exhibitions The Greatest Grid and The Unfinished Grid look at the grid’s past and future, respectively. The purpose of this newspaper, which was commissioned by the Architectural League of New York, is to bridge the two exhibitions by looking at the grid right here and now. Two hundred years ago, a Founding Father, a lawyer, and a surveyor drew some straight lines on a map and created the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which led to Manhattan’s grid. How do those lines influence everyday life today? How do they influence the movements and rhythms of the countless millions of tourists, commuters, dog-walkers, Sunday strollers, taxi drivers, garbage trucks, bike messengers, rats, etc. who navigate it each day? How well does the grid serve our daily needs? How do we make do with its shortcomings and take advantage of its successes? Through cartoons, games, puzzles, navigational tools, and other accessible media, we have tried to create something that can get people of all ages thinking about the grid as it is, in addition to what it was and will be.

Pieces include:

IN 1811 SOME DUDES DREW A LINE AND NOW . . . : Two hundred years ago, a Founding Father, a lawyer, and a surveyor drew some lines on a map. Today, these lines influence you more than you might think!

PEDESTRIAN PLAYBOOK: “In Midtown Manhattan you walk as though on a conveyor belt, the grid pulling you along. It is not a restful sensation, true: there are none of those piazzas, like in Rome, where you can cool your feet in a sidewalk cafe and stare across at a fountain. You keep moving, you feel purposeful, wary, pointed, athletic.” -Phillip Lopate, On the Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing

New York has been called the city that never sleeps, but it’s also the city that never stops. Whether turning the corner when confronted with a “Don’t Walk” sign, crossing the street between moving cars or in the middle of the block, or taking a shortcut through a plaza or a park, New Yorkers on the grid—like running backs on the gridiron—are perpetually in search of the path of least resistance. But as any New Yorker knows, resistance abounds: things like traffic, construction, pedestrian signals not working in your favor, rain, subway delays, long-lost friends reconnecting in the middle of the sidewalk, tourists strolling leisurely three-abreast through midtown at rush hour, and people handing out flyers in the middle of the sidewalk can present serious obstacles to timeliness.

Fortunately, for as many obstacles are there are, there are as many tricks of the pedestrian trade, creative strategies for getting around, subverting, or avoiding obstacles entirely in order to ensure a safe and timely arrival in the end zone. These strategies are included here in the Pedestrian Playbook. Can you spot them in the way that Triks Pizza company moves around the grid? If only their competitors – Pizza Lord – knew these tricks, maybe they too would be rolling in the dough!

SUPERBLOCKS: There are some pretty big blocks on The Commissioners Plan–the blocks between 5th and 6th Avenues is about 4.25 acres–but 4.25 acres was too small for disciples of “kill the street” Le Corbusier and his Ville Contemporaine, an imaginary scheme for a city for three million inhabitants that had a huge influence on the planners of mid-20th century Manhattan. Consisting primarily of tall, slender, cruciform “towers-in-the-park” set back from the street on “superblocks” (Le Corbusier felt that the number of streets should be “diminished by two thirds”), Ville Contemporaine became something of a blueprint for how cities should be reshaped after World War II. Though often maligned by critics like Jane Jacobs who favor the more traditional, low-rise, mixed-use, zero-lot-line buildings that grew on the Commissioners’ Plan, superblocks have lived well on the Commissioners’ Plan, and in fact evidence one of its greatest assets, namely, its flexibility and metabolism. Look at the amazing variety of these superblock specimens!

GRID ANOMALIES / WHAT TO DO WITH THE LEFTOVERS?: The grid is often criticized for being monotonous, but diagonal streets, bridge and tunnel infrastructure, and collisions with pre-existing grids (think West Village), and Manhattan Island’s irregular waterfront have resulted in some pretty funky blocks and parcels! The artist Gordon Matta-Clark famously bought a few dozen of those “odd lots” too small or awkward to build on as an art project, but for the most part, developers, business owners, and others have found clever ways to make do with the “leftovers,” sometimes even creating wonderful spaces in the process. In this spread we call attention to the “anomolizers” that create odd lots, and a handful of strategies for creatively developing them.

SUPERLATIVES: Every block of the Manhattan grid is unique, of course, but some rise above the rest. Below are some of the the grid’s best and most distinct pieces. Some results are surprising, some are confounding. Just like the city itself.

While there’s not a heck of a lot of variation among the Commissioners’ Plan’s 2028 blocks in terms of size and shape, an incredible amount of variety has been layered onto the Plan’s relatively homogeneous blocks. Some have lots of rich people on them, some have lots of poor people on them, and some . . . have a perplexingly large number of dentist chairs on them.

EXPANDING BEYOND THE BLOCK: Some buildings just aren’t big enough for certain businesses, institutions, or developments, so they need to find ways of expanding beyond their walls, and sometimes even beyond their blocks. There are several strategies that building owners and developers employ for expanding their limits beyond the confines of a block. Here are some of the entries in the developer’s playbook:

VOLVELLE: Have you ever had to find an address on the grid without a cross-street? It can be pretty close to impossible. Luckily, the avenue addresses on the grid have unique patterns that you can use to find cross-streets. The outer wheel lists a range of address numbers. Rotate this wheel to see the cross-streets.

NORTH ARROW: Align this edge of the paper with the curb at the north-east corner of an intersection: Uptown on the Commissioner’s Plan is not due North!

OPEN SPACE: The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 famously lacked public parks and open space. Within the Plan the Commissioners provided just two public squares (both of them relatively small): a Market Square and a large military training ground called “The Parade.” Why no parks? The Commissioners claimed that the city would be sufficiently ventilated by its adjacent rivers. Needless to say, the Commissioners were off the mark on this one. Fortunately, the grid proved flexible enough to accommodate parks and open space of every size, shape, and surface!

HONORARY STREET NAME GAME: Have you ever found yourself on Swing Street? Or Malcolm X Boulevard? It’s very possible that you’ve walked on these streets and you just didn’t realize it. These alternate street names are actually fairly common in Manhattan, although no one uses these names when providing directions or telling people where they are. Your friend most likely will not know where Lew Rudin Way is, but chances are he could probably find the corner of 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Renaming streets is a common, though not highly-publicized, way for the city to pay tribute to the many people, places, and events, that have contributed to making the city – and often the very block receiving the new name – the special place that it is.

Match the character on the left side with its description on the right side. The straight line between the two will intersect the dot indicating that honorary street’s location in the Manhattan Grid.

GRID BINGO: Now it’s time for you to go out into the city and start finding these things for yourself! How long will it take for you to get BINGO?

GRID TRACKS: Many different beasts – from cars to dogs to commuters – roam the urban safari that is Manhattan in their own unique ways. Can you match the beast with its characteristic track?

CROSSWORD PUZZLE

Project Team: Tobias Armborst, Principal, Daniel D’Oca, Principal, Georgeen Theodore, Principal, Rebecca Beyer Winik, Project Manager, Pippa Brashear, Ingrid Burrington, Kathleen Cahill, Adrian Garcia, Lesser Gonzalez (illustration), Willy Mann, Michael Piper, Frank Ruchala, Thumb (graphic design) Pedro Torres, Chat Travieso, Sarah Williams

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