In Praise of Manhattan's Grid, on its 200th Birthday

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York provides an opportunity for reflection on what Rem Koolhaas once called "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization."

On the 200th anniversary of its creation, Manhattan's Grid is being celebrated and contemplated in a new exhibition titled "The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011" (on view through April 15). In two thoughtful pieces in The Architect's Newspaper and Metrpolis, Phil Patton and Karrie Jacobs reflect on the exhibit, and inevitably turn to an evaluation of the pros and cons of the grid itself, furthering an ongoing discussion taking place in the pages of Planetizen.

For Jacobs, "Manhattan's grid-the reliable network of numbered streets (20 to the mile), and the more widely and irregularly spaced avenues-is the city as God intended it. Of course, there's nothing remotely natural about it."

Jacobs goes on to ruminate about the grid's encouragement of creativity and contradiction. "The grid is actually more accommodating than it appears. While it has reined in the size and, to a certain extent, the shape of Manhattan's buildings, the grid has motivated developers, architects, and planners to either subvert or compensate for it...Happily, the grid's consistency is frequently offset by anomalies."

Patton dismisses complaints about the failure of the grid to provide for the veneration of architecture with an ode to democracy, "a city without a central cathedral or palace was more a democratic society and, in a city without a center, anywhere could be central."

He sees as a failing of the exhibit its inability to, "bringing into the gallery the sense of the grid as perceived on the street or in the popular mind....How to represent the mesmerizing quality of the short blocks that make people walk farther than they plan, or the flickering passage of street numbers in a taxi window, like shuffling cards?"

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