Architecture Lab

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 at the Museum of the City of New York through April 15.
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan


Gridlock—the word has become metaphorically indispensable in dealing with Washington as well as New York. But in the beginning was the grid, the Manhattan street pattern itself, laid out in 1811, whose 200th anniversary is commemorated with an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), curated by architectural historian Hilary Ballon.
Not until the 1980s did the word “gridlock” come along, the exhibition tells us. Formally certified on March 22, 1811, the report of the “Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York” offered a plan its authors promised would “unite regularity and order with the Public convenience and benefit.” The ur-grid, the Commissioners’ Map, is on display as the centerpiece of the show.

The report justified the grid pattern with the reasoning that “a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” The words fairly drip with contempt for “circles, ovals, and stars” and other ornamental shapes. The grid, with its 12 avenues and 155 streets laid out under the director of chief surveyor John Randel, became the grammar of the city. In its interaction with older streets and buildings, it produced such irregular effects as the mad intersection of 4th Street with 11th and 12th streets.

Or the absent block of 11th Street at Broadway where James Renwick’s Grace Church sits. The grid is also the basis of Manhattan architecture, providing unconscious, de facto specs for builders. The grid’s champions praise the architectural creativity it has engendered. Its critics condemn the grid as generating architectural mediocrity and providing few public spaces and structures.

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