The grid of Manhattan defines the urban landscape of New York City and has been fundamental to the evolution of New York as the iconic American city. As a vision for development, it represents American ideals of the value of land and ambition towards growth. It is now the setting for one of the centers of global culture, development, and tourism, as well as everyday life for 1.6 million residents. As a poetic meter and a backdrop for life, the grid moves fluidly between an abstract system and an applied system.
The grid is complex, despite its geometric simplicity, because of the layers of perception it envelopes. As a turning point in New York’s narrative, the historic context is revealed, in both the uniformity and novelty in the system. Manhattan was not a blank slate during the implementation of the grid, and tensions remain today between the orthogonal streets and the streets predating 1811. Eric Sanderon’ book Manahatta has also recently intrigued naturalists and urbanists by revisiting the island predating any streets. Beneath the concrete grid, there were once marshes, hills, and creeks that were refashioned as the city expanded. That historic understandingof the Manhattan grid is not only limited to its conception by New York planners and surveyors, but also as a part of a global proclivity towards grids and rationality in planning.
Revealed in the vision of the grid is an emphasis on control through the authority of the city and the global rule set that embodies the plan of Manhattan. Established with the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, Streets and Avenues are regular and orthogonal. Order is maintained and a common heirarchy has been established. It is easy to see where the system breaks, because of the majority of the system is clear and has been maintained. Even through the use of numbered streets, there is a desire for mathematical purity. This is seen primarily through maps and encompassing representations, in contrast to the European method of the time that connected major monuments across the city.
The foil to the grid as an abstract concept is its perception through movement within the system. Although the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 and future city plans were developed in the two-dimensional representations of plans and section, the experience of the plan is in the three- and four-dimensional world of the inhabitant. At the simplest level, the grid and street numbering system of Manhattan brings ease to traversing the city and to finding specific locations. It is simple to ask for directions and explore without the fear of getting lost. The long views down streets aid in way finding, and the rhythm of blocks provides a regular tempo to the city.
Despite an initial vision for development and property values, the grid also serves as a rich medium for design. Views are focused on block faces and intersections. There is a focus on commerce, infrastructure, entrances, and the vertical dimension. Although this focus outweighs monumental architecture and grand views, tactics such as setbacks and plazas have opened opportunities for emphasis on a specific building. There is an inclination to take advantage of places where the grid breaks, such as diagonal cross streets or boundaries with the pre-grid city. The grid is not frozen, but is continually investigated, challenged, perserved, and reimagined today.
Because of the complex setting of the grid and the background it represents, an emphasis towards understanding and perception is critical to the architect of planner. It might not be necessary to begin with the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 or the grids of ancient Roman cities with every building design in Manhattan, but it is important to understand some of the major attitude shifts over time. The grid began as a clear system for division and sale of land in Manhattan, but is now evolved into a defining feature of the island’s culture. Jane Jacobs inverted the solid-void relationship of the streets and buildings by declaring the street as the public realm. Rem Koolhaas praises the grid for its congestion and chance social interactions. Each of these perceptions adds to the collective understanding of the grid. The many varied understanding highlight the richness and potential contradictions that the concept of the grid can support - from efficient to inefficient, from infrastructure to social realm, and from regular to irregular.
Isovist theory is an emerging theory in Architecture that can now be applied to the scale of the grid. It is a idea held within Space Syntax, which examines form as a set of rules, variables, and operations. Space Syntax tends towards either generation of space through a set of procedures and selection, or towards an analysis of existing space by utilizing mapping and connectivity analysis. As a core tool within this theory, an isovist is the polygon of visible space from a specific point. Developed by Michael Benedikt, isovists are a useful way to understand, in a specific dimension, what is visible to a specific point (representing a person, street corner, division of path, etc).
This new layer of understanding, when applied to the grid, reveals a quantifiable way to understand the regularity and complexity of the urban landscape of Manhattan. As an initial investigation, the comparison between two areas in Manhattan, shows how the regularity and irregularity of the grid defines complex viewsheds. The two locations, Fourteenth Street and Times Square, are crucial places in the narrative of the city, and have been repeatedly leveraged by designers looking to evolve the urban landscape of New York. As a test for understanding the city with a newly established method of perception, isovists can add both another layer to the rich story of Manhattan and a way to reveal the potential of a given place.