architecture chat: grids

Below is an excerpt of a conversation I had with my friends, Maja Trudel (M), and Johann Reble (J), when they were guests in my home last spring. Maja and Johann are young Swiss architects, and it was pleasure to talk with them about building, cities, space and perception. Here’s the part about grids:

J: What I was thinking about for a long time is that there are very different scales of structures in the city. A building can be destroyed at any time when you don’t want it anymore. Maybe the structure didn’t fit anymore, maybe it’s the façade people don’t like anymore, and it’s just cheaper to tear down the whole building and build a new one. Look at New York. New York is a perfect example. The structure, the layout of the streets, and even the subway lines, can never be changed. It’s there forever. There would have to be a very [horrible event], like the worst war ever, to destroy the structure you have here. And it all began one day, when some guy drew some lines on a paper.

A: The grid.

J: So it’s there. You cannot change it. You can destroy all the houses and build new ones, but the structure is still there. These are the scales of structure, which are very important—the bigger the scale, the more time you need to destroy it, or change it. And the other thing I think is very important, is what is the order of the scale, who says what scale it is, and what it is about.

A: Yeah, I think about the grid a lot. I used to teach a course called, “We Built this City.” Students expected to learn about large scale structures like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, and other iconic structures of New York. But students are always surprised that I spend so much time at the beginning of the course on the grid. The reason we have to start there is exactly what you said before. The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building—they don’t really matter as much as that grid.

Inside of that grid there are whole lives. Even small sections of the grid can be the space of a whole life. In that sense, there is this big structure, there is this scale, but it doesn’t matter, if you don’t experience life at that scale. Within that grid, there can be infinite variation.

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M: Mmm

J: Yeah

A: Within that grid there can be so many different shapes and pathways, and layers and layers of life, going up and down. Of course, in the conventional way that I have to teach how things are built—giving the names of the architects, teaching accepted ideas of what is a city, and conventional methods for studying it—I begin with the grid, because I have to teach my students about structure, and I am oriented, in my training, towards what is stable. That’s what I’m supposed to teach. But secretly what I’d like to figure out is how we can look at anywhere in the grid, maybe a block, and see for ourselves how that space is really unlimited in actuality.

It makes a difference, whether you look at the stable, or you look at the moving, constantly changing things; whether you think that the structure is most important or movement is more important. This perspective makes a difference politically, and in you methods of working.

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J: Take your “Archiving the city” project. Now we have this whole other layer of the internet, and virtuality. So this means there are new grids, right? Different grids. Have you studied them?

A: Oh! I have a book called “THE GRID BOOK”!

[We all laugh]

J: Do you think the patterns in grids can change over time? Like the form of the grid itself? Or is there some kind of universal human form that always [asserts itself] in the grid?

A: Huh. That’s a tough one.

J: Obviously there’s a reason why the floors are flat, (our professor talks like this), and not tilted. It just kind of makes sense: we like to walk on flat surface.

[We all laugh]

J: So there are some kind of basic parameters in the form of the grid.

A: I guess that’s a version of the age-old question: Amongst all the phenomena on earth, all the variation, is there some common denominator? And I don’t know.

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One thought on “architecture chat: grids

  1. Liking your shared reflections on the grid. I was researching this a bit further, and came across Speed Levitch, who has a beautiful discussion of the grid, in the documentary film The Cruise. That little bit starts on 3:25 in the following clip:

    His closing words on the grid when he is at that eerily silent crossing blew me away.

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