Gridlock

One of the things I loved about moving to the USA, almost nine years ago, was the uniform way in which most towns are planned. Having a carefully mapped-out block pattern in the shape of a grid still strikes me as exotic and, while Second Street or Thirty-Second Avenue might not resonate to North-American ears, to me they scream out New World. What I didn’t know then and was surprised to discover, is that urban grid-plan layouts hail back to the Romans, and this very modern concept is, after all, an old idea.

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Los Angeles at night, courtesy of idle time software, Flickr

The grid plan of urban planners is logical, convenient, and makes travelling easier for pedestrians and drivers alike, at least, in principle; cyclists might disagree with this judgement. I enjoy thinking of distance in cities in terms of blocks rather than being measured by minutes or in metres. While modern cities might not possess the centuries-old stubborn charm of medieval towns, there is a certain brutal beauty to be found in the lights and heights of our contemporary urban centres.

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In 1925, Le Corbusier proposed razing the Marais area of Paris to the ground and replacing it with a grid system of tower blocks (the design for which is shown below). The Plan Voisin was formulated over three years and for some people, this project stands as a metaphor for soulless architecture. While the Marais district -Marais is French for Marsh and the name has tenaciously lingered over the centuries even though it was drained almost eight centuries ago- is today a byword for sophistication and is littered with restored seventeenth-century buildings, it was in a radically different state in 1925, being mostly squalid and made up of dilapidated slum dwellings.

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Thanks to urban planning, the grid has become synonymous with progress and technology in the public imagination, an association that has been consolidated with the advent of computers. Circuit boards and networks suggest grids and it is no accident that the first effective laptop computer was called the Grid Compass.

It is difficult to assess the extent to which computers have affected human society during the past three decades and only future generations will possess the hindsight that comes with the necessary distance to do so. It has been a revolution of sorts which has had far-reaching impacts on every area of our lives and yet, computers -or more specifically the Internet- have not radically changed our mindset in the way that the invention of the printing press did in the fifteenth century (spawning or invigorating the Renaissance, Humanism, and the Reformation) or the industrial revolution (which ultimately transformed the make-up of society). With an eye to the past, I can see many affinities with the development of a postal network in the early modern period allowing efficient and frequent communication between individuals of different nations, religions, and ideologies. This led to the creation of the concept of the Republic of Letters, a radical notion of intellectuals belonging to a society that knew no barriers. It did not take long for the spying of correspondence to become routine, much as might be observed of our current electronic version of the Republic of Letters.

Technological developments caused a major crisis for science fiction during the 1980s and 1990s, for the information explosion had simply not been predicted -at least not in its extent and form- by writers and directors. It is a brutal letdown, for example, to read in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series, that the Second Foundation’s location is discovered by a character, Mis, visiting the Great Library of Tranton and spending time researching among its holdings of books, even though these events are many centuries in the future. The genre was helped out of temporary disarray by Cyperpunk as well as writers tackling the potential negative downsides to the changes. It would be computers rather than robots who would turn on their human masters, something already foreseen in 1968 by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the brilliant creation of Hal, a dysfunctional, disobedient, and dangerous computing system. As technology has advanced during the recent years, it seems that our optimism for the future has also decreased in equal measure.

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Today’s cufflinks are designed by Else and Paul Hughes, a married couple (she was Norwegian and he was English) who founded their Else & Paul Studio in Hadelund, Norway, in 1959. They are made out of sterling silver which has aged wonderfully to give a slightly yellowish silver matte surface. These probably date from the late 1960s. I’ve seen a couple of other patterns by the pair that involve the same theme of interconnectivity and intersection, which leads me to believe that Else and Paul tended towards a positive outlook for the future. After all, the grid’s most noble use is in conceiving the layout of the universe.

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2 comments on “Gridlock

  1. abbie says:

    It’s nice to hear some appreciation for the beauty of the grid. I get so angry driving around in the suburban subdivisions here because they were specifically designed to keep through-traffic out by relying on winding streets and irregularly shaped blocks. Seems so illogical and short-sighted to me!

    • I’m content to find a fellow grid lover. I wonder if my appreciation has anything to do with being an outsider coming into this different system? Your comment about the subdivisions is quite true; they must have been purposely designed to alienate through-traffic which, ultimately, creates a pervasively hostile environment.

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