Just back from a relaxing week on a Thai beach, and how better to get back on the grid than to visit a great exhibit on the grid – specifically, New York’s iconic system of laying out streets on a regular pattern?
The show – at the Museum of the City of New York – is entitled The Greatest Grid: The Masterplan of Manhattan 1811-2011 (on until April 15). It’s fascinating, especially for New Yorkers who take the city’s layout for granted.
First, a digression for non-New Yorkers (and my sympathies too): One of the strengths of the city is regularity of its layout, at least in Manhattan. You never need to walk more than a block to figure out where you are, and the rectangular nature of the city’s block allows for a much more interaction at the street level. It’s true that there are few curving boulevards or imposing monuments that mark other great cities – and truth be told, it can be a tad boring – but the grid really spurs life where it really counts, on the streets.
But it didn’t have to be so. As the exhibit makes clear, the city was a patchwork of oddly shaped lots owned by a host of rich – and powerful – people in the late 1700s. But farsighted planners realized that setting up a more regular structure would help spur development, by standardizing the size and shape of land parcels and allowing for more standard construction of buildings. To do that, they had to overcome entrenched opposition from landowners whose property would get sliced into pieces as well as physically reshape much of the landscape, flattening huge parts of Manhanttan. It took a huge effort overall, but the result is the New York of today.
So what does this have to do with journalism?
Only tangentially. But it really speaks to the power of setting standards and restricting choice – in order to allow much more creativity to flow within those parameters. Leaving New York to a patchwork of odd-shaped lots and meandering streets would doubtless have fostered much creative architecture; but setting the grid allowed for both creative work as well as fast development.
And so too it should be with journalism. We’re in love with unstructured text and wide-open standards for the narrative form – as we should be, since that can lead to great storytelling – just as we can, and should be, in love with great architecture. But there’s real power, too, in giving ourselves standards to conform to. If we build the building blocks of data-driven journalism in our day-to-day work, we open up new possibilities for creating new and better ways of uncovering and communicating information.
As Rem Koolhaas, the reknown Dutch architect noted in a 1978 tribute to New York:
The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can be at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.
Not a bad thing to aim for too: Order and fluidity.