First, pelt merchants from the North, travelling south in search of trade, would meet spice merchants from the South. From meetings were born marketplaces, and confluences of people, pulling in more and more human energy, forced expansion to towns, and from towns to cities. Roads would follow the contours of hills, and rivers would shape city life. So it was during the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment brought forth new technologies, but more importantly, new ideas, laying the foundations for a new form of urban fabric. One that would attempt to liberate individuals, in the case of Britain and America, or ensnare them, in the case of France.
"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
- Samuel Johnson
Just like the United Kingdom, which does not have a singular constitution, but rather a myriad of judicial precedents, laws, and customs that together form a code of conduct, London developed organically around its heart in the City of London. A path between two fields would, eventually, turn into a road used by farmers, and then into a street, with its adjacent land engulfed whole by a continuously expanding city. The gentle slope that horse-drawn carriages carrying grain would take into London would after centuries of use widen and be turned into a national thoroughfare, connecting the capital to its surrounding suburbs and to other parts of the Kingdom. London would not be tamed.
Even after The Great Fire of 1666, Londoners would not let their town be planned. Sir Christopher Wren, famed British architect and author of St Paul’s Cathedral, did propose after The Great Fire to rebuild London, which had been almost entirely ravaged by flames, along geometrically pleasing lines. Streets would be straight and wider, while housing blocks would take a more regular shape, mirroring the classical architecture that would inspire its buildings. But the plan never took hold. The inhabitants of London would be the ones deciding how its fabric ought to be woven, just as had been the case before. But paradoxically, by allowing succeeding generations to carve out streets and city blocks with seemingly little intelligent design, Londoners eventually found themselves trapped by the choices of their ancestors. Shops would need to be located on a high street to attract customers. Crowds would de facto gather to places like Piccadilly Circus because of its very shape and position. Londoners were forced to use their city in a certain way because it had been designed so. Sure, certain neighborhoods could decline or rise, but the fix was in.
New York City
“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Unlike their cousins from across the pond, Americans decided to write down on parchment truths, which they held to be self-evident. Their country, their nation, would be predicated on the belief that all men were created equal and that their pursuit of happiness should not be infringed upon. Although America has never truly lived up to its transcendental creed, it has done more than most in advancing the cause of human freedom. The urban grid being one such example.
In 1811, a commission appointed by the New York State Legislature released its plan for the orderly development of the island of Manhattan above already populated Houston Street and below 155th Street. The plan called for a rectangular grid, of wide avenues running roughly south to north along the shorter end of the blocks and streets, half as wide, running roughly east to west along the longer ends of the rectangles. The plan was initially widely criticized as stale, rigid, and monotonous, but this was the point. New York’s grid would provide the city with a regular and predictable canvas upon which urban life would be free to invent and reinvent itself. Unlike London or other medieval cities, New York City’s streets would ignore rivers or hills. Engineers would flatten the land and cover streams. The contours of the city would be crafted not by nature, but by people, and would in turn create a platform to unleash human imagination.
What may initially feel brutal and tyrannical ultimately reveals itself as freeing. Let us look at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA, as an example. Unlike London’s National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, the MoMA does not occupy a prominent place in Manhattan’s urban fabric. The museum is nestled between 5th and 6th Avenue and West 53rd and West 54th Street on an unremarkable city block. Therefore, people are not naturally drawn towards the MoMA because it sits on a large, planned, square, but rather because it houses Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, and Rene Magritte’s The Lovers.
And so it is with much of New York City’s landmarks or indeed neighborhoods. The Empire State Building and Carnegie Hall each occupy a city block of similar proportions to dilapidated buildings in Hell’s Kitchen or Harlem. City blocks were endowed by their planners with equal potential for greatness, which has or has not, so far, been realised. Perhaps within 100 years, the MoMA will relocate and thus move activity away from its current location but the National Gallery cannot. London, by virtue of its organic development is constrained by history and much of its urban fabric will be used in a similar fashion unless it be totally destroyed. New York City on the other hand is free to experiment and to constantly transform itself. The grid provides a canvas onto which street life on this island of superlatives can paint its own art. It does not completely liberate future generations from the clutches of history, but it does provide an idea for a city and lets its citizens work out for themselves what part of the canvas most merits attention.
Even Central Park, I would argue, reflects the power of the grid. The immense green space that would decisively shape the city was not initially part of the 1811 plan. It was only in 1857, as New York City’s population was booming, that the Central Park Commission was appointed with the explicit goal of providing Manhattan with a park that would rival London’s Hyde Park or Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. Unsurprisingly, the park was relatively easily accommodated within the existing grid design. It would extend from 5th to 8th Avenue and from West 59th to West 110th Street, or 843 acres, on area that had not yet been developed. Similarly, Madison Square Garden, the world-famous sports area and concert hall, extends over two blocks with 31st Street to its south and 33rd Street to its north, and flanked on either side by 32nd street, which does not go through. Such a project did take an element of planning, as a street had to be built upon, but the grid structure is malleable and perhaps one day Madison Square will be destroyed and the two blocks will reemerge, letting the grid rise.
But that is not all the story. For New York City has a scar across its geometrically-pleasing face. Broadway, the oldest thoroughfare travelling the length of the island, dates back to Dutch settlers. It extends all the way from the South of Manhattan, roughly along 2nd Avenue, and travels diagonally north, eventually converging onto the extension of 11th Avenue. Along its path, Broadway disrupts the grid, forcing buildings such as the Flat Iron into uncomfortable corners, or fostering a vibrant theatre scene. But these all pale in comparison with Broadway’s finest accomplishment: Times Square. There, Broadway intersects with 7th avenue in such a way as to extend their meeting over four city blocks. Such a gaping opening in the urban fabric had no choice but to become the heart of the city. And so ironically perhaps, a city which owes much of its grandeur to a grid is grandest where regular geometry loses its grip.
Let these thoughts resonate as you travel the streets of New York City on this website: https://www.oldnyc.org
“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.”
- Thomas Jefferson
I love Paris, although I know I should not for I know what it represents: tyranny. Unlike Londoners, which never handed the reigns of their city of a top-down planner, Paris was radically transformed under the hammer of Baron Haussmann. This story takes place under Napoleon III, Napoleon’s nephew, who ruled France from 1852 until 1870, a period known as the Second French Empire. Haussmann, a Parisian prefect, was asked in 1853 by Napoleon III to destroy the old, overcrowded, dilapidated, diseased, crime-ridden, medieval Paris, and build in its stead a capital city that would rival and surpass the then booming Victorian London with its modern infrastructure of sewers and street lights.
But instead of razing Paris to the ground and providing a modern grid onto which a city could emerge, Haussmann favoured a more heavy-handed approach. The planner would not only replace cramped streets with wide boulevards, but he would also force an architectural style upon developers. The Haussmannian style was born. Boulevards would be lined with limestone buildings following strict building codes: a ground floor and first floor meant for shops and offices; a second floor, piano nobile, with an elaborate balcony, for the wealthy; a plain third floor without balconies for the bourgeoisie; a fourth floor with a balcony for visual symmetry; and a fifth floor nested within a mansard roof at a 45-degree angle meant for domestics and the working class. Many Parisians despised Haussmann at the time, but France - being under imperial rule - was not interested in their opinion.
Unlike New York City, Haussmann’s plan for Paris would actively force Parisians to use their city in a way that suited a particular aesthetic preference. The Haussmannian buildings would bring together different stratas of society under one roof, and the boulevards themselves would, like arteries, lead inhabitants from one vital organ to the next. The Opera Garnier would be linked with The Madeleine Church by the Boulevard des Capucines. The Boulevard de Strasbourg would link the Gare de l’Est with the Île de la Cité and thus Notre-Dame Cathedral. Radiating from the Arc the Triomphe, twelve wide boulevards would extend far and wide, making the monument to Napoleon’s military victories unavoidable by visitors.
Although it was forged under tyrannical coercion, Paris was turned into a jewel. Parisians now affectionately refer to their capital as a Ville Musée, or Museum City, reflecting the notion of urban fabric stuck in time. A city-wide reminder of la Belle Epoque, which has changed very little since the time of the Impressionist painter Pissarro, who captured so brilliantly the rapturous nature of Parisian street life. Haussmann’s genius transformed Paris, but in doing so he also took away the city’s ability to renew itself. Indeed, Haussmann’s plan was so stifling that La Défence, Paris’s business district, had to be built outside the initial city limits for the construction of skyscrapers was not compatible with Haussmann's vision. New York, on the other hand, could easily, a hundred years after it was first built up, shed its old skin and start anew, which is why the Big Apple remains today the heart of urban life on Earth.
A City and its Citizens
“This City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”
Next time you stroll the meandering streets of London, find yourself surprised by New York City’s hidden attractions, or marvel at the beauty of Parisian palaces, think about how the urban fabric is impacting your experience and that of all the people around you. Feel the vitality of London, the potential of New York, and the timelessness of Paris. Reflect upon how London mirrors the United Kingdom’s organic history, how New York embodies America’s ideals of equal opportunity, and how Paris was turned into arguably the most beautiful city on Earth by coercive tyranny. Ask yourself which you prefer, and perhaps learn something about who you are.