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People of the Grid: Passion and Reason in Modern Design: the grid is the site where reason and order struggle for supremacy with passion and disorder. It represents the collision of two sensibilities that are forever forced to live side by side within the same society and often within the same personality. Even as we struggle to impose order on our economic and private lives, something within us yearns for an element of chaos.

PANIC ATTACKS and heart palpitations afflicted Samuel Beckett in 1933, when he was 27. He retreated in misery from his family and spent all day in bed with his face to the wall, refusing to talk or eat. Eventually he decided on psychotherapy and left Dublin for treatment with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Institute in London. In 1934 and 1935, in the course of their several hundred appointments, Bion diagnosed Beckett as an intellectual who needed to balance his Cartesian training with a truthful understanding of his own feelings, in particular his raging hatred for his mother.


Bion was developing a way to express mathematically the transaction between analyst and patient. He called it "the Grid," and in Beckett's case used algebraic notation to explain the relation of fantasy to rational thinking and to question the priority his patient gave to pure thought. Two years of analysis ended in considerable success. Beckett's symptoms disappeared, and in 1936 he completed a novel, Murphy, the first work of his that he considered successful. Beckett had somehow learned to live with himself and his art.

When I came upon that reference (it appears in the recently published Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1:1929-1940), Bion's use of "the Grid" struck me as an unlikely but highly evocative employment of a term and a concept that together dance through modern existence, touching everything we do. All of us are fated to live, knowingly or not, within a grid, or many grids, some of them invisible. An archeologist in the very distant future, perhaps equipped with a radically different (and now unimaginable) aesthetic sense, may well name us "The People of the Grid."

It is the essential shape of modernity, contemporary civilization's most persistent method of arranging our living, working, and thinking spaces. Our cities are organized on a grid plan and so are most of our buildings. A newspaper page is designed within a grid. Likewise, a magazine layout. Music is scored on a grid, and maps are readable only if we know how to work with the grid that leads us through them. Crossword puzzle addicts submit themselves daily to the discipline of the grid.

Bion understood the special cultural status of the grid when he used it as a way to define the balance between reason and feeling. He must have understood that an examination of the grid as a way of thinking and living exposes unreconciled feelings. To explore our responses to it is to disclose the great intellectual conflicts in our common way of life, which we sometimes roughly express as culture versus science or romanticism versus modernity. The grid is the site where reason and order struggle for supremacy with passion and disorder. It represents the collision of two sensibilities that are forever forced to live side by side within the same society and often within the same personality. Even as we struggle to impose order on our economic and private lives, something within us yearns for an element of chaos.


CONSIDER Tokyo, that magnificent anti-grid, the one great world city that functions without surrendering to the grid. Donald Richie, one of its most acute chroniclers, describes Tokyo as essentially a twisted tangle of streets and alleys and lanes. "Though there are some grid-patterned streets where civic endeavour has in the past attempted some order, this enormous city is a comfortable rat's nest, the streets having grown as need and inclination directed." It appears to a baffled visitor that this unthinkably huge metropolis has been designed purely by whim; taxi drivers negotiate its districts only after developing a level of intuition sufficient to grasp the random version of calculus behind an unplanned and unregulated city. Beneath the surface Tokyo has a subway designed with the same sense of irresistible logic that goes into the manufacture of Japanese cars. But upstairs the streets present Tokyo as built anarchy. A cursory glance at its history indicates the reason: this is the way it wants to be.


Two calamities have given Tokyo a chance to redesign itself, the earthquake of 1923 and the American firebombing of 1945. Each of those disasters burned down vast areas of the city, making a new plan possible. But local governments doggedly resisted the suggestion that they replace the accidents of history with rational design. Tokyo rebuilt the ancient streets just as they had developed. The old way felt better, as Richie explains; it was seen to be the proper human environment, whatever a visitor might think. It was Tokyo's own, the essence of Tokyo-ness. "The cozy warren is just for us, not for those outside."


A visitor who lives in Tokyo for a few weeks will find a visit to Kyoto revealing. Downtown Kyoto follows a grid plan not much different from Toronto's or New York's, and the famous temples are arranged in the suburbs according to what looks like a rational plan. In half a day you can learn Kyoto, whereas a month is insufficient for Tokyo. The contrast becomes a test of one's inclinations. The romantic spirit chooses Tokyo's style, the practical mind embraces Kyoto's. Comparing them becomes more complex when we realize that Tokyo is a great financial and political capital (therefore, it should be logical), whereas most of the world knows Kyoto as above all a great religious centre.

MOST of the world's grid buildings are divided into grid offices, spaces that many of us find uncongenial but almost all of us tolerate during at least some of our lives. To me it's dispiriting to walk the numbing uniformity of the halls in, say, a building by a follower of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe--or even a building designed by Mies himself, like the TD Centre in Toronto. The efficiency of the grid makes this oppressive sameness inevitable but doesn't prevent us from noticing that it also contains an inherent form of absurdity. John Hockenberry, writing in Metropolis magazine last year, noted that our society speaks endlessly of the need for originality and creativity while living mainly in spaces that show no clear sign of either: "Offices have become stacks of boxes for people who get paid to think out of them."

At the same time, the grid provides us with a neutral background that we can, in theory, alter and develop as we please. It happens that I live in an extreme form of a grid. The floors in our Toronto condominium follow an identical plan, each floor divided into precisely the same four apartments with the same four terraces. The architect, 35 years ago, no doubt chose this format because it suited the lot and because repeating the same hallways and corners was the most economic system to build and maintain. But I look at it sometimes and wonder if he also dreamt of imposing a kind of democracy on the eventual owners of the building. At least superficially, no one has a superior form of housing. Each of the suites has developed in its own way, but they all remain echoes of each other. Originality can flower, but always within enforced coherence.


There is, no doubt about it, something attractive in the visual shape of the grid, something bracing. I spotted this feeling in the recent catalogue of an exhibition called Modules at the Kelowna Art Gallery. Eliza Au, discussing the repeated grid-like pattern in her work, wrote: "I am attracted to the idea of order because of the sense of control and logic it has. Within the notion of order lies understanding about the self and how it is part of a whole, as well as hope and a belief that existence is beautiful."

Many years ago I spent an afternoon with the then editor of Canadian Art and noticed that he kept notes of our conversation on grid paper. He didn't use the little squares provided for columns of figures and other purposes; in fact he ignored them, but he seemed most comfortable recording the ideas emerging from our discussion on a pad of grid paper. He wrote in a large, easygoing script, ignoring the lines. This seemed eccentric to me, but since then I've often noticed others using the same kind of paper for no apparent reason. Sometimes I've noticed myself doing it. What does it say that we find this congenial? Are we sending ourselves an unconscious message that we are in tune with the dominant format of our civilization?

REM KOOLHAAS, in his much-praised book Delirious New York, sees the contradictory results of the grid, an impediment to the free movement of ideas but at the same time a stimulant. "It forces Manhattan's builders to develop a new system of formal values, to invent strategies for the distinction of one block from another." He sees it defining a balance between control and de-control, making the city at the same time ordered and fluid, "a metropolis of rigid chaos."


Occasionally an articulate enemy of the grid appears, such as the American critic Rosalind Krauss. Her 1986 book, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, reveals her as an angry enemy. She sees it as "flattened, geometricized ... anti-natural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature." She believes it stands for an industrialized, standardized society: "The grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real." It replaces them with nothing more than a kind of aesthetic decree, a bloodless theory.


Like other critics of the grid, she's re-enacting the long-standing feud between emotion and reason. This argument first appeared in a widespread and entirely public way in the Romantic era, when poets made themselves champions of a pre-modern world characterized (theoretically) by free and spontaneous thought and religious belief. The Romantic spirit found Charles Darwin's theories, among many others, hard to stomach. Earlier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge appreciated the advances of science and often used science as a source of metaphor. But even Coleridge found rationalism intrusive. In the early years of the nineteenth century he admired his friend Humphry Davy, discoverer of electrolysis and inventor of the safety lamp used in mines where methane was present. Still, there were times when he considered Davy's research a threat. He once wrote of Davy's desire to "bind down material Nature under the inquisition of Reason, and force from her, as by torture, unequivocal answers to prepared and preconceived questions." It is the same fear of intellectual and emotional constriction that inspires enemies of the grid.

But this same format inspires in many of us a sense of completion, sometimes even tranquillity. Among visual artists the grid encourages patterns of repetition that audiences clearly appreciate. Perhaps that tradition began with Claude Monet in the late nineteenth century when he made it his habit to paint the same object again and again, usually under variable light conditions--Rouen Cathedral, Waterloo Bridge, haystacks, water lilies, etc. In the twentieth century patterns of repetition appeared in the work of artists as different as Piet Mondrian, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt. Repetition that appears by accident can also be, in its way, enchanting. I never fail to stop before the spectacle of an appliance store with a dozen TV sets in the window, all tuned to the same station, so that the same faces and gestures repeat themselves across a wide area--a grid image come to life.


Perhaps we respond to what Freud called a repetition compulsion. At the same time, repetition arouses memories of religious rituals, which suspend time by going again and again through the same prayers. I've dwelt on these questions from time to time over the years, but until recently I've never taken seriously the thought that the grid, and its related forms of repetition, is far from a product of the modern world. I've seen the ordered grid-plan streets of Pompeii and enjoyed in many places the grid pattern of mosaics on ancient floors, but it's only lately, with the help of Hannah B. Higgins, an art professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, that I've understood that the grid is nearly as old as civilization itself.


Her highly original and deeply researched work The Grid Book (MIT Press), published earlier this year, informs us, among much else, that the grid plan for town sites may have been invented as early as 2100 BCE in the Indus Valley city of Mohenjo-daro, in what is now the Sindh province of Pakistan. It worked so well for Mohenjo-daro and neighbouring cities that it was noted by travellers from Greece and India and copied back home. It moved on to Rome and then across Europe. Having introduced her readers to these and many similar facts, Higgins feels confident in explaining that the grid is "the most prominent visual structure in Western culture."

She's at her best in dealing with bricks, handmade folkloric objects that can be magically transformed into sizable buildings. They apparently originated in Mesopotamia, and within two centuries houses were being constructed of bricks according to a grid format not radically different from the methods used in brick construction today. That's an example, Higgins says, of the fact that "once a grid is invented, it never disappears." Town planning according to a grid has never ceased, and typography in grid format, once invented during the first stages of printing, persists to this moment on the Internet. Every morning I look at the Arts and Letters site from New Zealand, a collection of carefully chosen articles where the ideas are fresh but the format is in the most obvious sense a grid.

HIGGINS works her way through musical notation and financial ledgers toward container ships and the Net, noting at every turn the grid's flexibility and longevity. She subverts our most accepted versions of her subject, making us think of grids not as products of modernity, developed a century or so in the past by professional designers, but as a fundamental part of the entire human story.


ROBERT FULFORD is a columnist for the National Post.
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Author:Fulford, Robert
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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