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3. 4. 2003

Totaly democratic grid

Anja Planišček
grid = order
“Because of the grid’s essential simplicity, its inherent complexity often remains unacknowledged. Common assumptions about the grid are often based on the reading of its strong categorical and prescriptive order: the grid as a figure or an icon of order. The grid as a bureaucratic matrix, or a network of territorial control, or even literal mesh of a cage suggests its prescriptive quality.”1

Even though Colin Rowe in Collage City barely mentions the grid, its presence evaporates through the author’s criticism of the modernist and ‘after-modernist’ utopias. Talking about the end-of-millennium ideas, about the utopias of the Archigram, Superstudio and Disney World (and by this criticizing Venturi’s famous postulate: “Give people what they want”), Rowe indirectly challenges the questions concerning the grid’s seemingly democratic status.

“Notoriously, the exigencies of freedom (no imposition of authority) will support the most contradictory positions; and, ostensibly, this is what we here find. The utopia of Superstudio – the world as abstract Cartesian grid – demands a final emancipation from the tyranny of objects, and the alleged utopia of Disney World – an essentially naturalistic situation – suggests that, rather than any problem, objects are a relief; but, if the one proposes the suppression of the object while the other results in its fatal devaluation, they are, of course, both alike in insisting on the possibilities of immediate gratification.” 2

Two different projections of the space and society, both of them built upon the same ground text – the grid. The first one, promising an ideal society, a new world of democracy, is built upon the abstract ‘Cartesian plateau’. The other one, realizing the promise of democracy, upon the gridded land.
For Superstudio the grid represents – similarly as for modernist painters ‘a staircase to the Universal’, ‘a plateau of the Ideal’. For America, where ‘the ideal Cartesian grid’ has long been “a fact of life”3, the grid represents an instrument of coordination of the land.
The first notion excludes any temporal dimensions - the grid is taken as a timeless and a-historical structure. The other is opposing – the grid of America dates back to the 18th Century.

20th century art
When in the early part of the 20th century the grid appeared in French, Russian, and Dutch art, it has to be acknowledged that the perception was not at all a historical one. The discovery of the grid, in the modernist sense, was rather a very clear statement of the Present with the claim to leave everything else to the Past.

Despite the fact that the grid already existed in the art of the 15th and 16th Century, we cannot talk about any development over centuries. Also we cannot use the same terms for describing it. The grid of the modernist movement is a way of thinking. The grid known before arose out of the need for an instrument of representation. The grid first appeared with the studies on perspective. It served as an ordering system to depict objects or space as real as possible.
Here the gap becomes already clear: Modernist art brought up a platform for a new beginning. We have to understand this modernist grid in the sense of „crowding out the dimensions of the real“4 and further of opening up a “heterogeneous field of almost unlimited complexity”5.

By trying to picture space in the 15th and 16th Century, one could always refer to the real-world. The painted image and reality had a clear relation to each other: „the first being a form of knowledge about the second.“6
In modernist painting this relation doesn’t exist anymore. The grid is understood as anti-mimetic, anti-natural and anti-narrative. It collapses onto its surface and builds up a single entity. The material ground of the pictorial object and the grid on top of it become one. This could suggest a simplified reading of the modernist grid, but this assumption points in the wrong direction. The modernist grid does not result out of imitation but out of ideas of Being, Mind and Spirit.

staircase to the Universal
Writing about modernist art, R. Krauss describes Mondrian’s and Malevitch’s understanding of the grid: for them and other modernist artists, the grid was a “staircase to the Universal”, a purely spiritual essence with no reference to the Concrete.
In order to explain their relationship, R. Krauss analyses the grid’s mythical power, which she sees in the contradiction between the scientific and spiritual values the grid embodies, the contradiction between the “making us believe that we are dealing with materialism, science or logic and at the same time providing us with the release into the illusion.”
The contradictory situation is produced by a specific relationship between the grid and the surface. The grid of a modernist painting “follows the canvas surface, doubles it”7, it “simultaneously inscribes and depicts the material ground of the pictorial object, so that the image of the pictorial surface can be seen as to be born out of the organization of the pictorial matter.”8 The material ground of the pictorial object and the grid therefore produce the appearance of a single entity. Yet, beyond this appearance, the grid, through its physicality - its mesh, network of coordinates and repetition- still works as a figure, talking about the surface. Simultaneously, it reveals and veils it.

centrifugal : centripetal
In terms of spatial perception, the grid embodies a centrifugal and centripetal reading. Thinking about the grid, we imagine a rational structure without limits in any direction. So any frame set up in modernist paintings, would be an arbitrary act to „capture“ the grid. At the same time it is a decision of centrifugal or centripetal. „Thus the grid operates from the work of art outwards, compelling our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame. This is the centrifugal reading The centripetal one works, naturally enough, from the outer limits of the aesthetic object inwards.“9 Dealing with the exploration within the grid, as something completely and internally organized (centripetal), but also dealing with the vision of going beyond (centrifugal), the grid embodies with these two readings a complexity on two different scales. One scale is the infinity of going beyond the frame and positioning a theoretical continuity. The other would be the infinity within one island of the grid, which we can understand in the terms of Koolhaas’ archipelago or Copjec’s notion of „restoration“ of identity within the system of democracy.

In her work, the painter Agnes Martin approaches the aspect of the centrifugal, perceives the grid as purely a-temporal and anti-natural. Her intention is to break down any existent obligations and constraints. „These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world, from worldliness“.10 The grid, is an expression of timelessness, it is a pattern with no center, it is „about formlessness“11, and therefore it forms a perpetual platform for new possibilities.

With this perception in mind, it is not so difficult to trace Superstudio’s vision for a „new world“. Covering the whole globe with a Cartesian grid, its aim was to break with the predominant social rules and to create a way for the ideal society. Superstudio sets the grid for equality: not in a democratic and political way like it is understood when we talk about America, but rather in a modernist way of formlessness, timelessness and objectlessness. „You can be where you like taking with you the tribe or family. There’s no need for shelters, since the climatic conditions and the body mechanism of thermo-regulation have been modified to guarantee total comfort. [...] All you have to do is to stop and connect a plug: the desired microclimate is immediately created (temperature, humidity, etc.); you plug in to the network of information, you switch on the food and water blenders...“12 The grid works here as a neutralizing system, fulfilling all the needs which are asked for. People would be the ultimate object. No material objects as such would exist anymore. Space would be the same everywhere and thus loses its importance. „There would be no further need for cities or castles. No further need for roads or squares. Every point will be the same as any other (excluding a few desert or mountains which are in no wise inhabitable).“13 In Superstudio’s proposal for the ideal society, for equality, there is no urge to have an own piece of land. This proposal is focused on the human being itself. Contrary to the American grid, this grid seems to give freedom with no need for identity.
But the question remains: would we perceive this world as the ultimate freedom?

The difference in the interpretation of Superstudio’s grid and the American grid derives from its ambiguous characteristics of being democratic. But how is this relationship between the American grid and democracy working?
Joan Copjec, from a psychoanalytical point of view, describes the modern democracy as an “unsettling, a conflictual space”14, established on the basis of lack, the very lack of what it actually promotes.

chess – board
In America, a country of modern democracy, the Jefferson’s “Land Ordinance” in 1785 divided the whole continent into the equal chess-board divisions. The landscape was reduced to the mere 1 square mile indexed parts. This “radical act of Cartesian disincorporation”15 erased all the particularities of the landscape, all the natural and other features that could define the territories. Paradoxically, through the suppression of all the differences, “the territories came to be defined as the part of our nation, as American”16.

If the grid equalized the conditions of the ground, the American Constitution, based on democracy, equalized the rights of citizens. Similarly as the act of Ordinance ‘disincorporated’ the land, the Constitution, by giving the right to vote (and the vote thus presenting the individual), disembodied the individual. Disembodiment, a paradox of democracy, occurs at the very moment when the individual expresses his vote; the vote, deprived of any individuality, becomes an abstract number, a mere counting quantity. A result of this act - the state of anonymity - called for restoration of the suppressed, lacking individuality. The restoration in the form of ‘retreated Law’17 gave the citizen the right to express his or her opinion. In a smooth and soothing way, by encouraging the pluralisms of any kind, the Law re-regulated its own transgression.
Could we therefore understand the grid planning of American cities as an act of the ‘retreated Law’? For the grid was – due to its geometry – taken as a ‘structure’ of democracy, as “the least restrictive means of organizing the city”18. “The grid neither legislates nor limits the sort of building or activity that will occupy any particular segment of the city; the spaces it designates are free to develop in a variety of ways. The grid merely coordinates the spaces and thus provides one space with access to the others.”19

restoration of identity
The single ‘space’, the anonymous island of the grid was therefore ‘given the right’ to develop on its own, to restore its identity through the construction of the space above.
The grid took the role of a coordinating mechanism of this activity.
Interestingly, the word to coordinate means “to bring (parts etc.) into a proper relationship, to work or cause together efficiently”20 .But what does efficiently really mean? Is it a chameleon-like characteristic adaptive to many uses (or misuses) or actions?
This loose way of organizing the city, the freedom, apparently offered a set of infinite possibilities of development. But, in the name of efficiency a number of external forces – for example politics and finance - it is precisely ‘the freedom that produced a set of infinite conflicts.
On one hand it created a repetitive sameness of the whole, on the other the exclusive deliriousness of the parts.

The film ‘The American Beauty’ starts with an interesting passage, leading us into the American reality. From the sky view of the typical American suburban landscape, the camera slowly narrows its perspective, moves from the sky towards the hero: his home land, his town, neighbourhood, own piece of land, home. And finally the hero himself…
From the extensive gridded sameness and anonymity of the whole land towards the internal deliriousness and anxiety of the man…

sameness and deliriousness
The film unintentionally reveals something about the grid and democracy in the American society – the sameness and deliriousness reside in both. Intersecting, overlapping or colliding with each other, they produce a series of conflicts.

C. Rowe sees the relief from extensive sameness in what is built above the grid. The relief, the liberation from equality – a paradox of democracy – is bivalent: it serves to restore the identity of the single gridded ‘space’ as well as of the one who possesses it. The reversal, two-way exploiting relationship, resulting into ‘the delirious New York’, Las Vegas and finally Disney World.
For identity in America, ‘the melting pot’ of nations, races and religions, is a very complex term. And if the grid allows for the multiplicity of individual identities, it simultaneously cannot resist the intrusion of politics and economy. The result is the grid’s own transgression, the break within itself into physical or non-physical subdivisions, shaped either by finance or politics.

restoration of the public
Further, the grid also allows for being manipulated by these forces as an instrument of control of public life – the general absence of public space is not only a consequence of lacking the common historical and cultural ground, it is also a consequence of its ultimate control.
The restoration of the public, of the common, therefore occurs through different niches – through exclusive built structures and plazas within the grid’s ‘islands’, through the Main Streets and finally through the Disney World.
If the Main Street is a “reconstruction of stable cultural images, to provide stability in an unstable scene, to convert frontier flux into established community”21 and is bearing a specific social message, the Disney World openly declares its own falsity. Its message is that of pure instant happiness and pleasure. Paradoxically, the Disney World exists as the very only public space accessible to everyone and offers something that the other ones do not: a shared dream, pleasure and enjoyment. Everything in a single package in order to produce ‘happiness’. Is it therefore to be regarded as another act of the ‘retreated Law’?

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of early critics of the modern democracy, has already foreseen the consequences of this “mild and provident” Law, assuring general happiness. The happiness is – according to psychoanalysis – not possible,22 striving for it demands a subversion of the basics of democracy and results into the “unleashing a sort of horror unimaginable before the modern era”23 and general devaluation.

Is the grid therefore a cage of its own freedom?

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Susanne Grundler
Art - Kunst, 12.5. 2004, 13:24

thank you for the useful information.
I spent 9 years in the US. You made it very clear what grids do to people. I came from outside and realized immediately. People grown up in those grids don't mind. They are natural not questioned limits for them. When I lived in Miami I had the idea of getting of this maze. Only to realize that there was no out. The grid just continued...
I am an artist myself searching into the relationship of oneness/muliplicity, centripetal/centrifugal or more globally opposing forces and natural/artificial forms.
Thanks again for your article.

Komentarji odražajo mnenja in stališča uporabnikov Trajekta. Možnost komentiranja je namenjena spodbujanju javne debate in odzivom na članke. Uredništvo si pridržuje pravico odstranitve komentarjev v primeru, da so žaljivi, spodbujajo kakršnokoli nestrpnost ali napeljujejo na kriminalna dejanja. Za vsebino komentarjev uredništvo ne odgovarja.
Totalno demokratična mreža
Esej je nastal leta 2000 kot del teoretičnega workshopa s filozofom Andrew Benjaminom v sklopu podiplomskega programa Design Research Laboratory na Architectural Association School of Architecture. Workshop je bil osnovan kot raziskava treh kultnih tekstov iz poznih 60.ih oz. zgodnjih 70. let: Learning From Las Vegas (Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi), Collage City (Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter), Delirious New York (Rem Koolhaas) in njihovega pomena v nadaljnjem razvoju urbanizma.

Superstudio: Living

Superstudio: Living

P. Mondrian: Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921

Agnes Martin: Untitled #1

Agnes Martin: Untitled #2

Agnes Martin: Untitled #3

Agnes Martin: Untitled #4


Middle West Prairie

Los Angeles

New York, Manhattan

"What a democratic Manhattan would look like", 1973

Ithaca, New York, Main Street

Disney World, Florida, Main Street

1 Pope,A. (1996). Ladders. New York, Princton Architectural Press,19.
2 Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). Collage City. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, MIT Press,42.
3 Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). o.c.,XX.
4 Krauss, R. (199X). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. XX,9.
5 Pope,A. (1996). Ladders. o.c., 19.
6 Krauss, R. (199X). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. o.c.,10.
7 Krauss, R. (199X). XX,XX, 161.
8 Krauss, R. (199X). XX,XX, 158.
9 Krauss, R. (199X). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. o.c., XX Mondrian.
10 1 Pope,A. (1996). Ladders. New York, Princeton Architectural Press,19.
2 Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). Collage City. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, MIT Press,42.
3 Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). o.c.,XX.
4 Krauss, R. (199X). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. XX,9.
5 Pope,A. (1996). Ladders. o.c.,19.
6 Krauss, R. (199X). The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. o.c.,10.
7 Krauss Martin, A. (1992) Agnes Martin. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,24
11 Krauss, E. (XX) Agnes Martin: The/Cloud/. In :Bachelor. XX,88
12 Ambasz, (1972) quoted in Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). o.c.,43
13 Ambasz, (1972) quoted in Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). o.c.,43
14 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 14.
15 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 13.
16 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 13.
17 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 13.
18 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 14.
19 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 14.
20 oxfordXXXX
21 Rowe, C. & Koetter, F. (1992). o.c., 46.
22 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 14.
23 Copjec, J. (1991). XXX.XX, 15.
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