This article was written on 12 Jun 2013, and is filled under Urbanities.

Grids: Rows and Curves


The short poem “Cuadrados y ángulos” (“Squares and Angles”), by early-twentieth-century poet Alfonsina Storni, begins simply, equating houses in a row with their abstract, geometric shape, the square:

Casas enfiladas. Casas enfiladas.
Casas enfiladas.
Cuadrados. Cuadrados. Cuadrados.

Houses in a row. Houses in a row.
Houses in a row.
Squares. Squares. Squares.

Her verses mimic, to a degree, the line of houses, one identical phrase after another. From this point on, we can imagine her opening a door and going inside. She describes the people who inhabit these houses. Their souls and ideas are square, just like their dwellings; their backs aren’t hunched but rather bend at right angles. Finally, we can imagine her walking back out as she ends the poem by turning her gaze back on herself:

Yo misma he vertido ayer una lágrima,
Dios mío, cuadrada.

I myself yesterday shed a tear and,
my God, it was square.

In other words, she won’t escape the destiny of those who live in houses in a row.

I taught this poem a few terms back, and one student aptly compared it to Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 song “Little Boxes.” Like Storni’s poem, the song is about conformity and its relationship to the built environment. Reynolds’s little suburban houses are all made of the same cheap materials (“ticky-tacky”) and “all look just the same.” The people inside too. They all went to college, where they learned to fit into yet more boxes and further lost the traces of their individuality. They graduated and became the “doctors and lawyers and business executives” who bought the little boxes on the hill. On the weekends, they go to the golf course and drink martinis. They raise children who grow up and perpetuate the cycle.

The song is famous today mostly because of the TV show “Weeds,” which often used it during its opening credits. In thinking about that credit sequence, however, I began to wonder how closely the poem and the song correlated. Storni’s dominant images are the row and the square, which are figures we associate with the urban grid. Reynolds gets at something similar with her boxes, but something’s different—namely the sloping hillside. Here’s a still from those opening credits, which present a view likely similar to the suburbs Reynolds had in mind:

Little Boxes

The houses are boxes, certainly, and they are uniform. But their arrangement is different from the one invoked by Storni. They’re lined up, but only to a certain degree. They curve into cul-de-sacs, seeming to aim at something more organic than the quadrilaterals of the urban grid. The two images of the grid—lined up like soldiers in formation or undulating softly along a curved road—correspond to two distinct urban contexts, yet they both work as symbols of dull conformity. They are different but work the same.

It would be tempting to see the shift from urban grid to suburban drift as indexing a clean break in social life. And in part this intuition bears out. Think about the difference between assembly-line production and flexible labor. Or more broadly between discipline and control. Between urban blocks and suburban neighborhoods there lies a similar difference. But where these distinctions are real, a strand of continuity runs through them.

Hannah B. Higgins’s sweeping study of the grid form from antiquity through the present clarifies this combination of change and continuity. She specifically addresses the transformation wrought by the US-style suburb, writing that suburbs “routinely reject the strict grid, opting instead for a more seemingly natural design.” They ultimately produce “a warped but not a fractured grid” (72). A grid that is not a gridiron: This seems to be what Higgins is getting at. The warped nature she highlights demonstrates the grid’s flexibility, showing how it adapts and morphs according to different circumstances and different aesthetic sensibilities. The difference matters, in other words, in part because it reveals the mutability of an underlying pattern. I think that the persistence of this pattern can explain why Storni’s and Reynolds’s critiques resonate with each other, even as the distance between urban Buenos Aires and suburban California seems vast.

Storni’s poem critiques a form of urban organization with deep roots in Latin America. The first Spanish conquistadors drew on precedents set during the long peninsular war against their Islamic foes, as well as earlier Roman examples, to found grid-based cities in the Caribbean. Santo Domingo, Jean-François Lejeune writes, reveals the “invariants of Spanish American planning” already in 1502:

[F]irstly, the plaza mayor generating the network of streets—in this case, a block left empty and partially occupied by the cathedral placed parallel to the square—and, secondly, the checkerboard pattern as basic geometrical figure—here made of well-ventilated straight streets opening up on the sea and river. (33)

These principles governed the construction of subsequent coastal towns. However, it was precisely the irregular coast that was the problem. The “constricted Caribbean sites usually made the establishment of a clear checkerboard impossible. Regular plans and straight streets had to distort and adapt to difficult coastlines and other obstacles such as hills and marshes” (34).

It was only upon venturing farther inland that the Spanish managed to impose a true grid on the American landscape. In what is now Mexico, the reconstruction of Tenochtitlán drew on the pre-conquest grid, as did the development of Puebla and Cholula. Farther south, the foundation of cities like Quito and Lima, in 1532 and 1533, respectively, perfected the checkerboard design. Cities all over the Spanish colonies replicated this form, extending horizontally one square after another (36-37).

The 1573 Laws of Indies codified this mode of building cities. The uniform grid is mandated in this legal code. This principle owes to both aesthetics and practicality. “They shall try as far as possible to have the buildings all of one type for the sake of the beauty of the town,” reads article 134. The disposition of the grid will vary only according to the direction of the winds and defensive requirements (114 and 116). It shall promote health and cleanliness (121 and 122). And above all, it should give the impression of order and permanence. Thus the Spanish shall not “allow the Indians to enter within the confines of the town until it is built and its defenses ready and houses built so that when the Indians see them they will be struck with admiration and will understand that the Spaniards are there to settle permanently and not temporarily.” Gonzalo Celorio has commented derisively on this last point: “As though the builders had not been the Indians themselves” (41).

Centuries later and much farther south, the urban structure of Buenos Aires, where Storni lived for years, was undergoing vast transformations. While the Laws of Indies had provided for the limitless expansion of colonial cities (article 129), local Argentine elites were horrified by the uncontrolled expansion of their new capital. Adrián Gorelik has cited the elites’ complaints about the flat, somewhat chaotic extension of the city into the hinterlands in an age of mass immigration. The city itself was monotonous and squat. The outskirts had “the atmosphere of a frontier camping site.” Buenos Aires was, for its elites, “a formless chaos” (147). Against this tendency to spread out into the hinterlands, Torcuato de Alvear, governor of Buenos Aires from 1880 through 1887, sought to transform the city, imposing a clear urban perimeter, designing parks, and doubling down on the gridiron layout. Gorelik’s description of Alvear’s plan, published in 1904, reads like the prose version of Storni’s poem:

The principles of continuity and regularity resulted in a square-based and uniform grid that accurately defined, block by block, like a homogenizing mesh laid on the plain, the vast fields surrounding the traditional city up to the new boundary. (149)

In this desire to reform Buenos Aires, Alvear and others “imagined the city as a uniform frame,” able to be integrated and controlled (150). Storni wryly captures both in her poem.

The grid form is not, of course, unique to Latin America. Dell Upton has detailed, for example, the centrality of the gridiron in the urban planning of the newly independent United States. “Orthogonal (gridded) planning,” he writes, “acquired a new life in the early republic as a model for new towns and as a tool for extending old ones both in ad hoc forms and in grand, all-encompassing schemes” (118). Upton highlights that the grid advanced a spatial imagination based on order and categorization: a “late-Enlightenment habit of mind” that evinced a “desire to describe, categorize, and organize the world” (124). One of the many virtues of Upton’s study is the way he traces this gridded spatial imaginary deep into cities’ structures of death rites (cemeteries) and punishment (prisons). Among the latter, he focuses on Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, whose spokes of gridded cells were theorized as a means to foster “uninterrupted contemplative solitude” and thus also a rebirth of the reformed criminal (257-58). The principles behind the prison’s design were the same ones governing the grid in general: “[s]ameness and individualization” (261).

These two terms name the impetus behind urban gridded structures during the long modern period, stretching at least from the European colonization of America through the present. They also correspond to the dual critique offered by Storni and Reynolds. In their common narrative, bland repetition and isolating alienation go hand in hand.

“Sameness and individualization”: in other words, the imperatives of capital and the forms of subjectivity it engenders. It produces these forms by extending into the body. Storni cries a square tear, while Reynolds’s suburbanites are themselves made of “ticky-tacky,” just like their homes. Whether lined up in rows or arrayed on the curves, the grid shapes our insides. Such is the continuity that underlies the distinct experiences of crossing an intersection of right angles or evading the city center on the highway detour.

In other words, to shape ourselves differently will involve something more than changing the roads.

– Craig Epplin

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