Good Grids: Architecture Students Investigate Variations of Urban Form

Late Entries to the City Club of Chicago’s 1913 City Residential Land Development Competition

Good Grids

exhibition model in detail. Photograph by Mahan Mehrvarz.

Published September 2, 2015

“Good Grids” is an investigation of the nuances of the most prolific of urban forms – the grid. 

Prepared by graduate and undergraduate students in architecture under the direction of Gregory Delaney, clinical assistant professor of architecture, the exhibition draws on their five-week summer tour of 37 American cities and 19 states and their experiences and encounters with variations of the urban grid. A reinterpretation of the 1904 urban design competition in Chicago, the context of “Good Grids” is urban America, offering new and reinvigorated ideas for the expansion and infill of our cities through a continued evolution of the grid.

In 1913, the City Club of Chicago held an ideas competition to redesign a quarter section of the city’s rapidly expanding residential grid. Acknowledging the problem of the efficient, yet effortless expansion of American cities in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the competition aimed to produce new ideas for the grid—enlivening the grid with the same vitality it had when our cities were first born.

Seemingly the most basic urban form, the grid is in fact a complex organizational system that can take on countless partis. From Miletus and Timgad to Chandigarh and Milton Keynes, the grid has endured for thousands of years across disparate continents and civilizations.

In the United States, the grid is especially ubiquitous, where nearly every city and town was surveyed and planned before it was settled. And, through the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, the grid is not just the form of our cities and towns as it was for the Romans, but also our farmland and countryside, gallantly spreading itself across the nation from east to west. Thus, the city emerges through the constant subdivision of the larger, macro grid—a neat and orderly system in which the parts relate so precisely to the whole.

All too often, however, the grid is admired solely for its rationality. And while many of our urban grids have marched their way into banality through relentless repetition without intelligent provisions for public space and amenity, it’s important to look closer—to separate the Savannahs from the Scottsdales—and draw on the qualities that define the grid as not merely the most rational of urban forms, but the most rich.

In many ways, the City Club’s 1913 competition was the last large-scale interrogation of the American grid, for most of the twentieth century was preoccupied with a shift away from the grid towards romantic town planning. But more recently, with the emergence of New Urbanism, the grid has resurfaced as “new” urban form. New Urbanism’s problem, however, lies in its overly formulaic approach, churning up the most generic ideas of grid and spitting out prescriptive, universal models through transect diagrams and form-based codes—returning American cities back to the ubiquity and banality that spawned the City Club’s competition in the first place. These “late entries” to the competition promote a reinvestigation of gridded urban form—one that’s driven not only by efficiency and economy, but by artistic principles and spatial experience as a return to the generation of urban ideas over formulas.