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Imperfect Rigidity: The Inaccessibility of Manhattan's Monuments

New York City and Rome, both consisting of an awesome array of memorable structures, from the Flatiron Building to the twin churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto (above), can both be described as “cities of monuments.” It’s a broad categorization, but a satisfying one; likening the modern metropolis to the ancient one gives us a sense of comfort that, no matter the era, patterns exist and connections can be made. All is right with the world; the universe is in order; there is a God, after all.

But of course, New York City and Rome are vastly different, “cities of monuments,” to be sure, but of two contrasting types. While Manhattan's monuments developed in response to the city's rigidly planned grid and zoning restrictions, limiting their accessibility at the pedestrian level, Rome developed as a city at a more natural scale, in response to its monuments.

Some history. In 1811, the Commissioners Plan for New York laid out the grid of 12 avenues and 155 streets, about 60 x 200 meters, that sought to create a democratic layout for the city through its repetition and homogeneity, despite its very sparse inclusion of public places [1]. Here was set forth the guide which every building in Manhattan had to obey, and in 1916, the belt was further tightened with the city’s first zoning plan, which limited the space new construction could occupy. Yet, New York grew immensely within these limits; the rapid adaptation of skyscrapers fed early on by a healthy flow of capital allowed New York’s architecture to practice in both the speculative and the built, each new building being a monument to its time.

Compare this with Rome, whose layout responds directly to its monuments, creating high levels of interaction through enclosed and open spaces that respond to the symbolic forms of its architecture. In 1588, the Medieval planned city of Rome underwent an extreme feat of urban planning; the plan, set forth by Pope Sixtus V, connected seven major Catholic churches with straight avenues and opened piazzas at each of their bases, with the goal to make Rome the suitable center of Christianity [2].[endif] The axial avenues created new urban spaces while representing order and structure. Furthermore, their intersection with the existing blocks gave birth to new spaces of varying openness, creating opportunities for public space, endowing streets with variable widths and dimensions, and exposing facades and urban forms, accentuating the city’s monuments in a way that an orthogonal grid like Manhattan’s simply cannot.

It’s no coincidence that New York’s Broadway Ave. – the lone central diagonal within the city’s rigid grid – creates some of the city’s richest public spaces, such as Times Square, Herald Square, and Greeley Square Park, much like the axial avenues added to Rome by Pope Sixtus V. Interestingly, Broadway is also one of New York’s oldest streets, predating the 1811 Commissioners Plan. One need only to visit Times Square in New York and walk past the Trevi Fountain in Rome to notice these are not all too different; they are public urban spaces that are the result of the arrangement of surrounding urban forms. Their openness allows people to engage with a place of gathering and recreation, with the cities’ monuments as a backdrop.

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[if !supportFootnotes][1][endif] Ballon, Hilary. The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011. Columbia University Press, 2012.

[if !supportFootnotes][2][endif] Bacon, Edmund N. 1967. Design of Cities. Penguin Books.




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