The Sun, the Grid, and the City

Whilst doing research for an article I'm writing, I found myself browsing through some articles by Sam Roberts of The New York Times. I bookmarked one of them for future reference – only to realize, about half an hour ago, that it was published exactly one year ago today.
So I decided to put it up on BLDGBLOG.

As it happens, then, Manhattan's mathematically rational street grid is actually rotated 29º off the north-south axis – and this angle has interesting astronomical side-effects.
In other words, because of the off-center orientation of Manhattan's street grid, you can only see the setting sun "down the middle of any crosstown street" on two specific days of the year: May 28 and July 13.
July 13 is, of course, next week – so watch out for it.
Manhattan is a solar instrument that only works twice.
So, because of historical decisions made about the logic and purpose of urban planning – and because of the declination of the Earth's poles – the streets of Manhattan are aligned with the setting sun only two times a year.
Which means that New York is a kind of Hugh Ferrisian Stonehenge: casting shadows on itself till the days when it can truly begin to shine.
In any case, Roberts points out, interestingly, that a rectilinear street grid was not the only arrangement of space considered viable for Manhattan during its earliest days of European settlement:
    William Bridges, the city surveyor, explained that one of the commissioners' chief concerns was ''whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements, by circles, ovals and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effects as to convenience and utility.''
Needless to say, the "circles, ovals and stars" lost out to squares and rectangles.
Manhattan is thus now "a nearly perfect place to practice taxicab geometry," Roberts continues: it is an island "in which the shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line."
And yet Manhattan is also an island of astronomical coincidence that, like any structure standing on the surface of the Earth, lines up with the heavens in its own peculiar way.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The architecture of solar alignments).

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Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

A quick & irrelevant note: the character-recognition software here, meant to ensure that you're a human being before you can publish a new post on Blogger, usually asks me to input a meaningless sequence of letters - never a real word or a recognizable phrase.

This time it asked me to type "furboy."

July 03, 2007 3:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is interesting, however, any inclination of a rectilinear system would cause the same effect - only two sunsets in a year, or am i wrong..?

What is more interesting about this Commissioners' plan to me, is the layout of parks. Compare it to the present state I wonder what the impact
on the micro-climate and life quality would be, had it not been for the big F. Law Olmsted's Central Park, built (or to say left unbuilt) much later in 19'th century.

July 03, 2007 4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm going to start a blog of just character recognition posts.

This one is: bddlfjri

July 03, 2007 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, happy to see a 'Manhattanhenge' reference...this blog is great, just stumbled on may be interested in my related project: Long Island City Sundial

July 03, 2007 12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am interested in grids and the prevalence of grids in human endeavors. The grid can be seen as unnatural and mechanical and can certainly be overused. But an argument can be made for it actually being quite natural. We have essentially symmetrical bodies with eyes on the front. This gives us “left/right” and “front/back” and with those two axes built into our bodies, this informs how we understand space. We move forward or back, turn left or right… And then we project this spatial understanding onto the things we make: games (chess, checkers, go); cities (with gridded plans in ancient Greece); and even spreadsheets (Excel with its columns and rows).

A further source for the grid in human artifacts is the impact of textiles. Gottfried Semper (19th Century German theorist) believed that architecture began with textiles and tents. The grid is an inherent aspect to textiles with the warp and woof of weaving. So in addition to our basic symmetrical anatomy, some of the very first human artifacts (textiles) unavoidably contain the grid. The urban street grid, in this way, can be seen as an extension of that initial pre-historic textile grid.

While the Manhattan grid is an abstraction laid upon the land, it does defer to nature by being rotated to align with the Hudson River. The grid in Minneapolis (where I live) aligns with the Mississippi River in the older part of town and then shifts to a N-S layout in later development. San Francisco is a more extreme case of following the grid despite topography.

Dreaming of a Manhattan with circles and stars is one thing, the opposite is the story of Circleville – an interesting case study in the argument of grid vs. circle:

“Daniel Dresbach founded the community of Circleville along the Scioto River in 1810. The town received its name from circular earthworks that Hopewell Indians had constructed in the area, although urban development has destroyed many of those original mounds. Circleville became the county seat for Pickaway County in 1810, and the first courthouse was built in the middle of the circular earthworks for which the community was named.

"Dresbach laid out Circleville in a circular pattern. During the 1830s, residents tired of the unusual street patterns. In 1837, the Ohio legislature authorized the Circleville Squaring Company to redesign the community with a more traditional grid pattern."

see this link:

(A further comment on Manhattan and the sun: I lived on 85th St on the Upper East Side for a year in a railroad flat. The apartment was long and skinny with windows on the “north” and “south” ends. Because the street grid is rotated, those north-east facing windows received lots of morning sun, much deeper into the year than they would have with a more perfectly longitudinally aligned street grid.)

July 29, 2007 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

link edit (I left out the "http" in the link on the post above)

July 29, 2007 3:07 PM  

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