Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Grids (review)

Book review for I.D. Magazine, 2009. Hannah B. Higgins, The Grid Book (MIT Press, 2009) and
Carsten Nicolai, Grid Index (Gestalten, 2009).

What do a brick, map, tablet, ledger, screen, and box have in common? They are all examples of grids, modular systems made from uniform blocks of space, time, or material. For thousands of years, human beings have used grids to build structures and to institute laws and social systems. The Grid Book, a clever and cogent treatise by Hannah B. Higgins, looks at modular devices across history, showing that where each powerful new grid appears, it profoundly changes the community that wields it. Bricks are the basic units of permanent settlement. Maps are tools for imperial conquest. Urban street grids enable cities to expand and connect.

The grid, argues Higgins, is a dominant myth of the modern era; it is a “visualization of modernity’s faith in rational thought and industrial progress comprising everything from the urban landscape to the power grid, from modernist painting to the forms of modern physics.” Societies have used the grid to subdue the uncertainty of nature under the organizing net of culture. The grid is more than a mythic abstraction, however. It is deeply embedded in the material facts of human society. The grid is a made, crafted thing that dates back to our most ancient social transformations, rocking the very cradle of civilization.

In her chapter called “Brick,” Higgins takes us back to 9000 BCE, when human beings first learned how to grow crops, raise animals, and make shelters with chunks of mud. These early technologies allowed farming and building to replace hunting and gathering. A brick, like a loaf of bread, takes form in the hand. The laying of bricks is also a handicraft, and hence this elemental architectural unit has honored basic human scale across time. Assembled into staggered rows, bricks form sturdy walls. When they crumble and collapse, they become the underlayer of new buildings, providing cities with dense strata of ruin and rebirth. Higgins traces the spread of bricks and blocks across the ancient world as well as describing the mass production of these building materials in the nineteenth century.

Chapters on early writing systems, urban gridirons, ledger-based accounting, and perspectival representation each demonstrate Higgins’s ability to explain complex ideas in an engaging narrative style. Boldly spanning vast swaths of time and territory, The Grid Book has much in common with Jared Diamond’s bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel. Like Diamond, Higgins presents a big picture of cultural change in the West by examining the surprising consequences of tools and technologies.

Her chapter on “Type” may take too broad a view. Higgins barely acknowledges the grid as a methodology—and ideology—within the discourse of graphic design. Instead of looking closely at differences among shifting modes of page layout, she outlines the rise of print and its general impact on religion and society, drawing on familiar scholarship in this area. The chapter ends by looking at some experiments in modern poetry rather than confronting the changing role of grids in mass media and the internet. A section called “Box” links the rise of the modern skyscraper, with its steel skeletons and gridded curtain walls, to the spread of standardized shipping containers. Here, the image of the box sometimes feels like an inadequate container for its subject matter; some readers will wince at the comparison of Mies’s Seagram Building to “an upended shipping container rendered in glass.”

Designers interested in the visual possibilities of the grid will want to explore Carsten Nicolai’s stunning Grid Index, a book accompanied by a CD of ready-to-use vector art. Progressing from simple rectilinear lattices to patterns that self-assemble from irregular polygons, Nicolai celebrates the grid as an open-ended device for generating organic, dynamic forms as well as orderly and predictable ones. In his hands, the grid flourishes as a living surface wed to the rhythms of nature. Nicolai would find much to discuss with Hannah Higgins, who concludes her book with this statement: “Far from static or flattened entities, finished cultures create established and emergent symbols and systems of knowledge production and sensation—all of it organized on the lively grid.” Humans have used the grid to create and establish order, and they have also seen it unwind and unravel. The grid, a form with a rich and powerful history, will surely play a part in the doings and undoings of the future.