Chris Hall salutes a bold, if reductive, cultural history of the grid, from silver screens to Mesopotamian bricks
The Grid Book by Hannah B Higgins. MIT Press, 312pp, £16.95. mitpress.mit.edu
The Grid Book is a sweeping, fascinating cultural history of 10 grids ‘that changed the world’, and author Hannah B Higgins makes a strong case for the grid as ‘the most prominent visual structure in Western culture’. The importance of grids is immense: the grid plan allowed for large-scale urban planning; grid maps allowed for empires; musical notation’s grids facilitated orchestral music; and the grid of the printing press (and moveable type) allowed for mass literacy. However, it’s entirely fitting that Higgins goes off-grid herself, with some interesting digressions and detours.
It’s a neat visual trope to have the book’s text justified and in 1:2 proportion, but it reminded me of how much I felt forced into seeing grids everywhere Higgins looked. She more or less assumes the dictionary definition of a grid, then allows for it to be warped and even fractured before it might be conceived of as something else. At points in this book, you do wonder what wouldn’t count as a grid.
In the chapter on bricks, Higgins traces their history from their Mesopotamian origins. Bricks are not grids, but ‘the grid character is revealed in its use’. We move to the gridiron, whose design laws were already laid down by the Americans in the 1573 Laws of the Indies. Chicago, says Higgins, was already laid out on a grid before the devastating fire of 1871: it just mutated.
Higgins is very good on the subjectivity of maps: ‘The map’s format… originated in the Greco-Roman culture of inquiry, exploration, and conquest’. She has also included a short but learned history of perspective, from renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, to 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler and 1960s situationist Guy Debord.
However, it’s with the evolution of the humble box that Higgins really hits her stride, shifting from the abstract (‘the box is where the automation of human life meets absolute space’) to the concrete (‘Rather than being specially made to hold unique objects, the packaging process was reversed. Now objects [are] made to easily conform to the standardised box’). Recalling the scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, where we jump from a human bone as a weapon to a spacecraft, Higgins thrillingly takes us from shipping containers to Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York.
The Grid Book is superb in its synthesis, but less assured with analysis. In the chapter on screens, Higgins writes about how the laws of perspective might ‘supersede vision itself’, but this thesis is not really developed. It made me want something on the neurology of grids – surely these are where ‘the deep structures of the grid’ reside?
Resume: Higgins’ history of the grid doesn’t stick to the straight and narrow