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The Grid Book (MIT Press) Paperback – January 23, 2009
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Here is a natural storyteller, with scholarly depth, apparently motivated by delight. Where another information historian might have breezily justified your cultural comfort with the net, or else made a jargon-laden assault against it, Hannah Higgins has found the right pitch. Whatever grids you are on, this brightly edited book might help you know them better or see them differently.(Malcolm McCullough, author of Abstracting Craft)
Hannah Higgins' new book on grids is a confident synthesis of art, architecture, geography, geometry, urbanism, and social history. Its elegant prose and easy erudition recall the work of Lewis Mumford; its intellectual energy and subtle humor, the writing of Roland Barthes.(Stephen F. Eisenman, Professor of Art History, Northwestern University)
[I]t is...an informative and sometimes provocative meditation on the place of geometry in human life.(Bryan Hayes American Scientist)
About the Author
Hannah B Higgins is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Fluxus Experience.
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Higgins's first chapter is devoted to the simple brick, first formed of mud in something like 9000 BCE. Bricks aren't grids themselves, of course, but make grids when they are used. "Joined or placed just so, walls would become houses, irrigation canals, and security walls, the latter of which would make towns possible." Before assessing how bricks in grids make buildings which go onto city grids of streets, Higgins takes a surprising turn. A few thousand years after bricks were made, tablets were made for writing. Cuneiform was the first script, and it was pressed into brick-like tablets, the writing within a drawn grid, cells resting one on the other. Printing reinforced linear and grid-like design. The design of the letters used in each line was based on typographical principles whereby each letter was set out on a grid to make sure it had legible and esthetically-pleasing proportions. Higgins also devotes a chapter to the grids one finds in ledgers, originally with Greek and Roman slaves toting up columns of income on one side and expenses on the other. Some American colonial cities were planned out with grids, and after the Federal Land Ordinance of 1785, gridirons were literally the law of the land for cities. Such plans represent an imposition of human notions onto nature, with city planners ignoring terrain (a good example is San Francisco) for the benefits of orthogonality. Higgins shows a picture of a heavily-laden modern container ship, with the truck-sized boxes stacked and lined up just so. It is only a small jump from shipping containers to skyscrapers such as the boxy Seagram Building in New York. The grid is a part of painting history in "the veil", a screen matrix through which an artist might sight his subject, with his canvas being divided into a comparable matrix. Grids such as plaza squares show up countless times in pictures that are textbook examples of perspective, and Higgins shows how grids historically aided artistic understanding of perspective. Another grid within the arts is the musical stave, and Higgins gives a brief history of how musical notation grew into the five horizontal lines, punctuated by vertically placed notes and divisions into bars. As did so many grids Higgins describes, the stave produced unexpected advances, in this case the possibility of designating multiple pitches at once. Polyphony offended the fourteenth-century church, which also predicted that stave-enabled music would become increasingly secular, and this turned out to be true.
Higgins jumps from one grid to another, nicely illustrating the universality of her topic, and includes a huge array of subjects including being "off the grid", screens of many types, punchcards, cubism, and the World Wide Web. There is broad erudition here, but the book is suffused with an appealing intellectual playfulness. The grid might stand for imposed regularity (indeed, Higgins does not fail to touch on the grid that is the metal walls of a prison cell), but over and over she shows that grids have promoted creativity and unexpected avenues of growth. "Grids are brought to life in their use," she says, and proves it to be so in a lively set of essays.
Highly recommended if you're interested in the theories or history of any of the following: grids, art, architecture, cities, maps, music, design, typography, order & chaos, the shaping of a global visual culture, social networks, urbanism, geometry, synchronicity. This book weaves them all together in a dazzlingly refreshing way.