Transitory Topographies

The 1811 Manhattan grid was conceived to disregard topography and organize development, separating private property from public infrastructures. Thus, Manhattan manifested volumetrically, with property bounds extruded to meet zoning requirements and development pressures. The “geologic” structures of the city we know today are created from glass, steel, brick and stone. The canyons created by the structures defining Manhattan have become a new strata of sedimentation within which the city can reinterpret itself as waves of unpredictability confront the organized 1811 grid. To evolve, the grid shall be re-conceived through section and surface, not plan and volume.

Faced with dynamic influences including climate change and its predicted extreme weather conditions, population migrations, fluctuating economies, necessary infrastructure investment, technologically redefined communities, and public interest in a health; Manhattan’s resilience relies on a re-conception of property, increased inter-dependencies, aggregate benefit and a redefinition of the public realm.

We must begin with a new understanding of how to organize development: Sectional Planning. Instead of traditional setbacks, we need Dynamic edges and High-ground Development. The fluctuating zone at the low-lying edges will incorporate wetlands, new innovative recreation and habitation spaces, and new typologies of construction as well as incentives for transfer of development rights.

The higher elevations will see intensified development, and may absorb some of the development rights transferred from the Dynamic Zone. The grid may be morphed by new infrastructures; access to new transportation hubs, renewable energy sources, and potable water.

Of Manhattan’s 23.7 square miles, 10.8 are private property (45%). The other 12.9 square miles are our streets, open space, transportation, utility and vacant land. As infrastructures increase in depth and expand above grade, streets and open space extrude into the Elevated Public Realm. Access to high-rise green space opens through upper-story promenades where privately owned public spaces (POPS) adjoin elevated transportation lines. Where necessary, aggregate benefit and incentives encourage property owners to participate in development that extends into private property lines.

The volume of each building is determined by zoning; but the opportunity for development remains; by maximizing the surfaces. Each orientation (north, south, east, west, roof) has advantages, and even the smallest building has much more surface area than footprint. By increasing the depth of the surface, faceting and cupping – the facade can capture solar and wind energy, water, and planting areas. Smaller-scale decentralized infrastructure can offset some of the demand of old, exhausted systems.

The current technological era has contributed to the dynamism of public exchange, but has not re-framed the need for physical connectivity. The focal point of a community is both a tangible and intangible place; and is extremely important in a time of crisis or dramatic change. Manhattan should reinforce community focal points that extend beyond the traditional disaster-relief shelters, and expand into everyday life.

Spring 2012
Individual Project | Marissa Vaish
Proposed for Architecture League’s “The Greatest Grid” Competition.