The Grid

Following on from Vaughan's excellent Carl Andre post, I thought I'd make a quick plug for this fascinating book. Here's a review from MIT Press:

The Grid Book: Hannah B. Higgins

Emblematic of modernity, the grid gives form to everything from skyscrapers and office cubicles to Mondrian paintings and bits of computer code. And yet, as Hannah Higgins makes clear in this wide-ranging and revelatory book, the grid has a history that long predates modernity; it is the most prominent visual structure in Western culture. In The Grid Book, Higgins examines the history of ten grids that changed the world: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box, and the net. Charting the evolution of each grid, from the Paleolithic brick of ancient Mesopotamia through the virtual connections of the Internet, Higgins demonstrates that once a grid is invented, it may bend, crumble, or shatter, but its organizing principle never disappears.

The appearance of each grid was a watershed event. Brick, tablet, and city gridiron made possible sturdy housing, the standardization of language, and urban development. Maps, musical notation, financial ledgers, and moveable type promoted the organization of space, music, and time, international trade, and mass literacy. The screen of perspective painting heralded the science of the modern period, classical mechanics, and the screen arts, while the standardization of space made possible by the manufactured box suggested the purified box forms of industrial architecture and visual art. The net, the most ancient grid, made its first appearance in Stone Age Finland; today, the loose but clearly articulated networks of the World Wide Web suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a grid of unprecedented proportions—one so powerful that it is reshaping the world, as grids do, in its image.
It's a very entertaining and illuminating read. I've long been fascinated by grids. They conjure up all kinds of associations for me and this book is good at exploring both physical and metaphorical grids as forms of networks.

I can remember having debates with students over the years about the artistic merits of Carl Andre's bricks. My favourite resource on the subject is Raymond Baxter's film entitled "Upholding the Bricks". Baxter, who was a presenter on the popular science TV show "Tomorrow's World" was Andre's uncle and the film is a really intelligent and moving tribute to Andre's dedication to his art. It's the subtlety and refined beauty of Andre's work that appeals to me. The tension in the work between repetition and deviation, similarity and irregularity, colour and tone, lightness and weight, line and volume, surface and mass, is a beautiful exploration of the formal properties of the material at his disposal. That something so elegant could be made from cheap, mass-produced objects is a marvel, but the whole history of western civilisation can also be read into the structure. Bricks signify settlements and their attendant features: a priesthood, trade, work, written language, government and the law. They are made from shaping the earth (clay); imposing a structure on it. They unite the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts. The Romans learned how to build an empire using them. And yet, Andre brings us back to their physical presence, their weight against the floor and their blunt resistance to any form of disturbance. This work, more than perhaps any other, reminds us that what you see is what you get and that's more than enough for a whole lifetime of aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation.


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