March 2011 marked the 200th anniversary of the document that would, in many ways, make New York City what it is today. Called the “Commissioner’s Map and Survey of Manhattan Island,” the document, drafted by designer John Randel, created 11 major avenues and over 150 streets across what was at the time forests, farmland and salt marshes. It expanded the size of Manhattan by more than five times, and in the process created a vast series of small, square building lots—each about 2,700 square feet—that could be sold to the city’s early inhabitants. It was an absolutely perfect grid—which was absolutely perfect, because the city’s commissioners designed New York to be a city of squares, composed of rectangular buildings and what the Commissioner’s Report referred to as “straight-sided and right-angled houses that are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” It was a city of corners, with nary a curve or arch to upset its perfect geometry.
The “Commissioner’s Map” was perhaps the first example of city planning in America. It created order from the chaos, made building codes possible and managed traffic flow. It also created what the renowned 19th century French writer Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as “relentless monotony.”
When architect Rafael Guastavino arrived from Spain in 1881, he too saw New York’s “relentless monotony,” and set out to change it. Guastavino went on to alter the face of New York, playing a huge role in making it the architecturally diverse city that it is today.
The New York Times ran a breathtaking photographic story on Guastavino’s work. Click on the links below to see some of the incredible work he did to change New York from a city of angles to a city of arches.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.