In the spring of 1984, I taught a studio at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois, where the students were asked to “redraw” the plan of Chicago as an architectural proposition. The project was based on a studio that Diana Agrest had taught at the Institute of Architectural and Urban Studies in New York during the mid-1970s, based on the notion of “design as reading.” Students were asked to draw sequences of buildings or fragments of urban urban fabric that had not been architecturally conceived as such. The project consisted in developing a formal parti that was implied by the given sequence of buildings or urban fragments. The process was based on drawings that described only the pertinent elements while everything that did not relate to the architectural idea was “edited out.”
By working with the plan rather than with buildings, this early study of urban form was based on the assumption that “what we see is not necessarily what it is.” Freud’s notion of floating attention, a process of visual drifting, suggested the search for symptoms, disruptions, and discontinuities in the continuous spatial flow implied by the grid of streets of the American city, and in particular the plan of Chicago. The plan was approached without expectations, without knowing what we were looking for, to ensure that what was found was not that which we already knew.
While the neutral geometric grid and the regular “beat” of intersections in the city of Chicago imply continuous movement, the “accidents” of the plan produce changing rhythms, interruptions, stops, and stasis. This led to one of the first discoveries of Chicago’s underlying urban structure: the existence of a double street structure, where a neutral square grid of streets conceals a directionally biased structure of service alleys. The service alleys divide the square urban blocks into rectangular half-blocks, oriented sometimes along the north-south axis (parallel to the Lake Michigan coastline) and at other times along the east-west axis (perpendicular to the lake). This subdivision produces the reading of boundaries at the point where the service alleys change direction and therefore leads to the perception of a division between potential districts. A second discovery contradicted the supposed neutrality of the grid: the presence of an implied wall dividing north Chicago from south Chicago, white Chicago from Black Chicago. This wall was implied from the fact that the monumental north-south axes seem to come to an abrupt end at the point where the streets change their name from north to south, marking a significant shift in the social geography of the city
Towards an American urbanism
The exploration of the plans of New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and New Haven between 1984 and 1988 revealed in the American city a formal world ignored and obscured by both nineteenth-century picturesque and twentieth-century modernist European urbanism. The research aim was not the affirmation of a prior analytical “method” but to develop specific tools for different cities. This approach not only expanded the repertory of analytical tools and strategies but also suggested the possible development of a specific American urbanism based on the formal conditions uncovered by the analysis.
Some of the notions developed in previous readings formed the basis of a second studio held at the School pf Architecture, University of Illinois, in 1988. While the plans of other cities or urban areas previously analyzed were rather chaotic, the plan of Chicago appeared as a basic grid. The earlier drawings focused on the notion of partial order implied in the collisions, overlapping, and fragmentation between and within grids. In the drawings of Chicago, instead, the focus shifts to the distortions and disruptions of the grid, revealing the breaks in the one-mile grid produced by history (the diagonals materializing off Indian trails), or geography (the river and topographic variations). It was at this stage, as a fellow of the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism, that I decided to use the computer to generate a new series of drawings on Chicago. The possibility of working with the computer suggested a change in strategy. Instead of continuing the exploration of strong anomalies that challenge the order of the grid, I decided to look at the weak anomalies, the smaller disturbances that affect the grid.
The computer drawings: The frame and the quadrants
The computer analysis of the city of Chicago frames a 2 x 2 mile area which is an extension of the Jeffersonian one-mile grid that covers the territory of America. Framing is a “mechanism” defined by the computer screen which acts as a two-dimensional “cut-out.” This “frame” can include the full figure of the plan or, through the zooming process, can highlight partial sections of a plan.
The selection and the location of the frame which defines four one-mile quadrants, were determined by two major factors: geography and history. Geography, in so far as the center of the four quadrants coincides with the point where the Chicago River branches towards the south and the north-west. History, insofar as one of the four quadrants is the original site of the foundation of Chicago. Thus, this process of framing the central area of Chicago produces four different quadrants which form the basis of the computer drawings series: quadrant 1 (the north-west area including Goose Island), quadrant 2 (the north-east area, covering the north of the Chicago River), quadrant 3 (the south-east area to the south of the Chicago River covering Chicago’s downtown, the Loop), and quadrant 4 (the south-western area). The quadrants can be seen to relate in different ways: there is a shift from order to disorder as one moves from quadrant 3 through quadrant 2 and quadrant 4, and diagonally to quadrant 1. The Chicago River is differentially related to the four quadrants: its two arms enclose quadrant 3, it dissects quadrant 1 while it does not relate to quadrant 2 and quadrant 4.
The drawing series
It became apparent that this computer-based method for analyzing the “real” plan was an extension of the “peeling” process of the earlier “hand-made” drawings. With the computer this peeling, “de-layering,” process becomes a major mode of operation. Layering is inherent to the logic of the computer. It refers to the simultaneous presence of the screen of two or more images, an electronic equivalent to tracing paper, where light “draws” the plan instead of pencil and ink. As a basic method for reading the plan of the city, “de-layering” suggests an inverse process to the process of design itself, where layers are overlapped rather than peeled away. De-layering discloses a “differential” system of urban notions, and form the basis of the series of analytical drawings presented in this book.
The urban grid
These drawings allow conclusions to be drawn. The geometric grid is the basis of the American city plan, providing a support for urban forces to play and produce specific urban plans. As opposed to the unmarked geometric grid, the urban grid should should be seen as a field of energy marked by geographic, historic, economic, and cultural forces. These conflicting forces distort and fragment the grid and therefore stop the uninterrupted flow of movement implied in the geometric grid.
The “invisible city”
One cannot literally “see” a plan or a section in a building. However, architects can imagine or generate them as well as other readings of the building by means of the architectural apparatus of representation. One could go further in this process of reading and deciphering buildings through other explanations, such as the identification of a formal type or a particular syntactic development.
These drawings represent a similar operation except that the object is not architectural buildings but the city, a plural fragmented and scattered process that resists the architectural desire to reduce it to an object, to a consistent whole. The drawings do not literally look at the city.
They are not about building, but about plans. They are not the result of imagining or deciphering which only sets the stage for visual drifting to set in motion a process that unlocks the unconscious. It is a process which allows us to “see” certain formal configurations that are not perceivable in reality and, therefore, affects the way in which we see the city. The drawings actually produce a different city since we re-enter the city with different eyes. One could think of two cities: once before and one after the drawings.
The urban text
The drawings attempt to read the markings on the grid essentially at the level of the signifier. The articulation between the signifier and the signified, which occurs in a number of instances, is not the subject of this work. The different series confront the disorder of the plan from different perspectives implying that there is no way of producing a drawing that cannot be explained from a single point of view, one unifying story.
The different configurations, layers or sequences are constantly re-arranged by these different overlapping fictions. The plan can therefore be seen as a mechanism generating drawings and stories. However, this mechanism does not generate any story but specific stories which could be called The Urban Text, in this case the text of Chicago.
Should we be surprised by the fact that architectural form can be found in the plan of the city? Yes, if one considers the fact that there is no architectural intervention in the design of the plan. No, if one considers architecture as not just the practice of a specific form of “writing,” but primarily as an art of “reading.” It is the “reading subject,” the principle that generates the architecture of the city by displacing its plan to “an-other” realm. The realm of the text.
Gandelsonas, Mario. The Urban Text. Chicago, IL: Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism, 1991.
By adapting Freud's notion of "floating attention" to urban systems, Mario Gandelsonas applies a process of visual drift to the plan of Chicago. He uses mechanical eye of the computer in a "delayering" process to read the plan of the city and to discover the system of urban notions that are specific to the American grid. Gandelsonas explores the spatial relationships between physical and abstract realities in the Chicago River area, the One-Mile Grid and its subdivisions. By highlighting the anomalies and idiosyncrasies of the grid the moments where its regularity falters, he establishes a narrative of Chicago's urban text. In separate essays Catherine Ingraham, Joan Copjec, and John Whiteman explore the philosophical, psychoanalytic, and urbanistic dimension of this provocative analysis.
is an architect and theorist whose specializations include urbanism and semiotics. He is Professor of Architecture at Princeton University, the director of the Program in Urban Studies, and princiapl at Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects. His work, which includes residential, institutional, and urban design projects, has received numerous design awards. From 1973 until 1984, he was founder and editor of Oppositions (MIT Press). In 2006, Gandelsonas was elevated by the AIA to The College of Fellows, an honor awarded to members who have made significant contributions to the profession. He was honored for advancing the science and art of planning and building by advancing the standards of architectural education, training, and practice.