The Seduction of the Grid, essay by Peter Delpeut , fragment from the book Grid Corrections
A RIGHT-ANGLED CORNER Ennis [was] reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road. Annie Proulx, ‘Brokeback Mountain’
Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above Don’t fence me in Let me ride through the wide open country that I love Don’t fence me in. Robert Fletcher, Cole Porter, ‘Don’t Fence Me In’
Open space, a feeling of infinity – that is what first comes to mind for Europeans when discussing the landscape of the United States. Yet our eyes never get lost in that landscape. You do not experience the sensation of weightlessness that the Sahara generates, or the emptiness of the Mongolian steppes.
However sweeping the spectacle of the American land, it always gives you the sense of being grounded. You are always somewhere. And that somewhere is the road.
Traversing the endless American expanse means travelling along a road leading imperturbably straight ahead, seemingly indifferent to the quirks of the land. Even the smallest, unpaved country roads are drawn as if by a ruler. Together, all these roads form an immense grid of equal-sized squares, a checkerboard pattern, so that you always have the feeling you know where you are. There is something paradoxical in that sense of being grounded.
At first glance, the American landscape seems to relate naturally to the traveller, to welcome the traveller willingly, hospitably; the sense of being grounded seems to be a gesture of nature. Yet it is not the land receiving you; its natural contours are not what opens up to the traveller: it is the road that opens its arms. Which underscores how terrifying this infinity must have been for the first colonists who ventured way west. In the United States, 70 per cent of the land is measured and organized according to the strict principle of the checkerboard. Each square has a perimeter of exactly one mile by one mile, defined by the roads. It is inescapable, and it is not for nothing that this is dubbed the American grid: the United States are this grid. The endless space of the American land has been tamed into a network of die-straight roads.
This grid was conceived in the late eighteenth century as system that had the look of perfect simplicity in theory.