Urban Grids: Chinatown


Every community needs structure and order to survive. Without a basic set of common values, there is no way to ensure harmony between disparate views or amicability amongst neighbors.

The structure itself is not very interesting. We all have rules, and while the individual rules may differ from place to place, we understand the premises and know the expectations. What sets communities apart—and what gives them a voice, or catches the passerby’s attention—is how each community interprets and utilizes its structure. One group of people lives with minimal structure, while its neighbor has an intricate system in place. One may keep its structure quiet, perhaps hidden. Another may broadcast its system loud and clear, forcing even the uninitiated visitor to abide by its rules. One might pride itself in its efficient laws, while another might reward those who fearlessly challenge the existing boundaries.

The nature of each system inevitably makes itself noticeable in the atmosphere of the community. One aspect in which its character becomes especially visible is through its use of grids. A grid is, by definition, simply a group of lines that divides space into smaller modules. The grid is the foundation of many architectural forms. But how does one choose to utilize the grid? Is it simply a foundation? Or does it influence the trimmings as well?

In the unique streets of San Francisco Chinatown, the buildings are amongst the most colorful to be found throughout the city.

Structures are packed together; square, stout structures topped with flags and steeples hold their brothers and sisters upright. Amongst the urban sprawl of crowds and tourists, amazing tilework, windows, and architectural details express the lifestyle of its people.

brown square tiles
colored floor tiles
tiny rectangle wall tiles

The facades of many Chinatown buildings are covered in amazing displays of mosaic work. These grids take on a variety of forms. Like the daily rituals of the neighborhood’s older citizens, there is an expected and rigid modularity. Chinatown’s aging population passes it time in bakeries, the public square, or along the markets that crowd the streets. But color, orientation, and size of the simple quadrilateral module create unique grid combinations, just like the loyalties, social circles, and schedules of each person creates a unique lifestyle. Each grid happily and unabashedly wears it bright colors.

gray mosaic tiles behind a red metal gate

Grids on grids: one of the many gates that shelters storefronts each night.

Grids are also found within the walls of the town. While some remain loyal to the square, others flaunt freedom with rounded shapes. However, the overall effect is still repetitive and square. It is important to live by time-tested rules, lest the individual stand out too much, or worse, lose its integrity.

decorative wall
a gate made from several different square grids
gold mosaic wall

Where needed, some grids must allow for a basic necessity—a window or a vent, for instance. Even these little rogues are gridded. Interrupt they may, but they must do so seamlessly. Interestingly, each element’s part within the whole often makes for a very pleasing arrangement. While the elements do not always fit within a module of the grid, they somehow find a comfortable place of coexistence.

red tile wall with marble vent cover
white tiled wall with green diamonds and geometric glass windows
brick wall with cement dragon window cover
black tile wall with jade-colored diamond

The grid is so pervasive that it arranges even temporal objects. Items in many storefronts are displayed in place just so: perfectly above, beneath, or next to their neighbors. Even an installation of artwork along a wall (made by a longtime resident or a visitor?) is laid out in neat rows and columns, just as expected.

frame samples hanging from pegboard in a storefront
street installation of new year's monkey envelopes
dragon medallions neatly arranged on a black tile wall

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