The Manhattan grid system is many things. It is the cause of dreaded wind tunnels in winter, the impressive result of meticulous urban planning, a godsend for first-time tourists fumbling their way around New York City's hectic streets.
But Myles Zhang, a sophomore at Columbia College, takes this city planning one step further.
For him, this distinctly uniform system connotes infinite diversity rather than definition: both in terms of the people who live throughout the city and the architectural structures they inhabit. "Each intersection of New York City is a certain number," he admits in a brief concession to the effect of the system's numerical regularity, "but along with that number is a certain value judgement. … For instance, if I tell someone I live at 105th and 5th Ave, it's very different from living at 55th and 5th Ave," he explains.
Over the past year, this fascination with seeing the city in all its variations has driven Zhang, a self-taught artist, to parse the city, one grid coordinate at a time, through artwork. With each drawing, 3D model, or photograph, he tries to reveal the subtle architectural nuances, in addition to the social ones, that inadvertently go unseen in New York City.
"I think that's the objective of much art," he proclaims, "that beauty exists all around us, but one doesn't necessarily notice it." He sees this mission of exposing the hidden aspects of the city as especially relevant to Columbia students, remarking that most of them go through all four years in New York without ever stopping to take in the iconic structures in their vicinity: for example, Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park, the largest mausoleum in North America, or Saint John the Divine, which is disputed to be one of the largest cathedrals in the world.
It is the latter we are heading toward today as I join Zhang on one of his weekly explorations of the city. We turn off 111th Street; he suddenly stops in his tracks and gestures upwards. I look where he's pointing and see a fraction of the cathedral's rear façade peeking out from behind grey concrete buildings and iron grill gates. It's a vista that most local passers-by, each hurried and harried in their own ways, overlook as they make their way down Morningside Drive.
"I saw this image a few days ago on one of my walks, and I really liked it," he says as he points out the curvature, apse, repetitive domes. "It's a nice rhythm … more complex than the flatness of the main façade."
Later, he admits, "I sometimes think that the back of the cathedral is the most interesting part of it." The building, he explains, was constructed from the rear façade forward, and architectural styles often change through the centuries it takes to complete such cathedrals, especially one as massive as Saint John the Divine.
Tracing the shift in artistic styles, Zhang says, is like a building telling a story. "It just takes a while to see that story."
As we settle down to sit on the pavement, he pulls out an assortment of tools that accompany him on every city walk: sketching paper, a Sharpie, and pencils. They allow him to do sketches off the cuff, whereas he typically plans his watercolors beforehand. Pencils and Sharpies are, compared to watercolors, the simplest of equipment. But as the prospective art history major reminds me, learning to maximize each medium is often the key to capturing a place.
"I like to alternate; I don't like to restrict myself to one medium," Zhang says. "Each medium offers a different feeling, like the spontaneity of watercolor versus the precision of pen."
Different media suit different buildings, which, as he notices, have emotions that change "with the time of day, the light, the sound, with the people nearby." They are emotions that affect not just the artist but the technical aspects of the art as well.
"It really depends on my mood for the day … but I know certain mediums are better than others, for instance, when I want to do a quick sketch that captures the moment, I do watercolor. … Watercolor has a kind of liveliness to it," Zhang says.
Yet for all its spontaneity, the preceding preparation and visualization process is a long-drawn one. He requires about four to five hours of sitting down and thinking about the piece before jumping straight into the actual art-making once on location. For instance, for pieces as intricate and complex as a perfectly to-scale 3D model of Columbia's campus that Zhang made inside a small box, his preparation entails planning out ratios and figuring out the tricky mechanics of fitting everything into the physical constraints.
Once on site, however, it only takes Zhang 10 to 20 minutes on average to complete a basic watercolor or sketch. Those are precious few minutes he calls "one of [his] greatest sources of joy."
The fervent artist feels drawing is all about persistence. "One of the greatest impediments to drawing is that sense of self-awareness that one can't draw," he says.
When Zhang initially started drawing, he claims his art was just as amateurish and childish as what might be expected from any other five year old, but he kept at it. Now, as a college student, he relishes making art as a respite from academic work. "When I'm drawing something, I have this sense of liberty where I'm not defined by these parameters; I do it for myself," he remarks. "It feels like this spiritual kind of thing." On days he has no classes, he makes it a point to take extended walks around the city.
Despite this being merely a hobby to Zhang, he garnered substantial attention on Facebook earlier this year with an intricately detailed, almost photographic artwork of Columbia's campus, a piece he created midway through his first year here.
"The reason why I created it was as a keepsake of my Columbia experience," he explains. But as it gradually drew more attention, he began to receive more requests to purchase copies of the artwork, a possibility he's been considering lately.
For Zhang, having others identify with places in his drawings is akin to making a personal connection—one of the most gratifying aspects of his work. Mapping a place onto paper carries an inevitable sense of familiarity that enriches his perspectives on the city. He recalls that "going back to Chinatown after having created that neighborhood [in an image] … felt like I was walking along the streets of my own drawing."
This drawing of Chinatown is part of Zhang's most monumental project to date, Walking in Manhattan. Divided into 10 days of walking (although it actually took him an estimated 50 days to complete), he presents a collection of images, each devoted to a different New York neighborhood, documenting the character of the place in a range of poignant photographs and quirky artwork. "It tells more of a story than most of my other images do. … Each day has its own kind of trajectory," he says.
He had initially toyed with the idea of creating this series before he even enrolled in Columbia. The Newark, New Jersey, native, who had spent several weekend trips to New York before college sketching its architecture, decided to make full use of his time as a first-year here last year. Over weekends and on the occasional free weekday, he painstakingly completed the Walking in Manhattan compilation.
Working on the project, Zhang not only developed an intensely prolific knowledge about New York's urban landscape, but he also deliberately pushed himself to move beyond the sketchpad. For a hobbyist whose interest started out purely in architecture, he explains: "As time goes on, I've realized that people are really the heart of a city."
It follows that his favorite way of engaging the city remains exploring it on foot—it allows him to meet strangers along the way, more so than any other method of transportation. "A city is more than the collection of buildings and streets, it's about the people that make up this city. I think that the city's people really determine its culture."
"Talking to homeless people is one of the most interesting [things], because they spend their entire lives on the street." Zhang admits, however, that architectural renderings still come more naturally to him, that he's had difficulties drawing people at times. "They're always moving!" he remarks wryly.
This year, he hopes to explore outside of his comfort zone in college, especially in terms of moving beyond architecture and drawing more organic forms.
And while he has no immediate plans for expanding on his hobby beyond these casual drawings, he tries to marry his personal interests with academics. "Right now, I'm interested in deepening my knowledge about New York City," he says. Zhang enthuses about a course he's taking this semester, History of the City of New York, which includes a nighttime bike tour of the city about which he's particularly excited.
Appreciation of art and history, he believes, helps students think more deeply about the urban fabric that shapes them in turn. "There are many kinds of literacy, many kinds of languages," Zhang says. "I think buildings too are a language. And learning about art history, about architecture, teaches one to understand that language."
I ask if his art, then, is a form of transcribing this strange, silent language. "A little bit, yeah. I take what I see, and then I allow other people to see it too," he says and muses over for a while. "Occasionally they'll stop, and they'll realize there's something kind of pretty there that they never noticed before."
His point practically proves itself. As Zhang sketches, a couple strolls right by the cathedral, and they glance back when they realize what he's doing. They pause and notice the rear façade—humbler, as Zhang has pointed out, but no less fascinating than the front. They stand, staring at the towering domes, their faces a picture of wonderment. The woman fishes out a camera. She snaps a picture and, after spending a minute marveling at the rear of the cathedral, the pair moves on.