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You from Jersey? What ecology?

Designers/educators Brian McGrath and Tommy CheeMou Yang walk us through Issue 1’s pattern book, and why we have central Jersey all wrong.

Photograph by Dana Yurcisin from his photo essay "Ways Beyond Roads."
"Turnpike Pattern Book" in Dense Issue 1.

Pattern books are like mobile archives. Historically, their purpose was to document the details of a particular building convention into a book, so that those details could migrate to other places. Still used today by many preservationists, the pattern book both codifies and reinforces historical remnants into our contemporary context. That’s the power that archival materials can have – though not necessarily with equitable or inclusive outcomes.

Dense takes a big departure from that legacy, and as a regular feature in each issue, we remake the pattern book into a tool that helps us unlearn what we think we know about our surroundings. Designers and educators Brian McGrath and Tommy Yang took on the challenge of creating our first pattern book, and they share their process and what they learned about New Jersey with co-founder Petia Morozov.


PETIA MOROZOV: The two of you have launched the first in our pattern book series. You’ve set the stage for a feature that readers can expect to see in each issue. No pressure! Help us understand the conceptual framework that you used.

BRIAN MCGRATH: We loved the direction of exits, ecologies, and domains, and so we just ran with that. Tommy focused on the ecologies in each spread, and I used Google Earth to pull out the exits and domains. Along the way, we found that it started to create a narrative. In the first and last spreads, you see New Jersey connected to the continent with its distinctive shape. As part of a national territorial landscape, and not just this Jersey shape with the Turnpike slicing the Northwest mountains from the Southeast beaches, estuaries, and Pine Barrens. It’s so much more than a pattern.


BM: So it's a pattern that's deeply ingrained. When you’re crossing the Delaware and crossing the Hudson, we see how New Jersey is bounded. The natural history and Indigenous inhabitation of this territory are between these two incredible estuaries. Watersheds and farmlands and industry and social divide and oil and flyways and black bears. Then we overlaid our own narrative traveling up the Turnpike, but we discovered that the Turnpike authors – anonymous bureaucrats that they are – had another narrative, which is the rest stops. Walt Whitman and Molly Pitcher, what do they have to do with each other? Only along the Jersey Turnpike do you get this history of America. So, there's this sort of last-minute attempt to tie those figures into the domains.

PM: I think people have tried to grapple with the cultural differences between north Jersey, south Jersey, and then this weird mythical place called central Jersey. To see that the exits could have a different narrative other than the typical “what exit are you from?” jab we’re all familiar with. Instead, you pose the question: what ecology are you from? It offers us a new story about the Turnpike’s future.

BM: We pictured an asynchronous story, something productively antagonistic. It was great working with Tommy, how he was coming up with these ecologies as he was doing his GIS data dump. Counteracting the assumption that this orange line is a wall that’s reinforcing the north and south, but then finding the native trails, the watersheds, and so many bridges.

Overlaying these various ecologies, it helped us figure out how the black bear migrated in the last few decades from north to south. What’s making it as easy for the black bears to cross this divide as it was for the Indigenous? I have to believe it's the watersheds and those places under the highway that allow them to keep moving.

PM: Yes! When engineers were planning the cut through farmland, they designed passages under the Turnpike just for cows. Tommy, tell us more about how you started to organize things visually.

TCY: When Brian and I first talked, we were like, “Let’s drive to the Turnpike and visit every exit.” But then we decided to just dig into the data first. By digging from afar, we were able to rethink the pattern book within these larger timeframes, whether it’s environmental time or historical time. And then, as you get down to the exit and domains, it’s all about immediate time. The somatic. I think that that was probably the most interesting to me.

That's what ecology is, right? There's no one specific time. Sometimes it's cyclical, sometimes it's parallel. This all played out from the GIS mapping to the collages, striving to make the images in the pattern book accessible. The emotions and affect of the photographs in the collage allows us to take a longer look at the map, beyond the data and genealogy of the patterns.

You know, we tend to look at the Turnpike as this great divide, but there's all the other things at the margins. I did not know about the sea turtles or the Atlantic flyways. That was really powerful. It also challenges our current states in architecture and urban practice, about seeing, touching, and measuring. How we thought about the pattern book is that seeing, touching, and measuring are not enough. Through these deep time dives, our environment and geology actually bring us closer to understanding our environment, beyond the somatics of our body.

PM: You have me thinking about the conditions at the George Washington Bridge. There are these huge slices through geological rock, where layers are exposed. For that one moment, things are collapsed in time.

BM: And then to see the rise and fall of industry when we get to Exit 7. The mines in the north and the farms in the south. That's the story of the canals – how we're bringing the coal in, and how important the Raritan River was in relation to the New York Harbor. That's central New Jersey. Along the journey of the Turnpike, if you’re following the John Fenwick-Walt Whitman-Fenimore Cooper-Woodrow Wilson-Molly Pitcher narrative, you get this version of American history here in miniature.

But then you also get the Underground Railroad, the trains between two cities, the native trails. and the canals from the mines to the port – they’re all these different trajectories and geographies that get us off that New York-to-Philadelphia axis. And remember, Princeton University was located to be as far away from those two cities as it could possibly be. Cities tainted higher education according to its founders, and so in order to train someone in American values, you had to keep your distance. We try to describe this as a pattern of urban systems that aren't centered on iconographic cities and urban centers.

George Washington Bridge (Palisades) (1936), Reginald Marsh (American, 1889-1954). Etching, 8 x 10”

PM: How do you see the pattern book in relation to other stories in Issue One?

BM: It's as if it is the map where many of my favorite articles are found. The hunter along the Turnpike, what remains of Snake Hill, getting your feet dirty in the Meadowlands, and then Gabrielle Esperdy's idea that this is a prototype of a city of the future is something I'm highly sympathetic with.

TCY: I think a lot of the other articles are much more somatic, much more embodied, and the pattern book has woven these experiences through the larger territorial maps. It also deconstructs the kind of boundaries that we know New Jersey to be. It isn't just this pie shape with the Turnpike snapping the state into north and south Jersey. It's actually this network of patches, and that idea plays along really well with Andrew’s article and his collage maps. We get to understand the multitude of histories that are always being written and rewritten and unwritten, all the time.

PM: Give us your hopes and wishes for future pattern book authors and readers.

TCY: Maybe our pattern book is where things start, with the next series becoming more of a deep dive. We started by looking at small exits that open up to large territories. Could future pattern books start with large territories that bring us down to the scale of exits? The Turnpike as a river is a metaphor of how histories are always present and constantly rolling, and so it might be an interesting way to think about the life of the pattern book, weaving all these territories in surprising ways.

Animated version of "Turnpike Pattern Book" by Tommy CheeMou Yang.

Brian McGrath is an architect and Professor of Urban Design at The New School. He lived in Newark for twenty years where he volunteered for the East Coast Greenway to find a safe bike trail to Jersey City crossing exit 15E.