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Thursday, June 18, 2009

High Line Impressions

On Tuesday I took my first stroll on The High Line, one week after it opened. It's an extremely photogenic park, so I took plenty of photos but distilled them to just over ten for this post and just under 40 for my flickr set. A slideshow of the latter is at the end of this post. Below are some thoughts from my visit, with the photos in a northerly sequence from the entrance at Gansevoort Street to the 20th Street terminus.

For those not familiar with The High Line, it is a new park built atop an unused freight railway viaduct built in the 1930s on Manhattan's West Side in response to deaths from the previous at-grade line. Friends of the High Line is most responsible for spearheading an effort to turn the elevated railway into a park. Their efforts led to the city's support and subsequent ownership of most of the High Line. The parks' designer, picked in a 2004 invited competition, is Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. For a little bit more background, check out my previous High Line posts, in chronological order: The High Line RFQ (2004.03.01), High Line RFQ Update (2004.04.01), High Line Update (2004.07.14), High Line Winner (2004.08.12), High Line Update (2005.04.19), Another High Line Update (2005.04.28).

The High Line
[looking north down Washington Street from the Gansevoort entrance]

The High Line's "main" entrance is at the corner of Washington and Gansevoort Streets, the current end of the viaduct, after the southern portion was demolished about 30 years ago. A straight stair leads visitors up 30 feet to the raised park, into an area dense with trees and other plantings. One can backtrack slightly to a sort of lookout, capturing views like the one above that give unique perspectives on the Meatpacking District, the ultra-popular area full of restaurants, boutiques and galleries where slaughterhouses and meat storage were formerly served by the train cars.

The High Line
[looking south from underneath The Standard Hotel]

Heading north from Gansevoort, the initial density of the park gives way to an openness, a hint at the variety that is achieved within a rather limited palette of concrete planks, planting beds, old railway infrastructure, benches, lighting, guardrails, corten steel plates, and a few other elements. Overall the park can be seen as a series of what the designers call microclimates, pockets of varying character, focus, density, etc. What is rather unique about the High Line is how these microclimates are influenced dramatically by the adjacent buildings -- some old, many new -- more than traditional, on-the-ground landscapes. Both proximity and the linearity of the park contributes to this dynamic mix of buildings and raised landscape.

The High Line
[close-up of railway ties and tracks reused in planter beds]

This planter bed (above) with railway tracks and ties sits near the entrance, with many such details occurring throughout the park. I won't go into much detail on them here, referring you to my recent post The Post-Postmodernism of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (and Field Operations). It should be noted that while they look authentic, like the infrastructure was left in place, they were in fact removed and reinstalled in a raised position that allows for the vegetation's growing medium. It's a staged authenticity that recalls the ruined state of the High Line, rather than its days as a working railway.

The High Line
[looking south under The Standard Hotel]

The impact of adjacent buildings is nowhere more dramatic than the new Standard Hotel by Polshek Partnership, located at 13th and Washington Streets. The large slab building is not as oppressive as one would imagine. Its large opening and two concrete legs create a gateway of sorts, for those making their way from Gansevoort to all points north. It's hard to imagine this stretch of the High Line without the Standard, even though the hotel is as new as the park itself. As more buildings pop up in less dramatic proximity to the High Line, the park's character will change alongside them. These landmarks will act as vertical markers along the eventual 1.5-mile (2.4-km) length of the park.

The High Line
[looking north at the "sundeck" between 14th and 15th Streets]

Mentioning the spate of new buildings along and above the viaduct as landmarks makes me think about the genius loci of the different microclimates. One would think that the limited palette used for the horizontal blend of architecture and landscape would negate a unique sense of place along the linear park, but surprisingly this is not the case. While it may not come across in these photos, the sundeck above is a memorable area distinct from the pathway near the 16th Street entrance below. A comparison of photo below with the area near the Standard yields the same result: one knows where one is from the design of the park, not just the surroundings. Some areas have a diagonal movement, some orthogonal, some zig-zagging; one stretch splits into two paths at different heights; a plaza becomes an attraction that invites a pause in the stroll; and so forth.

The High Line
[looking north from the 16th Street entrance]

One of the most successful places along the route from Gansevoort to 20th Street is the 10th Avenue Plaza (below), comprised of some tiered seating on axis with the north-south avenue and a small grove of trees alternating with the "peel-up benches" found throughout the park. The benches are turned 90-degrees to their usual orientation following the concrete planks, as if to say, "stop and sit a while." A simple change in configuration of the benches leads to a change in configuration of the park stroller, from walking to sitting. Or so it would seem, but the peel-up benches are, for the moment, more popular with kids for running and jumping than for sitting by people of any age. The sundeck and tiered seating are the most popular places to take a break.

The High Line
[looking south from the 10th Avenue Plaza]

The tiered seating area protruding northward along 10th Avenue is an obvious Diller Scofidio + Renfro contribution, reminiscent of the Poss Family Mediatheque in their design for the ICA in Boston. Where the latter's window wall gives visitors a zen-like view of the water, here it's all about the city and traffic. The glass at the bottom of the steps provides a view that is reciprocated, but given the direction of traffic (away from the gaze) drivers are not able to see people standing at the window as they drive by...except in the rearview mirror.

The High Line
[looking north up 10th Avenue from the tiered seats of 10th Avenue Plaza]

The High Line
[looking south towards the tiered seats of 10th Avenue Plaza]

Moving past the 10th Avenue Plaza -- a pinch of sorts between buildings in the diagonal move across the avenue -- the vista to the north opens up to reveal "starchitecture" in all its might. There's a Gehry, in front of a Nouvel, besides a Mr. Ban and a Ms. Selldorf. It's a view flattering to the first more than the other three, but this view is a sign of things to come, as more and more of these streets are populated with new developments spurred by the High Line's transformation into a linear park connecting the Meatpacking District to Chelsea and, eventually, Hell's Kitchen.

The High Line
[looking north towards starchitecture on the horizon]

The park gives New Yorkers and visitors a unique venue for a stroll, a characteristic that will increase as the length of the park does the same. Right now it's a destination due to its novelty, and it will surely be that all summer. It should be interesting to see how well the park functions in cold weather, particularly if ice and snow make walking precarious. This is a reminder that, as in all landscapes and buildings, we experience a snapshot of its ever-changing nature. The current state of the park is the embodiment of the design renderings that preceded construction; over time things will surely change and the experience of the park too. James Corner of Field Operations is certainly cognizant of this, so his design most likely reflects an acknowledgment of time's transformations.

The High Line
[looking north from the "Chelsea Grasslands" near 19th Street]

The High Line is a great place to take a walk, check out the design and check out others doing the same. That said, I couldn't help thinking that the park is over designed. Every square inch of landscape or architecture is detailed to the nth degree. This most certainly arises from the money pumped into the neighborhoods the park engages (the success of the still tentative plans for the northernmost stretch will likewise depend on the Hudson Yards being developed) and the celebrity participation that fueled the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the High Line. This sort of design could not happen in areas lacking the riches and the personalities behind them.

Lastly, one adjacent element besides buildings that has an influence on the experience are the billboards sporadically littered along the park's length. Geared to motorists on 10th Avenue and the West Side Highway, I'm guessing that some sort of legislation will be enacted that limits the size and location of these billboards, now that people are walking the High Line. Much like the restrictions along interstate highways, their presence here conflicts with the "nature" of the linear space. As well the scale of the billboards, given their target audience, is overbearing in relation to the High Line. I'm sure advertising in other forms and scales would replace the billboards, if my prediction comes true. The power of the High Line might just influence more than the adjacent developments it has spurred.

9 comments:

  1. I don't understand the tiered seating on 10th Avenue. To watch traffic? And submit yourself to be put on public display, like village idiots? Is the public regarded as being so passive that it would want to sit and watch traffic like cows put out to pasture?
    A great chance squandered.

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  2. It's almost identical to the Promenade Plantée in Paris which runs into the city up to the Place de la Bastille. I can tell you that are always lots of people up there, whatever the weather and season!

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  3. thomas- you say it's a great chance squandered. what would you put there instead?

    Daily Architecture
    lisaletostak.blogspot.com

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  4. A very interesting project. I agree that it very much reminds me of the Promenade Plantée in Paris.

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  5. thomas - I think the tiered seating is to give a perspective on the avenue not usually afforded. It is much more than traffic; it is people, buildings, billboards, and a long vista. The designers also mention that the plaza's benches within the small grove of trees afford a view south to the Statue of Liberty. There's something to that juxtaposition of views.

    Adam and chicagomontreal - The Promenade Plantée was definitely an inspiration, though it was mentioned by the designers recently in terms of how different it is, not similar. They were referring to the stroll being an important part of Parisian life, but not here in NYC. So the Promenade Plantée was an extension of something in place, while creating a linear park for ambling is not as strongly linked to place. I would disagree and say that NYC, Manhattan especially, is conducive to strolling and people-watching, just more by visitors and people with the time to leisurely walk from point A to point B. People living in NYC are not always in a hurry.

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  6. John - can't views of traffic, billboards, the Statue of Liberty, etc., be seen from anywhere on the highline. I don't see the reason for the framing of either the views, or of the pedistrians sitting in the ampitheater.

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  7. Its incredible to see this city evolving by consuming its own waste products.

    Mind blowing. And beautiful.

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  8. thomas - Actually, not really, at least in terms of traffic. The design does a good job of buffering the paths from the streets below. Basically this crossing over 10th Avenue becomes a node rather than a diagonal path. The view up the avenue could certainly be achieved without the tiered seating, but it would be a much different effect. Obviously you don't appreciate the effect, but even though it's not as strong as ICA, it makes a notable spot, an attractive and popular spot in the sequence of the High Line. We'll see if it remains popular or if people are turned off by the way DS+R make the park-goer visually confront the traffic they are avoiding.

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  9. Wouldn't the park goer confront traffic after he got down from the highline?
    That space is basically a proscenium theater, not a very confrontational form at all. It makes the city into a picture; it theatricalizes it.
    If people are turned off by the space, I hope it is because they will resent being made spectator in a game in which they are the players.

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