High Line Offers New Slant on City Views

Event: High Line Section 1 Media Preview
Location: The High Line, 06.08.09
Organizer: Friends of the High Line

Scenes along the High Line.

Bill Millard

Most park designers wouldn’t deliberately direct views to the flow of nearby city traffic. But an amphitheater peering down onto 10th Avenue is just one of many ways the recently opened High Line offers fresh views of familiar West Side cityscapes.

With the surface of the public park some 30 feet above street level, “you see the city from perspectives you normally would never have access to,” remarked James Corner, principal of landscape architecture firm Field Operations, which led the design of the new park on a former elevated railway. The High Line’s sense of calm and seclusion seems to suit its role as a “slow park,” one designed for leisurely strolls.

More than 60,000 people visited the park in the first week alone. As a group of journalists wandered the nine-block stretch of Section 1 (Section 2 opens next year), we encountered a succession of areas with distinct characters, united by a common design vocabulary of long, thin concrete planks and simple, linear furnishings. The planks rear up to merge with wood benches, a flourish that seems sleek but not slick.

On the southern end at Gansevoort and Washington Streets, the journey begins in a woodland; further north, visitors pass through grasslands and elements such a sundeck — complete with oversized deck chairs and a shallow water feature good for cooling one’s toes — and the amphitheater, where people can look down upon the bustling avenue, as if the street life were a form of dramatic spectacle. One visitor was reminded of the highly focused view offered by the Mediatheque at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the High Line’s architects.

The High Line has spurred a much-publicized wave of development in the area, and walking along Section 1 reveals a parade of construction cranes and recent creations by Frank Gehry, FAIA, Jean Nouvel, Della Valle Bernheimer, and others. (Polshek Partnership’s Standard Hotel is unmissable, straddling the park like a giant robot.) To the west are sweeping views of the Hudson River, and a Spencer Finch art installation in one tunnel celebrates the river’s ever-shifting hues.

The new design is geared to “set up really great and unusual situations where you can view the city,” Corner said. In deference to those views, the designers chose an understated aesthetic for the park itself. However, their contemporary take on the historical structure offers subtle visual pleasures of its own. Where the planks and plantings meet, they blend together in a comb-like pattern; vegetation sprouts up between thin concrete lines. The notion of a hybrid “agri-tecture” was inspired by the once-wild state of the vegetation there, when the High Line became a postindustrial ruin after trains stopped running in 1980. For now, the northern area near 20th Street, where the plantings went in earliest, best demonstrates the untamed effect. Benches and a water fountain echo the linear forms of the planks and the rail lines themselves, most of which have been retained and restored.

The designers and engineers faced their share of challenges along the way. With shallow soil, wind, and extremes of temperature, “that’s an extremely difficult environment to get plants to grow,” Corner said. Many of the 210 plant species had to be chosen for their hardiness and their ability to survive at their specific location within the park. As for the hardscape, the different rates of thermal expansion and contraction of the concrete planks and of the steel structure underneath led to fears that the planks would soon shift out of place, so engineers at Buro Happold devised a special system of expansion joints for the planks that could accommodate the movement of both materials, said Herbert Browne, Buro Happold senior project manager.

Ultimately, the park serves as a testament to the way that — with some ingenuity and imagination — old infrastructure can be put to new uses. “The big story about the High Line is the sort of economic revitalization that it has brought to the West Side, and other cities can learn from that,” Corner said. “The High Line, I think, opens the door for a little bit more experimentation with what public spaces could be.”