Walk the Line - NYC High Line

architects James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro
project High Line Park, New York, USA
written by Ana Dana Beroš

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Endangered city infrastructure


City production and space management, guided by nothing but neo-liberal principles, is going through an unprecedented deep crisis. From the ecological standpoint, regardless of whether cities are uncontrollably growing or stagnating, the modes of terri­torial occupation and exploitation are reaching a climax where the natural environment is being irretrievably lost. The anthropization of space or the transformation of the natural environment to satisfy human needs, has gone so far that even the IFLA (International Foundation of Landscape Architects) compares abandoned industrial landscapes with the endangered environment!


Large-scale infrastructure projects affect the form of a city almost as much as topo­graphy does. The collective memory, on the other hand, fixes only on the conspicuous symbols of urban identity: the architectural set pieces of political or religious authority. But without the development of complex infrastructure systems, the modern megalopolises as we know them could never have emerged. As cities mature, a question arises: what to do with outmoded infrastructure? It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that architectural preservationists initiated the idea of the historical significance and merit of utilitarian landmarks.


One example of an inventive rehabilitation of a brownfield site[1] is the first segment of the High Line, a park in New York. The project, designed by two famous New York practices, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is a linear park, superimposed on an elevated freight railway.[2] The railway, wending more than a mile and a half through Manhattan’s West Side, from midtown to Greenwich Village, was erected during the Great Depression, between 1929 and 1934. As car traffic in the city was already congested, the railway was elevated some thirty feet above street level, to the height of a four-storey house, to speed delivery of materials and foodstuffs directly to Manhattan factories and processing plants. Unlike the trains, which still clattered above the vehicular traffic of Second, Third, Sixth, Ninth and Lexington Avenues, the High Line followed its own path in the Chelsea district, reaching the back doors and sometimes even going through buildings. It made the tracks virtually invisible in the cityscape, except at crossroads. Still, the veritable disappearing act of the High Line tracks started exactly thirty years ago, when they carried their last shipment – three wagons of frozen turkeys.


The owners of the land along the tracks wanted to tear them down, but nobody was ready to bear the cost. Still, a few citizens recognized that the old, mouldering railway spur had the potential of a civic amenity. The non-profit Friends of the High Line was formed to preserve the tracks and turn them into a public city space. A few years later, they obtained city support, partly because of a study showing that the tax benefits, accumulated in the conversion project, would be several times greater than the construction costs. To compensate the owners for the loss of land under the elevated tracks, the policy of urban air development was introduced, allowing an increase in the standard height of buildings on neighbouring lots.


Liminal territories as fertile soil


The elevated city railway operates as a porous wall, a permeable border, creating an important physical element of the open city. The porous walls and borders create a liminal territory, a territory on the edges of control, edges that allow the appearance of unforeseeable things, persons and events. From the stand­point of sociology and urban planning, these sites work differently than the sites concentrated in the centre. New peripheral visions arise, pointing out the differences on the horizon, since we are aware of crossing from one territory to another.


As we witness an ever more pronouncedlack of city space due to the gradual disappearance of space inten­ded for public use, we realize that the crisis of space is intensified by a crisis of individual and collective subjectivity. Against a distanced, consumerist and abstract urban space, there comes the demand for an ecological balance between the environment, social issues and subjective needs. The unwanted city spaces, the gaps in the urban matrix as limi­nal areas, are a fertile soil to be appropriated and cared for by informal users, and – more importantly – to practise democracy and a different urban discourse. Such were the foundations of the project that trans­formed the High Line railway into a public city park.


The model of a contemporary public park


The history of public parks started as a response to disintegrated urban landscapes, the consequences of industrialization and accelerated urbanization. New York’s Central Park, the masterwork of landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux from the mid-19th century, is an example of the classical model of a public park rus in urbe – the illusion of a natural landscape created within the city – with a rich scenic imagination on a monumental urban planning scale.


The High Line Park marks a radical departure from that historic model. Its apparent architectural modesty unveils the clash between natural and urban settings, rather than an alluring illusion of nature. A contemporary park, High Line embraces the principles of polyvalence, ecologic performances and an injection of social engagement. The design of public spaces goes beyond the level of achieving aesthetic harmony and becomes a programmed urban planning creation with the content and activities that communicate with users. Like a live organism, it teaches us how to live in relation to nature, ourselves and others. This social, educational aspect of the park is enabled by the effort and care of Friends of the High Line, the organization implementing the high-quality content of the park in the community.


Vagueness as a design strategy


Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the co-authors of the project, combine three different modes of work in their practice, existing in undefined areas between the architectural profession, academic studies and artistic research. Their role of explorers examining the spatial conventions of contemporary everyday life assumes that space is a performing body, instead of a representative platform. Unlike the approach of the New York Five group, called paper architecture, Diller + Scofidio moved architectural research to an operating physical space.


Their specific re­search approach to the discipline of architecture, with the method of asking questions rather than giving answers, is expressed in the project of the High Line Park. The architects themselves say that they wanted to protect the High Line Park from architecture. As a kind of a creative credo, they introduced a strategy of vagueness, which they call agri-tecture. The system, which is part agriculture, part architecture, digitalizes the surface of the park. The idea was to treat the park as a continuous carpet, where the boundaries between the greenery and the pedestrian areas simply disappear. By changing the relations between the pedestrian areas and the greenery, the strategy of agri-tecture links organic and building materials in modules that accept different content-wise and natural conditions. The agri-tecture modules can be organized in different relationships, from uniformly hard surfaces to completely soft organic biotopes. The surface of the park is made of oblong prefabricated concrete slabs, with grass freely growing between their open joints. The paving concrete elements are shaped to gradually merge with the vegetation, creating a landscape almost without a path, nine blocks long, where visitors can stroll aimlessly. The continuous park surface includes the original tracks, restored and incorporated into the landscape as in situ found objects.


Towards an aesthetic of a self-seeded landscape


To recapture some semblance of the found natural vegetation, the project’s organizers engaged the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf.[3] His windswept, painterly approach looks carefree, and the vegetation looks self-seeded to all but experienced gardeners aware of the exceptional artifice needed to achieve an illusion of utter naturalness.


The aesthetic of spontaneous nature includes activist, political connotations, referring to guerrilla gardens. In fact, the wild expression of a guerrilla garden is the result of the sowing technique: a sporadic seed bombardment of neglected public and private land in the city. With time, such landscapes would develop into guerrilla gardens of Eden, which would mature into legitimate parks of the local community, as partly happened to the High Line Park.[4]


Ecological inconsistencies


The urban furniture in the form of benches follows the idea of a continuous surface, softly and occasionally growing out of the agri-tectonic surface of the park. The design introduces a new material – ipê, a South American timber; although aesthetically justified, this move is questionable in the light of claims to ecological responsibility and the commitment to local, recycled, and sustainable materials.[5] The same material was used for the wide sun deck chairs, but the real accent of the park is the amphitheatre, a steep wood-covered cascade with a large glass wall overlooking the thoroughfare.[6]


Gentrification as the unavoidable narrative of urban development


Over the last few years, the High Line neighbourhood has also been changing. A good example is the former factory block of the Meatpacking District, where butchers and warehouses have been supplanted by trendy restaurants, galleries and boutiques, such as the shop of Yohji Yamamoto on Gansevoort Street, designed by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. The park increased the value of the surrounding land and attracted luxury real estate investors, who like to attach world-famous architectural names to their projects. In the immediate vicinity, there are already buildings by Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban and Jean Nouvel; in a few years, the Whitney Museum will open its building here, to a design by Renzo Piano. The process of gentrification, which appeared as a sporadic, original and local anomaly on the real estate markets of some cities, has become a general urban strategy, where the investment of production capital has unconditional precedence.


For the moment, clubs and galleries co-exist with warehouses and butchers in this section of real urbanity, but will the entire High Line neighbourhood become a mu­seum quarter one day, surrounded by explicitly luxurious apartments?


Us vs. the others


Since the industrial city first appeared, its theoreticians have been impressed by the variety of urban identities, unforeseen links, uncontrolled results. Roland Barthes says that the city is the place to meet the other; Richard Sennet claims that city existence always means the pre­sence of otherness. The open city, when it contains the principles of porous territories, ambiguous narratives and incomplete forms, works as a democratic city in the physical sense. Creating a democratic space means creating a forum where strangers could interact. In order for the cities to develop, communicate and function as catalysts of public life, it is necessary to motivate civil participation and community involvement. Since the very beginnings, the High Line promoted informal links among people, intimacy among strangers, an us-community.


Can spatial design invite people to engage, connect and identify? It is an urgent question, which city planning must try to answer in the post-urban age. One thing is sure: by opening oneself towards difference and otherness, one promotes contact zones that can oppose the predictable development of contemporary life as legitimate urban strategies.


[1] A brownfield site is an abandoned and unused industrial site, where the ground may be contaminated, but which could be converted and reused after an ecological rehabilitation.


[2] The example of High Line as an elevated park on older city infrastructure is not the first of its kind. The often-cited prototype is the three-mile viaduct Promenade Plantée, also known as La Coulée Verte (The Green Stream), built in Paris in the early 1990s.


[3] He is the best-known exponent of the movement dubbed New Wave Planting, typfied by the formula of expansive, irregular drifts of smaller and more fragile plants interspersed with rippling waves of tall grasses, with strong emphasis on native species.


[4] There are two kinds of guerrilla gardens: the paradise guerrilla gardens, ennobling an ordinarily neglected urban landscape, and the protest guerrilla gardens, as a political attitude against a sterile space under authoritarian control.


[5] For the most part, ipê is logged illegally, and its commerce causes great harm to the Amazonian rainforests of Brazil and Peru, as well as the region’s indigenous peoples.


[6] The amphitheatre was devised by Diller Scofidio + Renfro; the vertiginous vantage point over the thoroughfare is similar to the stepped computer centre that the firm suspended beneath the cantilever of its Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.