The High Line – modern outdoor design at its best

By Cressida Smart

In a city where space is a premium and greenery in particular is rare, New York City has, as always, raised the bar in ingenious and creative ideas. Running one mile along the lower west side of Manhattan, sits the High Line. A former elevated freight railroad, it has been redesigned and planted as an aerial greenway. It starts at Gansevoort Street, one block below West 12th Street, in the Meatpacking District and continues up to 30th Street, through the area of Chelsea.

The High Line has done as much for New York City horizontally as the Empire State Building has vertically. Arriving when millenniums meet, it could be the most important piece of urban design since the boardwalk, both in terms of the income it generates and entertainment it provides. Attracting over 40,000 visitors every weekend, it creates an estimated $2 billion in private investment.

The park’s attractions include plants that are inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the disused tracks and new, often unexpected views of the city and the Hudson River. Pebble-dash concrete walkways unify the trail, which swells and constricts, swinging from side to side and divides into concrete tines that meld with the planting embedded in railroad gravel mulch. Stretches of track and ties recall the High Line’s former use. Portions of track are adaptively re-used for rolling lounges positioned for river views.

Most of the planting, which includes 210 species, is of rugged meadow plants, including clump-forming grasses, liatris and coneflowers, with scattered stands of sumac and smokebush, but not limited to American natives. At the Gansevoort end, a grove of mixed species of birch already provides some dappled shade by late afternoon. Ipê timber for the built-in benches has come from a managed forest certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, to ensure sustainable use and the conservation of biological diversity, water resources and fragile ecosystems.

In addition to the integrated architecture and plant life, the High Line has cultural attractions. As part of a long-term plan for the park to host temporary installations and performances of various kinds, Creative Time, Friends of the High Line, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation commissioned The River That Flows Both Ways by Spencer Finch as the inaugural art installation. The work is integrated into the window bays of the former Nabisco Factory loading dock, as a series of 700 purple and grey colored glass panes. Each colour is exactly calibrated to match the centre pixel of 700 digital pictures, one taken every minute, of the Hudson River, therefore presenting an extended portrait of the river that gives the work its name. Creative Time worked with the artist to realise the site-specific concept, which emerged when he saw the rusted, disused mullions of the old factory, which metal and glass specialists Jaroff Design helped to prepare and reinstall. The summer of 2010 featured a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello, composed from bells heard through New York.

What can be said of the architecture that sits along the High Line? Several of the buildings are instantly recognisable, with the Empire State Building presiding over all. However, recent years have seen the development of new structures then contribute to the skyline. Rising confidently out of the ground at 23rd St. and 10th Ave. is HL23, an 11-unit, 14-floor condominium, with 11-foot stainless steel panels on its eastern facade that ripple like water in the light. An architectural and technological feat, the building gets wider as it gets taller. Angled steel beams as thick as eight inches hold it together with tapered pins that graphically spell out the building’s innards. An all-marble desk, weighing two tons and commissioned by HL23’s sales director, Erin Boisson Aries of Brown Harris Stevens, sits in its lobby. It was cut from one large stone.

Before it was built, the Museum of the City of New York held an exhibition celebrating HL23’s design achievements. Since the completion, architectural critics have compared it to cars, airplanes, fishbowls and the American Dream. HL23 took six years from concept to completion, receiving seven zoning variances, one of which allowed it to be the only building to cantilever over the High Line. Held together by brute force, architectural technology and human persistence, the building was the subject of a legal challenge from a neighbouring developer that stopped construction for nine months. It also survived the economic crisis.

HL23 isn’t the tallest building in the city or along the High Line, nor is it the most expensive. However, when you stand below it looking up, the gleam that bounces of the façade desperately invites you to reach out and touch its iron skin.

Every morning, before the crowds stampede on this glorious walkway, I run to the end of the High Line and back. As I move with a steady pace I take in the beauty that passes me by. I feel like a voyeur above the pounding streets of the city watching daily life unfold. Only New York, with its upbeat attitude in a time of economical crisis, can take a disused rail track and turn it into a scene of magnificence.

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