Looking, Moving, Gathering: Functions of the High Line

New York's beloved public space project by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro opens its second section.

New York's beloved High Line is a machine for generating three types of urban social activity: looking, moving, and gathering. The June 7 inauguration of the second section of the elevated park, designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has doubled the length of the park to one full mile (1.6 km). Cutting an elevated, verdant path through West Chelsea, the High Line now offers doubly abundant opportunities for looking (at the city, at each other, at oneself), moving (aimlessly or purposefully), and gathering (with friends, with strangers, with one's thoughts).

Separated by a chicken-wire fence until this week, the first and second sections of the elevated park now blur seamlessly. Completed two years apart, they were designed as a whole. Hence the newly opened run between West 20th Street and West 30th Street is not a sequel, but the realization of the original vision. The now-familiar material palette and building components include concrete decking planks interlaced with greenery, wood benches sprouting out of the ground, cut-out stairwells with clear glass and Corten steel trim, wild and shaggy plantings, preserved iron tracks, and of course the hulking black steel structure built in 1934. Throughout the project, hard and soft elements are spliced artfully together.
Along the elevated Flyover pathway, an intimate overlook branches off the at West 25th Street.  © Iwan Baan, 2011.<br />Top image: Looking south from near the northern terminus, a long wooden bench curves with the pathway for an entire city block.  © Iwan Baan, 2011.
Along the elevated Flyover pathway, an intimate overlook branches off the at West 25th Street. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
Top image: Looking south from near the northern terminus, a long wooden bench curves with the pathway for an entire city block. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
What differentiates each part of the High Line from the others is the series of micro-landscapes and outdoor rooms implanted along the park's varying width. Each setting facilitates different tempos and densities of activity, from quiet strolling and placid sunbathing to promiscuous picture-taking and voyeuristic viewing. And just as every part is designed, so every part is named. The newly unveiled environments include the Thicket, the Lawn, the Seating Steps, the Flyover, the Viewing Spur, the Wildflower Field, the Radial Bench, and the Cut-Out. The park also soaks up visual and kinetic energy from the heterogeneous urban fabric in which it is immersed—a fabric that changes from block to block, season to season, and year to year. Temporary, site-specific art installations further animate the park.
Aerial View of the High Line looking south from West 30th Street. The elevated public park now stretches through West Chelsea from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
Aerial View of the High Line looking south from West 30th Street. The elevated public park now stretches through West Chelsea from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
James Corner says that the High Line showcases "the theatricality of social settings" as well as the emergence of a "postindustrial nature." This assessment gets to the core of the project's hybridization of park, street, and plaza. It also evokes a body of radical planning theory. For example, based on studies conducted in New York City's public spaces in the 1960s–70s, the theorist and planner William H. Whyte concluded that urban life was defined by the urge to be among other people, including strangers. While New Yorkers may pine for secluded respites, they also gravitate toward social hot spots. And while the High Line is most quiet during the workday, when it is apt to evoke the secret garden that it was prior to renovation, it is most attractive in the early evening, when the people come pouring along for a New York-style Passeggiata. The park thus extends the city's multi-layered density that Rem Koolhaas called, "the culture of congestion." The High Line is no antidote to city life; on the contrary, it fuels city life.
The park extends the city’s multi-layered density that Rem Koolhaas called, “the culture of congestion.” The High Line is no antidote to city life; on the contrary, it fuels city life.
Once a secret garden in the sky, the High Line has spurred new development along its edges, including Neil Denari’s HL23 (front left) and Della Valle Bernheimer’s 245 10th Avenue (middle right). Looking North from West 23rd Street, the path blends with plantings. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
Once a secret garden in the sky, the High Line has spurred new development along its edges, including Neil Denari’s HL23 (front left) and Della Valle Bernheimer’s 245 10th Avenue (middle right). Looking North from West 23rd Street, the path blends with plantings. © Iwan Baan, 2011.
The tree- and shrub-lined Chelsea Thicket between West 20th and West 22nd Street is the only part of the High Line planted so tall and densely as to block out the surrounding city, evoking the insular quality of the Promenade Plantée in Paris. But this segment was already enclosed by a canyon of continuous building walls. The High Line then widens between West 22nd and West 23rd Street, allowing room for a tiered seating structure made from stacked lumber and a 5,000 ft2 (465 m2) grass lawn that peels up from the ground plane, not unlike the ubiquitous benches. The peeling grass plane also echoes the cantilevering wall of the adjacent HL23 building by Neil Denari, which wraps up and over the High Line. A curious but significant new segment is the Falcone Flyover, a sequence of elevated, stainless-steel walkways running from West 24th to West 27th Street. Here the seemingly overgrown-in-the-wild railbed is treated like an archaeological relic. The pedestrian path decouples from the ground and ramps up as if in deference to the garden, which is allowed to grow luxuriantly across the High Line's full width. Although the branching overlooks make appealing resting spots, something is lost in the segregation of architecture from landscape.
The 26th Street Viewing Spur as seen from the street. A large glowing frame at the edge of the platform simultaneously evokes a billboard, and a proscenium arch, a picture window, a camera viewfinder. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.
The 26th Street Viewing Spur as seen from the street. A large glowing frame at the edge of the platform simultaneously evokes a billboard, and a proscenium arch, a picture window, a camera viewfinder. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.
Midway along the Flyover, however, lies an inventive social attractor called the 26th Street Viewing Spur. Tiered seating overlooks a stream of moving traffic below, similar to the larger amphitheater spanning 10th Avenue at 17th Street. A large glowing frame at the edge of the platform transmits views in the manner of a picture window or camera viewfinder to those on the platform, and simultaneously attracts stares from the street in the manner of a billboard or proscenium arch. It playfully subverts the authority of the gaze so that no one is sure who is watching and who is being watched. It also creates a peculiar sense of interiority without enclosure. This scenario appears to draw upon DS+R's decades-long fascination with the social dynamics of performance and spectacle in public space, as also exhibited in Diller and Scofidio's 1989 Para-Site installation at MoMA, and more recently in the strategic transparencies of Alice Tully Hall. Around 29th Street, a gently curving line of wood benches accentuates the High Line's westward turn toward the Hudson River. The 30th Street terminus is punctuated with a dramatic cut-out and overlook exposing the Herculean steel structure beneath the deck. Although the abandoned railway extends for another 0.45 mi. (0.72 km) to 34th Street, the reclamation of this third section for public space has yet to be secured.
The High Line widens between West 22nd and West 23rd Street, allowing room for a tiered seating structure made from stacked Ipe wood and a lawn as well as the walkway. ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
The High Line widens between West 22nd and West 23rd Street, allowing room for a tiered seating structure made from stacked Ipe wood and a lawn as well as the walkway. ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
The magic of the High Line owes much to the specific height of its deck. At roughly 10m (33 ft.), it is high enough to transform one's perception of the city, yet low enough to feel connected with the street. The dynamic interplay between the park and the city depends not only on the preservation of the historic rail structure, but also on the preservation of at least some of its low-rise surroundings. To this end the City created a special zoning district for the vicinity of the High Line in 2005 that seeks to encourage new development while limiting its density and ground coverage. New buildings that get touchy-feely with the elevated park, such as the Standard Hotel and HL23, must receive special easements. Only time will tell if these rules protect the park's vistas.
The continuous Radial Bench follows the curve of the High Line as the park approaches its northern terminus. The remaining section of the former railway (visible in the middle ground) has not yet been acquired for public use. ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
The continuous Radial Bench follows the curve of the High Line as the park approaches its northern terminus. The remaining section of the former railway (visible in the middle ground) has not yet been acquired for public use. ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
Meanwhile, city planning commissioner Amanda Burden touts the High Line's public value. "If we invest in great public open space, the return on the investment is enormous," said Burden at the opening. She credits the High Line for attracting two billion dollars of development capital, the new Whitney Museum building, and a rejuvenated gallery district. For the design team, creating the High Line required collaboration with a complex cocktail of agencies rather than one single client. In addition to the parks department and the private sponsor Friends of the High Line, decision-makers included the city planning department, the mayor's office, and the city's economic development corporation. "Compared to the Lincoln Center project, it was a piece of cake," quips Scofidio, whose office recently renovated the public areas of New York's modernist performing arts mecca.
The northern end of the 23rd Street Lawn peels up to create a platform for lounging and sunbathing. Looking West, toward the Hudson River.  ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
The northern end of the 23rd Street Lawn peels up to create a platform for lounging and sunbathing. Looking West, toward the Hudson River. ©Iwan Baan, 2011.
The High Line embodies an emergent species of public space that binds landscape architecture and architecture with planning and preservation . It may not be typical or replicable, but it nevertheless ups the ante on what public space can be in the 21st century. Tim Richardson noted six years ago in Domus , "Landscape architecture suddenly has a strong presence in New York." Beyond the High Line, the city is working on transforming numerous waterfront lots and piers, Governor's Island, the former Fresh Kills landfill, and many existing rooftops into accessible "green" landscapes. How many of these reclaimed spaces will help renew urban culture as well as urban ecology?
Gideon Fink Shapiro
The cutout entrance stair on the High Line at West 23rd Street, passing through old and new architecture. Materials include Corten steel, glass panels, cast concrete, Ipe wood, and plantings rooted in 18 inches of turf, supported by the original 1934 rail structure. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.
The cutout entrance stair on the High Line at West 23rd Street, passing through old and new architecture. Materials include Corten steel, glass panels, cast concrete, Ipe wood, and plantings rooted in 18 inches of turf, supported by the original 1934 rail structure. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.
The linear wildflower garden at dusk, with plantings illuminated and benches peeling up from the 12-in. (30.5cm)-wide concrete planks. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.
The linear wildflower garden at dusk, with plantings illuminated and benches peeling up from the 12-in. (30.5cm)-wide concrete planks. © Gideon Fink Shapiro.

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