The High Line: Heightening the Senses

“Keep it simple; keep it wild; keep it quiet; keep it slow”.  As design principles, these are lofty ambitions for the transformation of a narrow riveted steel structure that juts along the west side of Manhattan above the grit and glitz of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Cars zoom and honk their way along Tenth Avenue.  Gargantuan and steely, Victoria and David Beckham sneer down at us from a billboard that stands just feet from the High Line’s railing. Socialites swarm above and below at the Standard Hotel and new construction jabbers on either side as big-name architects erect their latest confection.  Simple, wild, quiet and slow, the environs ain’t.  And yet, among the bobbing grasses and feather-edged paths of the High Line, one cannot deny the whisper of a carefully coaxed wilderness.  Amidst the complexity and flash of its urban landscape the High Line seems to afford a sensuous frugality.  Its careful avoidance of flash and refined use of material creates, for the visitor, a feeling of being at once in the city and above the fray.  The High Line is wild enough to feel like a park, quiet enough to allow for contemplation, slow enough to enable the kind of simple observation that re-enchants the everyday.

The High Line has not always been a place of serenity.  Indeed, it was originally the West Side Line, built to elevate the freight trains that ran along Tenth Avenue, carrying goods from downtown meatpackers and wholesalers to New York Central’s freight yards. Prior to the elevation of the railway in the 1930s, the trains on Tenth Ave. caused so many accidents as to earn the street the alluring nickname “Death Avenue”. The High Line ran from the 34th St. terminal to Spring St., taking the trains off the streets and enabling warehouses onsite delivery through sidetracks that spurred into the buildings along the way. For half a century, it carried meat, milk and produce along its tracks, finally ceasing operation in 1980, when it was shut down and abandoned.  The riveted steel structure stood neglected for the ensuing two decades, while the land below bloomed with new businesses, galleries and restaurants. Viewing it as a clunky anachronism, developers and property owners soon began lobbying to pull it down.

And then in 2001 a curious thing happened:  New York photographer Joel Sternfeld, known for his work exploring the irony of human-altered landscapes, ascended the High Line and documented the secret garden that had taken root above while New Yorkers were too busy to notice.  This accidental landscape, where nature was quietly and tenaciously reclaiming what the city had forgotten, enchanted people to look at the High Line in a totally new way. The Friends of the High Line, a group advocating for the structure’s redevelopment as a park, gained the first City support the following year and the High Line’s redevelopment wheels were set in motion. In January of 2003, the “Designing the High Line” competition opened its doors, with over 720 teams from 36 countries submitting proposals.  The High Line was the forgotten child no more. Landscape architect James Corner’s New York-based firm Field Operations was chosen to lead the project in conjunction with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Construction began in April of 2006 and focused on the renovation of the first of three sections. This portion, which runs from Gansevoort to 20th St., was unveiled to the adoring masses in June, with the second phase (20th to 30th streets) scheduled to open next summer.

The main entrance to the High Line is perhaps one of the most successful additions to the landscape of Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, elegantly connecting the past to the present. The black industrial skeleton seems at home amidst the gritty remnants of industry. Yet, as with the neighbourhood, the shock of green that clouds the top of the structure signifies that it, too, is in transition. As one ascends the brushed steel stairs cut into the underbelly of the structure at Washington and Gansevoort, the hard edges of the neighbourhood below gain an earthy softness. Brushed steel transitions into the silvery grey of 1’ x 12’ cast concrete planks that meander along the High Line, guiding our path while echoing the original rail tracks. The tracks themselves, rusted and overgrown, continually emerge and vanish along the path like memories.

The materials of the High Line are simple and elegant: the restrained palette of stainless and rusted Corten steel, ipe wood and cast concrete offset the rust of the rails and the rustic quality of the planting.  The ‘light touch’ that Friends of the High Line’s director of planning, Peter Mullan, speaks of is everywhere evident: the angle of the concrete planks shifts subtly throughout the park, recalling the flow of the river nearby while also remaining parallel with the run of Tenth Ave. below. At the outer edges of the path, these planks scoop upwards slightly signaling the walkway’s perimeter before they dovetail into the feathery greenery that swirls on either side.  It is a quiet detail that is likely to be tripped over before remarked upon, but it is precisely this quality of craftsmanship that makes the design successful.  Once our eyes are open to slight topographical shifts, they are also open to the detail of the changing materials, the colors and textures of the plants, the ‘peel-up’ benches that look as if some of the concrete planks are soaring skyward, and the gracious moments scattered along the way.

The park, like a sculpture garden, intentionally cultivates heightened awareness.  Seeking to peel away the layers of visual clutter that vie for our attention on the streets below, information is kept to a minimum. Signs become low and unobtrusive and the searching eye is rewarded with loving details: a handful of the reclining seats sit on train wheels atop the original tracks while the tables and chairs grouped near the Chelsea Market recall the colours of the stained glass panels of Spencer Finch’s site specific commission The River that Runs Both Ways.  Everything engages with the world around us; Finch reminds us of the multi-faceted beauty of the river, while just beyond the Chelsea Market, a balcony pauses over the northern spur; an off-shoot of the High Line that arcs its soft flooring of field grasses and flowers into the industrial brick of its neighboring building.  It is a moment of nostalgia for the rumble and romance of the city that was.  Just steps further on lies an ode to the rhythm of the city that is; the sunken overlook of the Tenth Avenue Square.  Suspended directly over Tenth Ave., the city with its speed, noise and lights becomes a spectacle; the protagonist of its own film.  Sitting directly above, we witness the pulse and dynamism of the city in a new way. Aside from a few groupings of trees, all of the plantings on the High Line are below waist level. This, on the part of the architects, is an important acknowledgement that the experience of the High Line is just as much about what lies beyond its borders as within.

For as elevated as the design is, it is the height of the High Line that makes it so magical.  The third-storey elevation alters your perspective on the city in unexpected ways.  You are at once out of the city, and in it: floating through a secret landscape of cornices, derelict buildings and river views.  This new vantage point allows you to make entirely new visual connections between different parts of Manhattan while maintaining a remarkably intimate relationship with the surrounding streets. Unlike many inner-city parks, the High Line celebrates the city rather than attempting to block it out.

With our eyes alerted to detail, it is harder to ignore those elements that are unresolved. The underpass between 13th and 14th is uncharacteristically mediocre, to such an extent that one wonders whether it was forgotten.   Neon lighting in blue and white lights a vast concrete space that seems both unfinished and unresolved. Time will tell whether it is the former, the latter, or both.  The planned water feature, glass-like film of water that will emerge from the spaces between the planks of the upper walkway to tempt summer feet, is central enough that it will be soothing when working and an grating when not.  As with the elegant restraint of modern interiors, the success of this design will be predicated on its maintenance- without its pristine quality, the beauty found in its details will be compromised and the High Line will suffer.

The High Line has much to offer and with any luck, it will once again stand the test of time.  The richness of the High Line experience stays true to the magic invoked by Sternfeld’s photos of a secret landscape. In its lightness and sophistication, the High Line succeeds in awakening our senses and calls to mind the eloquent defense of art made by former Canadian Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson:

All art is a magical activity […] Consciously or subconsciously you are part of that process, by which you enter the heightened world and you see.

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