Winter on the Highline

A sparkling cold day in NYC early spring gets the crowds out on the city’s newest piece of public open space – a linear park created on the structure of a disused freight line up the west side of Manhattan. Designed by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro plus others, it was fascinating to see it in its winter outfit – ie: not a scrap of green and snow lying about in sunless places. But crowded! Maybe it was the first bit of sun to greet New Yorkers for months, they were going for it. This area where we ‘got on the train’ – it feels a bit like that with vertical access on the alternate street corners – was a warmish space where the sun reflecting off adjacent windows threw even more welcome light around.


The view from the train to the west! Well, the big guys, Gehry (left) and Nouvel (at the back), producing landmark buildings in this developing area of Chelsea – arguably a waste of ‘landmarkness’ having them next to each other..? The push here is presumably to increase height, density and occupancy in an area of ex-warehouses happily occupied by the art world – does it work? Gehry doesn’t look too good in this view, recent development in NYC seems to be suffering from over-large footprint buildings which need greater height at least partially in order to offset their inbuilt ‘lumpen-ness’. The upper levels of Gehry’s building look like they’re struggling to hold back a taller growth – let it go, it would look better!

Nouvel’s ‘vision machine’ behind on 11th Ave looks positively polite and appropriately urban, and for all the glitz surrounding its launch, when you zoom past it the building seems to just sit happily in the urban (fairly tough) streetscape – no dramas, not sure if that’s what Nouvel intended but its good…


These guys have either dropped the car keys through a gap or are architects studying the detailing (like the rest of us….).


Its a really cool space, great the way that the seats slide out of the ‘ground’, and extraordinary that nobody walked into this shot…! Would be nice in summer with trees doing their thing but the total brown-ness of the winter experience emphasises the timber construction.


Did they bring their own furniture? The Highline does split level at this point and the left over tracks pop up as a reminder of it origins.


The view from the split level! Its so close to the river and a much better place to gaze across at New Jersey than the street level riverside walks – well, a different experience, but great to be able to be in the city, above the city, in a park and overlooking the river – all for free in this land of opportunistic charging!


The ‘sunbeds on wheels’ on the tracks are a good joke – though there is something slightly disturbing about it…. The Highline’s original industrial practicality shows in the background here as it calmly slides through a building. NYC is famous for making the most of tiny pieces of public space and the crowds in this spot really exemplify this.


One of the park’s best aspects is connecting bits of the city (this will be even more so when the next stages are completed). It travels north/south so the urban views are mostly eastwards, like this one with the buildings going from refurbished warehouses in the foreground, now art or fashion-filled, to the rising blocks in the centre. Great street scale at this end but its changing (see above and below..). For better or not?


View from the southernmost starting point of the park. A faint tinge of green survives in the planting but mostly its a wonderful mixture of natural browns and greys – like this happy park user. The Standard Hotel straddling the Highline is another leader in the regeneration stakes. With its terrific 50s references (by the Polshek Partnership Architects – no I don’t know either…!), its really classy and a genuine landmark, 20 storeys above the old tracks in the now-fashionable Meatpacking district.


The terrace looks appealing, and just close enough to the Highline for the Hotel residents to sneer ever so slightly at those in the park, but just too cold for them today! Love those light fittings, but are they too high?


So of course we had to go and have a look from the cocktail bar at the top. View to the north east here, through phenomenally clean windows, and while you do get the Empire State Building, this shows NYC urbanism at its most uninspired – the most interesting thing out there is 80 years old! You do occasionally get that with a crowd of architects – gallery openings maybe – but the crowd will shift and change, whereas NYC mid-town just sits there…


But the rooftop bar is fabulous (delicious $US20 cocktails, you have been warned!), designed to reference Warren Platner’s 60s and 70s interiors (he did the Windows on the World restaurant in the WTC), it is brilliantly over the top. This view looking down to Wall St where the urban form does stand out and identify its location and use.


Overlooking the sparkling Hudson from a great little smokers balcony (?) looking south. All that under-used river edge…. they’ll get around to it I’m sure.


Though mildly distracted by the cocktails and the view over greater Manhattan (Wall St does look like NYC should – its that ‘pointy skyline’ thing…), paying attention to the Highline was the point of this and here is the view back down to the ‘hood showing its transition status – on the street to the east (left) of the ‘tracks’ are seriously posh fashion shops etc., and to the west a still functioning distribution or transport facility, very industrial – presumably its days are numbered? Where will it go?

One of the many enjoyable things about the Highline at present is its openness, which is partly because it passes a hybrid collection of buildings, including quite a few relatively low ones (see above). Will it maintain this quality as the area becomes more built up? Perhaps becoming more contained will make it more attractive? A secretive series of spaces…


The underbelly…. we walked south on the Highline, then north underneath it – a totally different but equally interesting experience. This apparent crashing of an unstoppable piece of engineering into an unmovable brick wall must contain a useful urban metaphor of some sort – elusive at the moment…


Back near the northernmost point (so far, this is stage one of a greater vision – the tracks stretch further north), dozens of people happily hang out or walk over a busy piece of highway, enjoying a public space that allows them to be of the city but not in the city, in a car-free, greenish space that connects a good chunk of the west of Manhattan….. and there’s that slightly disarming Gehry/Nouvel backdrop again.


Back up on the line – there’s a strange aspect to the design which wouldn’t pass the British Health and Safety challenge (anywhere else?) – these rather elegant concrete fingers (referencing sleepers perhaps?) are raised up at their base to then fall slowly into the planting, and if, like me, you walk along gazing upwards or with a camera stuck on your face (in the old-fashioned way), you trip over them! I guess this is an intentional signal that you’re about to walk on the grass, but…


This the way up or down – vertical circulation if you like – not a ramp in sight but several lifts at odd corners. Like a lot of these things the attraction seems to have been underestimated and the stairs were jammed – maybe it doesn’t matter? The building beyond is the ‘back’ of Nouvel’s 11th Ave number. Again a stronger sense of structure and urbanity than its Californian neighbour.


Then just to prove the three rules of urban design are context context context, we stepped off the Highline and straight into a great Olafur Eliasson exhibition. Party party.


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