Monday, August 30, 2010

Notes on the Chelsea High Line

By now, most people with an interest in urban architecture have heard of the Chelsea High Line. Designed by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, the sleek architects who are also responsible for the subject of my fifth blog post, the ICA museum in Boston. The High Line opened a year ago to much fanfare. It remakes an abandoned elevated railway, built in the thirties to move freight to downtown Manhattan. As trucking became cheaper in the sixties, rail freight declined, and the railway closed in 1980. Subsequently, the tracks sat vacant, a slender thread of uncultivated greenery safely inoculated from overt human interference by its height. Two New Yorkers hatched an idea in the early part of this decade to convert the railway into a fully accessible park, however, and the resulting length of iron, stone, and gently waving grasses will eventually extend from Gansevoort Street all the way to 34th (the NYC City Council just approved the purchase of the last chunk). Only the first section, terminating at 20th Street, is open so far, and my brother and I walked it during our weekend in New York.

The High Line is surprisingly polarizing to critics. Nicolai Ourrossoff of the New York Times gushed over it, calling it "mesmerizing," "magical," "invaluable and transformative," and "one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York for years." Others, notably CNeal over at his superb blog The Vigorous North, have lamented the loss of wilderness inherent in its transformation to fully functioning park. CNeal also pointed out that while the idea for the High Line came from relatively ordinary New Yorkers, it became a means for the rich and powerful to mold the once gritty landscape of Chelsea into a windfall for developers (much like the ICA on the South Boston waterfront). Meanwhile, the neighborhood is fast transforming into a glittering nest of socialites. The picture above includes the Frank Gehry-designed IAC Building that sprouted in 2007.

While the High Line is certainly a creature of capitalism, my impressions were favorable. I like the juxtaposition of old water towers atop warehouses with brilliant modern creations of glass and steel. The High Line is a distinctive perch, providing a rare vantage point for gazing across at rather than up to the dense layers of urbanism in Chelsea. For me, ascending to the elevated park triggered a memory of climbing up to tree branches, from which I gained a parallel perspective into the canopy of a beech tree.

The design is playful, weaving through several buildings and including an unexpected view down into 10th Avenue that is highly reminiscent of the ICA mediatheque. While I wish there were more traces of the High Line's former industrial function, the architects did leave a few rails embedded here and there in the walkway. The High Line is very much a park, striving to divert rather than explicitly educate.

The High Line succeeds entirely in its ambition. When I visited on a Saturday in August, the park was full but not crowded, and strollers were obviously amused by the unusual point of view. As The Gates did several years ago in Central Park, the High Line is stirring excitement and curiosity about place - the best thing a park can do.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

I've always been so entranced by the High Line, even before it was turned into a public park. Very cool space.