New York’s most glamorous park has taken a humble turn. On September 20, the Friends of the High Line opened the third segment of the now world famous urban promenade. Unlike the first two segments, the third is not technically finished, but the Friends of the High Line have made it accessible, giving the full length of the linear park over to the public (the so-called spur on 30th Street is under scaffolding for the Hudson Yards tower that will be anchored by the fashion brand Coach).
About half of the third segment has been given the full James Corner Field Operations/Diller Scofidio + Renfro design treatment: The feathered paths with the comb-like concrete pavement, the benches that curve up from the paths, and scattered, naturalistic plantings. This portion runs east-west from Tenth Avenue to Eleventh Avenue. The designers see this portion of the park as a crossroads, and one of the only places where the visitor has a choice of directions. A new alignment of public spaces, including a large plaza by Nelson Byrd Woltz, and the new 7 line stop park by Michael Van Valkenburgh, will form where the line bends at 30th street to the newest segment, creating a view corridor through the massive new development.
Assuming high levels of foot traffic at this juncture, the area has more hardscape than other portions of the park. As you walk toward the river, you encounter a sunken children’s play area cut into the track bed, exposing the beams below, which are covered in silicone wrappers to make them soft and kid-friendly. Lead designers Field Operations, working with Piet Oudolf, have chosen a variety of plants that are meant to activate the senses, including herbs for smell and soft grasses to touch. There is even a “gopher hole” tunnel, where kids can crawl under the planting beds and pop their heads out of an opening in the garden.
As the Line crosses Eleventh Avenue, the path rises up three feet to take in the views of the traffic and the Hudson River, forming what Liz Diller cheekily calls a “runway,” a nod to the High Line’s reputation as a promenade for the fashionable (as well as the likely relocation of Fashion Week to Hudson Yards). Flanked by benches on either side, the subtle rise—about three feet in total—is effective in altering one’s perception and focusing the viewer on the river beyond. It is the sort of move that has made the park such a landmark development of contemporary public space and landscape architecture.
At the same time, one senses a bit of exhaustion in the design, particularly with the curved benches throughout, which have been tricked-out in a variety of new configurations: picnic benches, tete-a-tete seating, a seesaw bench, a xylophone version, a crisscross design to encourage conversation. These seemed like an unnecessary bid for novelty for novelty’s sake.
This may begin to explain why the final portion, a “temporary design,” which curves back north/south and bends down to meet street grade at 34th Street, feels like such a revelation. The simplicity of the temporary section is something of a rebuke to the highly designed and meticulously manicured earlier phases. Passing through a gate that is only slightly more designed than your average chain link fence, the team has created a simple gravel path and left the rest pretty much alone. Here, you encounter the authenticity and romance of the pre-park High Line, the remnant, wild landscape planted by wind gusts and birds. Alongside the path, you see the rusty train tracks and the rough old wood ties, many of which are disappearing into the rocky gravel. The landscape is varied and strange and incredibly beautiful.
The minimalist design here calls to mind something close to Land Art. It focuses the eye and the mind, allowing you to see the object and the city right in front of you in a new way. The West Side Highway, the glittering river streaming with boats on the right, the lines of trains, which will eventually be decked over for the Western Rail Yards, fascinate. The new neighborhood rising behind is a testament to the city’s power, wealth, and brutal voraciousness. The path itself is embellished only twice along the four-block stretch, with two large seating areas, one “the beam bench,” made from reclaimed pieces of the steel beams saved from earlier phases of the renovation, and a bleacher-like pile of massive squared off logs.
Past this point, the path is entirely paved, and quickly becomes too hot on even moderately sunny days.
As the High Line meets the ground, unceremoniously and somewhat unexpectedly, midblock facing the side of the Javits Center, the designers preserved a glade of wild Aspen trees and added a few benches, which are sure to be popular with the throngs who wait on the sidewalk for the Megabus coaches.
There is currently a master plan to finish the temporary segment to the level of the other portions. That would be a mistake. The public deserves to see this piece of the High Line as it was. It was the power of the remnant landscape that became the reason for the preservation of the elevated line itself.
James Corner, for one, seemed open to preserving some or all of the truly wild. “The strategy was budgetary, but maybe it is finished,” he said.