“To get here, you take a ferry, you leave the city for a small vacation. The logic of the park is that you are being reborn,” explained West 8 founding principal Adriaan Geuze, as he and The Architect’s Newspaper ascended Outlook Hill on an uncharacteristically grey June morning. Despite the drizzle, the hill provides a vertiginous view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York Harbor, a not-seen-before perspective that is sure to induce awe in new visitors’ eyes and spawn hundreds of thousands snaps for the ephemeral visual catalogues of Instagram, Facebook, and platforms yet unknown.
The Hills on Governors Island, designed by West 8 with Mathews Nielsen, celebrates its public opening today, less than three years after its official groundbreaking. In contrast to parks that lure with slick design and entertainment options, its program is emphatically sincere: The names of the four hills—Outlook, Grassy, Slide, and Discovery—are honest indicators of their respective offerings. 26-foot-tall Grassy Hill provides a spread of green for vegetal lounging, while Discovery Hill hosts a site-specific cast concrete sculpture by artist Rachel Whiteread. Adjacent 70-foot-tall Outlook Hill tops out well above the treeline to offer panoramic views of the harbor, New Jersey, and three of five boroughs.
Geuze veered from the paved path to climb the scramble, a pile of rectangular rocks gleaned from the island’s former seawall that forms a non-linear path up Outlook Hill. Climbing up hand-over-foot, he gestured uphill: “Is this the path? Or is this the path? I like that ambiguity. Because its so informal, it allows you to colonize the space mentally, to say ‘Hey! This is cool! Is this for me, or is it supposed to be for children?’ The scramble triggers your attention and because it’s not clear what it is, that gives you a sense of freedom. There’s not a billboard to explain what this is. You’re just aware of it.”
The designers were aware, too, of Olmsted’s influence on New York City park design (and the parks’ subsequent influence on New Yorkers ideas of nature) but the Hills is a departure from Olmsted’s (faux) naturalistic aesthetic. The curvature and undulation of the landscape is dramatized by the Hill’s white concrete edges which function “almost like eyeliner” and add an archness to the design. West 8 drew on a century of city park design by using 17 species of trees most commonly found in New York parks, although the plant configuration and selection on the most exposed areas respond directly to the windblown, salt-sprayed landscape. At ground level, the hills are planted with fast-growing grasses and covered with a layer of biodegradable coconut fiber to anchor the soil and prevent erosion, while lawns are self-draining (see diagrams above).
We moseyed down one of those lawns to Slide Hill, which features four alluring metal slides, short and long. The composition of the slides is reminiscent of those that West 8 designed for Madrid Río in 2011. This reporter was wearing an outfit that was unfortunately not conducive to sliding, but she did watch a landscape architect fly down the longest chute after taking measurements at the top of the hill. Despite the rain, she scooted down quickly.
On the golf cart back to the ferry terminal, Geuze considered Governors Island’s place in New York. Reflecting the contradiction of its central location and relative isolation, he mused on the many views expressed in the harbor: “We tried in the design to expose all the layers,” on and off the Hills. “On the ferry, you sit with people you don’t know, people who may have a different social status or income. This is a democratic island, a place for people from all boroughs.”
Ferries depart seven days per week from Manhattan and Brooklyn through September 25. The full schedule can be found here.