The Phenomonelogy of the High Line (Phase 2)

High Line, NYC

On Tuesday Phase 2 of Manhattan’s elevated park – The High Line opened. HOORAY!!

For those of you not familiar with the project, here is a short summary from The High Line was built in the 1930s, as part of a massive public-private infrastructure project called the West Side Improvement. It lifted freight traffic 30 feet in the air, removing dangerous trains from the streets of Manhattan’s largest industrial district. No trains have run on the High Line since 1980. Friends of the High Line, a community-based non-profit group, works in partnership with the City of New York to preserve and maintain the structure as an elevated public park.

As many of you know, this is a favorite project of mine, one that I just talked about in an earlier post on the groundbreaking of the new Whitney Museum and one that I have been following for the past few years. The vision of this project is incredible — let’s take a rickety abandoned rail line and convince NYC  NOT to tear it down and build more multi-million dollar apartments, but instead build a new free park for people to enjoy. Vision!

High Line Section 2

The Friends of the High Line have been working towards this goal since 1999 and when enough funds were raised, they  developed a public call for architectural design, soliciting architects, artists and designers from all over the world to create a unique park experience that not only connected disparate sections of Manhattan’s West Side but provided a “reserve” for local plants and a “respite” for weary New Yorkers. Intrigued as I was, I watched the design process unfurl online and was excited when Diller Scofidio + Renfro was awarded the commission.

I visited the High Line last spring when Phase 1 opened and walked all the way from its point of origination (Gansevoort Street) to Chelsea Market. It was interesting to experience nature in that urban context. Although Central Park provides a “cave” where you can get lost, forgetting you are in the city at all, the High Line embraces the paradox of nature and city living side by side. While you stroll down the walkway you see the local plants and flowers as both natural (planted in the ground) and artificial (in a concrete construct high above the ground).  Additionally, to me, this structure represents another phase of Manhattan’s constant re-imagination of its own space: the reconstruction and conversion of industrial space into its more primitive existence. A redevelopment that embraces, in certain respects,  a non-development.

High Line Section 2

For me, this project represents one of the truest forms of phenomenological architecture in that it required the deconstruction of an idea (here being the functionality of the rail) in order for it to become a more complete project. In performing this phenomenological reduction, a whole community was able to  incorporate and embrace the rail’s multiple personalities and uses.  What I mean is that by negating the idea of the rail as a simply aesthetically hideous construct that blocked connectivity between streets and neighborhoods, Friends of the High Line could see that it was the perfect ambulatory link between West Side neighborhoods and could serve as an anchor for development in areas that were in desperate need for assistance.

Here’s what they could have done: Torn down the High Line but preserved the street level space in order to build a new park.

Instead: They embraced the best parts of what the High Line had to offer and worked around the others.

From another philosophical (Heideggerean) viewpoint which discusses art’s natural mode of concealing and revealing simultaneously,  this park both illuminates and conceals Manhattan at the same time. The layout of the park conceals the constructed Manhattan below in order to reveal its previous natural habitat but the park also conceals much of  the history of the original industrial neighborhood by transforming it into a new visitor attraction and hub for retail and hospitality. However, it is the transparency between these paradoxes that is, again, interesting. Seeing the new Helmut Lang store against the backdrop of old, towering structural stilts – is innovative in that there is not a glaring disparity between the “new” and the “old” structure. What you see is a harmony and reflection between the two. In short, they managed to maintain a historical community fabric while investing time, money, and care into it.

High Line Section 2

In addition to the paradox between old and new, you see that you are experiencing the juxtaposition between organic and architectural materials and vistas while you’re there.  You are looking at skyscrapers on a rail line which is actually a garden that overlooks the river.  It is bazaar to break it down as such, but the bringing together of all of these elements provides a profound template of how city-dwellers can experience nature. You don’t have to hop on the train to go to Lake George. You don’t even have to go to Central Park. At the  High Line you can see the possibility of nature intersecting urbanity. The opportunities for the insertion of basic ways of thinking and experiencing the world in a framework that is, well, complicated. In short, you do not have to run away to get to nature — its possibilities are right here before you.

I hope that the High Line serves as an example of how cities can incorporate history and structure into development projects meant to rejuvenate neighborhoods. I also hope they have the insight to hire architects and artists who know how to make those places truly special.

3 thoughts

  1. From Mike Springer via Facebook: Great post. I’m adding this to my list of things I have to see when I get to NYC.

  2. It is a great project because it is all about layers, juxtapositions, intersections, history and the future. Hopefully phase 2 won’t increase property values too much and wipe out the gallery district it cuts through.

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