The Real Deal New York

Is the High Line overrated?

The gussied up park is rife with conceptual problems, but New Yorkers don't seem to mind
By James Gardner | June 30, 2009 11:30PM

One of the least impressive claims in recent architectural criticism appeared in the June 10th edition of the New York Times. Prior to visiting the new High Line Park on the far West Side of Manhattan, Nicolai Ouroussoff, a Times critic, “worried that it would one day be overrun with tourists and film crew.” How, I wondered, could it possibly retain the tranquility that made walking along its rusting, decrepit deck such a haunting experience? So I was overjoyed this weekend when I climbed the stairs at Gansevoort Street, entered the new city park and felt an immediate sense of calm.”

The problem with Ouroussoff’s claim involves the phrase “this weekend.” It did not seem greatly to concern the writer that he had visited the new park before it opened to the public, which, had he reflected on the matter, might explain why he was just about the only one there and thus could take advantage of “a few quiet lounge areas, that unfold in a lyrical narrative and seem to float above the noise and congestion below.” Had he visited the park a few days later, he would have found, as I did, that in fact the place was “overrun with tourists and film crews.” And this was on a fairly blustery and overcast weekday.

Already it was quite apparent that the place had become a scene. Pouty models in abbreviated attire were being photographed against the rusting Industrial Age beams of the High Line, while tourists and locals alike lounged around in deck chairs as though they were on Miami Beach.

It is surely possible to defend them being at the park, which takes the space of the eponymous elevated rail line from the 1930s. The visitors clearly were having a good time, and the High Line — at least the first of two installments, which runs from Gansevoort to 20th streets — is serving a useful function, as opposed to no function at all, which had been the case for nearly 30 years (after the last train ran in 1980, the rails sat vacant).

Though some of us are so philistine as to feel that it would not have been a tragedy if the city had torn the whole thing down, as was a consideration in the mid-1980s when a group of landowners lobbied for the demolition of the structure, the fact remains that the High Line does have character and charm. It increases the real estate values of the buildings that exist or will soon exist along its length, and it creates a buzz of excitement that makes New York unique. Best of all, it weaves among the buildings of the far West Side at roughly three floors above ground, and thus, in a sense, it is free space where in theory there shouldn’t be any at all.

The reinvention of the High Line is a story 10 years in the making. It was in 1999 that two men who lived in the neighborhood, Robert Hammond and Joshua David, hatched the idea of transforming this rusting hulk (some might say eyesore) into an urban park.

The idea of turning a piece of urban infrastructure into a park was not original to these two men. They had before them examples such as the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a viaduct that had been transformed into a charming walkway in 1988. What they were tapping into in both cases was a new fascination with Industrial Age infrastructure that stood in marked contrast to an earlier taste that saw factories, highways and railroads more as necessary evils than as cultural artifacts worthy of honor and preservation.

But unlike Paris, which has a passion for bold urban projects, New York is famously timorous and stalwart. The idea that anything can get done here, especially anything as bold as the High Line, is a bit of an alien concept. A great many stakeholders were involved, and they, being New Yorkers, might have been expected to delay, cavil and obstruct reflexively and on principle, if not for sport. But the two men involved seemed to have sensed the pulse of the times and they engaged the support of a whole phalanx of celebrities and politicians, including Hillary Clinton, Edward Norton and Kevin Bacon, to bring the project to completion in what — for New York — is remarkably short order.

Several years ago, before any work had begun, I was given a tour of the High Line, and I can assure you that the finished result, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, feels very different from what used to be there. There was the grandeur of desolation to the unreconstructed remains of the High Line, which master builder Robert Moses had the New York Central Railroad construct back in the 1930s. Wild weeds entangled themselves among the rusting tracks and the occasional cat could be spotted slinking among the taller grasses.

Today everything has been transformed in the way in which Diller Scofidio + Renfro likes to transform things. They are now in the process of overhauling Lincoln Center where — despite their recent and masterful revision of Alice Tully Hall — they have exhibited a singular lack of taste that is evident on the High Line as well. There is a kind of improvised and self-satisfied cleverness to their designs that rarely comes together visually and that hardly enhances the aesthetic pleasure of inhabiting the spaces they create.

One of the conceptual problems with the High Line is that everyone insists on calling it a park, when in fact it is a gussied up abandoned railroad. Formally, the implications of this misunderstanding are that the High Line is experienced as a sequence of design events, which have no organic connection to one another and little formal continuity. They are simply one thing after another. Aside from a recurring motif of gray concrete pavers along the ground, there is little coherence to the design, which includes a variety of chairs and benches and a kind of excavated sequence of risers that look almost like a theater, but that have little real function.

Another problem, which was not the fault of the architects, is that the High Line, by its very nature, weaves under or through the buildings that it does not swerve around. In the case of the newly completed Standard Hotel, the effect of walking under it is charming. As for the two additional buildings that you encounter, they present all the charm of a scaffolding shed shrouded in eternal darkness. These punctuate one’s passage along the High Line in a distinctly disagreeable way.

I mention these points, which are not minor, so that when you visit the site, you will not be disappointed — especially since the media have already detonated a two-ton love bomb over the whole project. What is best about it is that it provides some stunning views of the meatpacking district and an intense sense of the city. And though the High Line is a scene, it is a fairly pleasant one, which, as I have said, New Yorkers seem thoroughly happy to be visiting.

Doubtless they will be even happier when the second part of the High Line is completed next year, rising all the way to the Javits Center on 34th Street.