NEW YORK– This Thanksgiving, I chose to visit the High Line, a world famous park built on top of an abandoned elevated train line above Manhattan’s West Side. The park is still under construction, with two thirds of the line already converted into park and the last third targeted for acquisition by the City of New York. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the history of the High Line as you can learn everything you want to know at the website. I want to talk about the experience of visiting the place and how the integration of plants, materials, and spatial design have created a unique place that is mesmerizing, beautiful and brilliantly designed to the smallest detail.
Perhaps writing more about the High Line is a bit cliché or unnecessary, but I am compelled after my visit to contemplate and put into words why the place had such an impact on me and explore why the details of its design work so effectively. The plantings in particular combined contemporary style, careful attention to microclimate, and inviting space making to make it a destination worth returning to throughout the year. This is high praise considering that I visited in November, hardly the high season for gardens, and was still floored by the quality of the plantings. Being able to appreciate the long views down the space is an advantage to attending on a cold and overcast day which suppressed the crowds that might otherwise overwhelm and diminish the narrow space.
In the full sun areas that offer expansive views, the plantings have a prairie style, with a shifting matrix of Little Bluestem, Sedges, Gramas, and Switchgrass cultivars. This decision reflects a thoughtful design choice of species that are adapted to thrive in dry, hot, and exposed conditions like much of the High Line. Rather than draw upon the traditional plant communities of the area, the designers wisely chose to create a mix of plants that extends the openness of the space and preserves the wild and untamed character that first drove neighborhood residents to perceive and value the space. Likewise, this open and airy horizontal space changes character as one moves through, as pockets of perennial flowers such as Bee Balms, Asters, Wild Indigos, and Coreopsis emerge from the matrix. These pockets are often arranged to increase in height and intensity around benches and seating elements, subtly reinforcing these as defined places along a highly linear path. It speaks volumes that these plantings retain as much interest as they do when most of the species are dormant and past their bloom times. Pictures that I’ve seen of the space in the height of summer show that in bloom, the space vibrates with color and fragrances.
These expansive plantings literally work seamlessly with the modular paving system, creating an indefinite edge that allows the path to curve, widen, and contract while reinforcing the flow of pedestrians through the space. This feature adds interest to what might otherwise be a long straight slog, especially as the path also periodically rises up to become an elevated walkway that jogs back and above plantings with the character of a forest floor to avoid carefully placed ornamental trees and shrubs. These spaces often occur at natural choke points along the path in which tall buildings create shade and spatial compression, once again demonstrating the sensitivity to microclimate as well as an artful redirection of attention away from the blank walls or apartment windows that are only feet from the edges of the structure. It is the details like this that really show why an international caliber firm like Field Operations gets this kind of work, and why they hire Piet Oudolf to do the planting design.
Even writing as I have, I feel that I’m not doing justice to the diversity and craft that went into the planting design. My calling these plantings prairie-like or similar to a forest floor does not do justice to the hybrid nature and diversity of the plantings (see the plant list for the first two segments: here, and here). This truly becomes apparent the further one wanders down the line.
We began our exploration at the north end of the High Line, but as we progressed into some of the more densely planted areas, all plant community associations began to fail me as I instead saw the careful interspersal of complementary species of trees and shrubs that define and diversify the spaces, but also caused me to stop, pause, and inspect the minute details of the plants and to compulsively photograph all of the killer plant combinations. The ability to shape distinctive spaces with plants, while creating a compelling fabric of colors, textures, and layers is the epitome of masterful planting design.
This diversity also demonstrates to me that the Friends of the High Line have the kind of budgetary resources for expert maintenance work that I can only dream about. Say what you want about neat rows and bunches of perennials, but their principle advantage is that they are easy to ID and weed without a background in horticulture. The intermingled, non-hierarchical plantings that Oudolf uses may look unplanned, but they are not. While some people might see the picture above and see a weedy mess, I see the contrasts in the colors and form that come to life in the fall. The ghostly pale Little Bluestem against the warm brown marbling of the ornamental Goldenrod, the cool grey contrast of the shrubs in the rear and the upright dynamism of the cones that rise above the other elements. This is a planting designed for all seasons, and this picture doesn’t even show the underlying ground plane.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the plants, but the true genius of the place really emerges from the integration of the plantings with the structural and material changes that define a lot of the spaces. The overlooks, seating areas and ampitheatres are amazing destinations in their own right, particularly how they frame something as mundane and omnipresent as a New York Street as a spectacle worthy of a lengthy observation.
A tunnel through which trains once trundled is reinterpreted as a cafe space, and periodically the tracks re-emerge as a datum to remind the visitor of why this place was originally built. The entrances and exits provide another compelling experience and reminder of the true nature of the place. The experience of running up a flight of stairs to reach a crowded, elevated train platform is turned on its head as the visitor emerges into a peaceful, diverse and choreographed garden.
There is a large open turf space for lounging around or possibly for events. The High Line prohibits jogging, cycling, or other sport activities, and with good reason. There are cycling art and sculpture exhibits that inhabit the space at various intervals, adding another layer of interest.
In places vines drape over the sides of the structure, showing a cool willingness to blur the edges of the High Line and its urban context. It is already possible to see how the contemporary aesthetic of the High Line is reflected in the bout of new condominium towers and billboards that address visitors to the space, selling potential buyers on this amazing amenity that they could be living above right now. This stands out as a contrast to the older buildings that saw no need to make their ass ends presentable for an abandoned freight line, some of which have now been gussied up with art, screened from view, or reinforced with security fences.
As a space, the High Line is not unprecedented, but it certainly blew me out of the water. I’ve never been to a landscape before that was so tightly designed to create a compelling user experience. Towards the end, we came to a large and muddy construction site, where a massive machine was driving pylons deep into the foundation of what I can only assume would be a new high rise of some sort. At the end of the line, the loud clang of the pylon driver and the sounds of the street once again intruded on our experience. Rather than head down there, we turned around and walked all the way back the way we came.