Jul 19, 2011

The High Line

Since the opening of its first section in June 2009, the High Line has received considerable acclaim in both mainstream and specialist design media. If Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim museum spawned the “Bilbao effect” in which cities around the world sought to replicate Bilbao’s tourist and development boom by commissioning their own iconic cultural destinations, so the “High Line effect” may be underway,as American cities strive to transform derelict industrial infrastructure into new public spaces for much the same reasons (notably, Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail and Philadelphia’s Reading Viaduct). But from a design perspective, the High Line is an exemplary monument to contemporary design pragmatism in which design is neither simply form-making nor theoretical elaborations but a complex response to existing physical infrastructure, competing socio-political forces, and ecological concerns. The project has also refocused American design culture on new possibilities for urban space, the power of grassroots community activism, and of course, new urban projects as a means to stimulate economic development.

The elevated freight rail line that became the High Line originally ran down the west side of Manhattan. It was completed in 1934 as a means to bypass congested streets and connect the Meatpacking district and Soho manufacturing industries to the rail yards at 34th Street (see historical photographs here). With little regard for existing buildings, the great steel structure ran 30 feet above the city streets between 10th and 11th Avenues, occasionally running through the middle of warehouses so goods could be easily transferred. By the 1950s, trucking had overtaken rail as the favored means to transport freight, and the elevated line was only used sporadically until the last train ran down the line in 1980. The southern-most part of it was then demolished, leaving one and a half miles of abandoned track from Ganesvoorst Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, level with the Empire State Building. Over the next 20 years, while the hulking steel structure came to be seen as an eyesore by local residences and businesses, above, nature was reclaiming the line, as weeds in the form of grasses, wildflowers and even trees self-seeded along the tracks.

The High Line’s now mythical story began when freelance writer Josua David and business consultant Robert Hammond met in 1999 at a neighborhood meeting to discuss the potential demolition of the abandoned railway, and decided to form a non-profit dedicated to preserving the structure. Over the next few years, their non-profit group, Friends of the High Line, not only gathered community support, but also had sufficient business acumen to engage in sophisticated networking, fund-raising, and publicity that secured private funding and support from local business people and celebrities, and eventually funding from city, state, and federal governments. However, after 9/11 and the subsequent downturn in the city’s economy, the High Line project was increasingly framed as an economic development project as much as a preservation or public urbanism project (see Steen). Not coincidently, as plans for preserving the rail line were being developed, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District were rapidly changing neighborhoods. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the downtown art scene shifted its center from Soho to West Chelsea, while the Meatpacking District was fast becoming a designer destination with new fashion boutiques, cafes, and restaurants replacing the disappearing meat industry (see my 2007 entry).

A model of savvy contemporary fund-raising, advocacy and publicity, the Friends of the High Line also had a commitment to sophisticated design and imaging. Pentagram’s Paula Scher designed the Friends logo and pitch publications, and in 2000, photographer Joel Sternfeld documented the elevated railway in a series of now iconic images that captured the melancholic and quiet beauty of the green ribbon threading through the city. This was a key moment, argued Karen E. Steen, “that the High Line became a park in the minds of New Yorkers. Until then all anyone had ever seen was the corroded underside.” An open invitation for public proposals for how to transform the abandoned track into a public space was the first step in envisaging its future, followed by a more focused design competition in 2004. A notable precedent was the Promenade Plantée in Paris, a freight rail line redesigned as a public pedestrian route in 1993. Like its French precedent, the High Line was not simply an urban preservation project but a transformative one, but one that was up until this point open to possibilities as to its future functions and appearance.

The competition’s winning design team comprised landscape architect James Corner’s studio Field Operations, interdisciplinary architecture studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and horticulturalist Piet Oudolf. Their design scheme was founded on the idea of preserving the existing “wilderness” of grasses and wildflowers that had self-generated on the tracks by simply paving around it and preserving the railway tracks. However, as much of the existing stone ballast was contaminated with asbestos, and there were drainage problems and accessibility issues, a more extensive redesign was required. The resulting scheme aimed to recreate the feel of the abandoned railway line yet transform the structure into a usable and accessible public park. This required ripping up the tracks and ballast and inserting a sophisticated drainage and irrigation system into the steel structure, then replacing the tracks and designing a concrete paving system, custom-designed wooden seating, and planting in a complex layering of grasses, shrubs and trees.

The precast concrete planking system devised by Field Operations provides a flexible underlying framework that merges into both wooden seating and planting beds (see image above). The plantings include various meadow grasses and wildflowers inspired by the wild growth that had reclaimed the tracks. Using native species in natural compositions, Oudolf created micro-ecologies along the length of the High Line, so that the walker encounters grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands, all along a narrow elevated space above the New York city streets. In recreating the improvised character of nature reclaiming the abandoned railway tracks, Oudolf paid particular attention to colors, textures, and seasonal changes. The tracks were re-laid where they originally sat, and even the new custom-made furniture, including solid wooden deckchairs that run on wheels along short sections of track, looks like it might have always been there.

The design team’s leader, landscape architect James Corner is a significant theorist as well as practitioner (see also Field Operations’ massive ongoing project, Fresh Kills Park, a 2200 acre former landfill site on Staten Island). A student of ecological design guru Ian McHarg, Corner has long advocated a holistic approach to landscape architecture that emphasizes “more organizational and strategic skills than those of formal composition”, preferring to focus on performance and event spaces to scenic compositions (Corner, 1999: 160). In this sense, the High Line is less a scenic landscape than a narrative promenade punctuated with what Corner terms “episodes”. Walking the High Line is a multilayered experience which begins with a certain distancing from the city streets and subtle immersion into the micro-ecologies of the plantings. There is both an expansiveness and sense of escape from urban density as vistas of the Hudson River or along city streets open up, as well as an intimacy too, especially where the High Line tunnels through buildings or the walker becomes immersed in the tall grasses or trees and forgets the city altogether.

A key design strategy was the manipulation of duration and an emphasis on slowness, suggesting a new type of public space for a contemporary flâneur. From Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s carefully considered durational character of the stairs up to the High Line (see image above), the emphasis on a slow promenade with various diversions along the way has created a distinct urban narrative. In a rethinking architecture’s role in such urban projects, architect Elizabeth Diller stated: “One has to accept that there is more to architecture than space-making: architecture is event-making, it’s always thinking about perception, and space, use, choreography, setting up relations and so forth” (“Architecture as Dissident Practice” p.59). The elevated promenade offers a unique perspective from which to view New York, but also creates its own choreographed narrative. The “sunken square” at 10th Avenue, comprising a stepped space which culminates in a cut-out “window” above the street (see images below), is a particularly 21st century public space that at once frames the traffic along 10th Avenue for High Line flâneurs while at the same time framing them for the traffic below.

A close observer of the details of urban life and its characters, Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century Parisian flâneur lived in state of heightened present, strolling distractedly amongst the crowd. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s flâneur was a particularly middle class stroller with the economic means to indulge in such slowness, an ambivalent character that Benjamin saw as both a heroic critic of capitalism and consumerism (in his refusal to shop), as well as a figure who rejected the realities of urban existence by inhabiting this dream world of distractions. Perhaps a 21st century flâneur would be an extension of these previous characters whose consciousness is now framed by digital technologies? As a 21st century space then, the High Line seems designed with a new type of flâneur in mind – it is a space for strolling, seeing, and being seen – as well as functioning as a reassuring physical space relieved of urban tension and pressure, a kind of post-industrial haven.

However, the ecological approach adopted by the designers, which combines the readymade, the natural and the artificial – industrial history, “wild” nature, and the spectacle of New York – is subtle and complex, as well as open to possibilities and transformations (it seems, for example, a perfect space for performance art, theater, or dance). Unfortunately, the popular success of the park may limit these possibilities as the High Line has aided in raising the profile of the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea as a designer destination (complementing recent buildings in the area including Gehry’s ICA building, and luxury condominiums by Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban). The High Line may thus be seen as the icing on the cake – a public park and rare strip of green space – in an area that has been attracting signature architecture and rising real estate costs over the past decade or so. There is thus some irony in a design scheme that critically intervenes and re-imagines the contemporary city only to be immediately subsumed by economic imperatives. For designers though, the High Line is a high-profile precedent that suggests numerous possibilities inherent in trans-disciplinary design projects that might repurpose existing industrial structures into the public spaces of the future.


Benjamin, Walter, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. by Harry Zohn, Verso, London & New York: 1983.

Blum, Andrew, “The Long View”, Metropolis, November 2008 (on James Corner).

Corner, James, “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes”, in James Corner, ed., Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1999.

Goldberger, Paul, “Miracle Above Manhattan”, National Geographic Magazine, April 2011.

Hardy, Hugh, “The Romance of Abandonment: Industrial Parks”, Places, 17:3, 2005, pp.32-37.

“James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro: the High Line, New York, New York, USA, 2001-2009”, A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, No. 5, May 2010, pp.36-61.

Kazi, Olympia, “Architecture as a Dissident Practice: An Interview with Diller Scofidio + Renfro”, Architectural Design, Vol. 79, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2009.

McDonough, Tom, “The Crimes of the Flaneur”, October, Vol. 102, Autumn, 2002, pp. 101-122.

Molotch, Harvey and Mark Treskon, “Changing Art: SoHo, Chelsea and the Dynamic Geography of Galleries in New York City”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33:2, 2009, pp. 517-41.

Steen, Karen E., "Friends in High Places", Metropolis, December 2005.

Ulam, Alex, “Back on Track”, Landscape Architecture, Vol. 99, 2009.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz.