The High Line: more than the sum of its parts

February 14, 2011

in Articles, From the USA, Garden Reviews, Reviews

ThinkinGardens is lucky enough to have it’s own review of the much discussed New York High line – a brave (expensive) and important new garden.
Anne Wareham, editor.

A review by James Golden

“The bronze quartermoon had just set when he ran into the remains of a Sioux warrior… The white man might sometimes bury his dead kin six feet under, as deep as he made his privies, but the red devil placed his dead six feet above ground for all men to see … reared up out in the open so that his gross dark ignorant body could be given back to the powers of heaven and to the four quarters of the universe and to all the rains and to the wingeds of the air and to the little people of the earth.”

– Lord Grizzly, by Frederick Manfred

The act of lifting up a revered object in display for all to see, or a physical going up into a high place, is a universal gesture, perhaps even a natural inclination hard wired by evolution into the human brain.  My recent visit to the High Line brought some rather powerful emotions to the fore and, as I tried to understand my response to the visit, I found myself entertaining thoughts along this line. This wasn’t a random impulse, but a direct response to feelings of being in that particular place, late on a sunny, very windy October afternoon, near sunset.

High Line - James Golden - 1The High Line, a linear park built on an abandoned elevated rail structure in Manhattan (in case you don’t know it), is a success far beyond anything most people expected. I was a supporter from the start because I used to hang out in this area in my early days in New York and remember seeing occasional freight trains on the line, but also because I knew Piet Oudolf was to design the plantings and I was curious about what he would do in this extraordinary environment.

But it wasn’t Piet Oudolf who got most of the early press about the High Line. New Yorkers are far more interested in architects and landscape architects than garden designers, and in this case it was the elevated rail line itself, and its very costly rehabilitation, that was the focus of public and media hype. Now that the aerial garden has been opened to the public for over a year, the plantings themselves are garnering more public acclaim. Probably very few visitors know the name Oudolf, but they certainly are becoming more aware of his signature approach to planting design.

Park and Hardscape Design

From the start, it was the team of landscape architect James Corner Field Operations and architect Diller Scofideo & Renfro who received most public attention. They certainly deserve credit for developing a conceptual plan to make the rail line’s extremely narrow, long space both functional and continually engaging, and for devising a unique paving system that gracefully transitions from fully paved surfaces to fully planted areas, or anything in between. The paving concept is linear and is a visual reference to the High Line’s original steel rails, forming long, narrow, parallel planting strips that combine and separate to form narrow or wide planting areas. This paving system is especially effective in introducing plantings in the park visitor’s path of travel, creating an unusual intimacy with the plantings.

I have only one minor caveat here. The concept works beautifully as a visual device, but it’s not entirely practical. At the leading edges of the paving, narrow open runnels in the paving widen to form parallel planting channels four or so inches wide; this creates a walking hazard, which is made evident by the installation of inconspicuous rope barriers, which prevent strollers from inadvertently walking into the broken surface and tripping. This is a minor complaint but it does interfere to some degree with the elegant simplicity of the paving design.

A High Place

On my recent visit, I was enchanted by the experience of the place, and by the idea of the elevated space as a kind of refuge, a high place set aside for special things, almost like an altar. And, as I had recently read the quoted passage about an isolated Sioux burial in Lord Grizzly, it occurred to me how universal is this symbol of the raised gesture, the high place, the garden in the sky. Moses going up to Mount Sinai…

But this experience wasn’t a random confluence of thoughts, it wasn’t an intellectual response. It came directly from the emotions evoked by the High Line itself.

If I try to describe the quality of that visit, the words exhilarating, quiet (though it wasn’t quiet), and alone (though I wasn’t alone) come to mind. As we walked up the 1.45-mile-long park, the plants tossing in the wind, the light of the lowering sun gradually moving to horizontal, changing from bright white to the reds and oranges of twilight, I felt stimulated and calmed at the same time. Stimulated by the beauty of the plantings and the views and the wind–and at peace. The place transforms New Yorkers, stops them in their tracks so to speak, as they stroll or lounge in relative isolation well above street level; looking up, out, down, around, with views from this “safe” perch into the other world of quotidian events: picturesque West Village side streets, bustling 10th Avenue, the Empire State Building thrusting up in the mid-distance. This place is special; in other times, in other cultures, it very well might have been called a holy or a spiritual place.

That may sound strange as a description of an elevated park in Manhattan, but it was my feeling about the place on that day. No. I don’t fool myself that most visitors consciously think about a walk on the High Line as a spiritual experience, but I do believe most feel something out of the ordinary. I haven’t yet heard anyone who’s visited the High Line say they didn’t like it, or that it was a disappointment. I hear only positive, and usually enthusiastic, comments. Why so?

A map of the park, available on the High Line web site (, serves to emphasize its physical narrowness, and shows how close it forces people to be with each other and with the plantings. The linear design, and the division of the plantings into different plant communities or biotopes—the Gansevoort  Woodlands, the Washington Grasslands, the Diller-VonFurstenberg Sundeck and Water Feature, the Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve, the Chelsea Grasslands—along  with a constantly varying ratio of paving to planting, with broad single walkways separating into much narrower, multiple pathways, some at different levels, creates a constantly changing experience as one walks the length of the aerial garden.

The High Line passes under two buildings, and the passage from light to dark, to light and dark again, further enriches the experience of visitors. The Chelsea Market underpass is long and very dark. The views out from the inner darkness to the Hudson River, and up and down the High Line itself add to the sense of shelter and security already inherent in the nature of the place. At night, the long passage is lit in an unearthly blue light—a sort of “son et lumiere” with the sound contributed by an aural art installation: recordings of ringing bells from throughout the city.

High Line - James Golden - 2Intimacy with the Plantings

Apart from being above street level, which alone makes for a special kind of space–a setting apart and a setting above–the secure, secluded space the High Line occupies is given a sensuous beauty and a sense of physical protection by the extraordinarily well designed plantings of perennials, trees and shrubs, many of prairie origin, many native to the area, some from far distant places–but all with a naturalistic look reminiscent of the wild, self-seeded growth that characterized the abandoned rail line before it was transformed into an urban horticultural and theatrical venue (it is quite theatrical, especially lighted at night). The sense of peaceful isolation and solitude in the midst of urban busy-ness was part of the experience of the overgrown rail structure long before the High Line park was conceived. It was unique even then, and it was that singular quality that led to the desire to prevent destruction of the structure, and eventually to the formal conceptualization, design and construction of the High Line.

High Line - James Golden - 3And it’s usually crowded with people. How can a place with crowds of strangers have a spiritual feeling about it? Why not? Mecca? The banks of the Ganges? Santiago de Compostela? Canterbury? I find some of the most compelling photos of the High Line to be those showing people strolling along the park or sitting, talking, reading, just enjoying the light and air. There is a hidden drama being enacted here, even if most people don’t have the intent of engaging in a spiritual act or even think of their actions in that context.

High Line - James Golden - 4The long, narrow design forces visitors into a relatively small, even intimate, space, and focuses the eye on other visitors and passersby, and on the plants. This combination of physical nearness, anonymity, and the freedom to observe given by the spatial design creates a feeling of otherworldliness that has a profound effect on one’s experience of this place: a little like a stage set, a little like a consecrated space for ritual engagement.

High Line - James Golden - 5This psychological “preparation” of the mind’s eye awakens the senses, much as foreign travel stimulates a kind of hyperawareness of one’s surroundings, and makes the plantings appear to be resonant with significance.

My route was from the Gansevoort Woodland heading north through the Washington Grasslands. Sections of the old rail line have been reconstructed as reminders of what was once there. These are among my favorite parts of the High Line, perhaps because they elicit powerful recollections of railroad tracks from my childhood, when I watched the City of New Orleans and the Panama City Limited resting for a few minutes on the rails in my home town in the deep South. In this tableaux the rails are abandoned, and the overplanting evokes a powerful nostalgia for something that has been lost.

High Line - James Golden - 6These are real railroad tracks, but also nonfunctional reconstructions, artificial and highly theatrical, I think, in the way they manipulate images and memories. This is not to lessen their “truthfulness” in creating mood and evoking sense of place and the particular history of the High Line. These tableaux stir the heart (certainly mine). The rails also work as abstract patterns, almost like pattern in fabric, sculpture or painting, as geometric background contrasting with the soft, loose, rounded (and transient) plant forms.

In this next photo, the birches, the carex and grasses, and dried flower spikes of Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’, all backlit by the setting sun, evoke a powerful nostalgia that recalls the original unreconstructed elevated rail line and, I’m sure for visitors of a certain age, personal memories of a more distant past. The image also evokes an emotional response appropriate to this place, both past and present. The late afternoon shafts of sunlight create a stirring scene of considerable complexity and depth, in what appears, to me, to be one of the most successful integrations of hardscape design with planting design in the entire park and one repeated as a leitmotif  throughout.

High Line - James Golden - 7Less emotionally stirring, but beautiful in a practical and utilitarian way, is the seating on the High Line. Below is an example of a repeated design, in which the floor of the park soars up to become a bench, in this case with a back for added comfort. The birches buffer the hard urban environment and give a sense of enclosure and protection. The planting creates a sense of natural woodland, with restful broken shade in morning and late afternoon and full sun at mid-day. Quite amazing considering this is all happening on an old railroad trestle 30 feet in the air above Manhattan, but that, after all, is the same effect achieved by the natural growth on the original abandoned rail line.

High Line - James Golden - 8The High Line is well funded, with a private security force, guides, attendants, and it is immaculately maintained. Some plants are certainly brought in at extra cost just for seasonal delight, to capture the attention of visitors who don’t know much about plants at all. This Chlerodendrom trichotomum (Harlequin Glorybower), just can’t be hardy this far north, unless we are seeing an example of aggressive “zonal denial” at work.

High Line - James Golden - 9Further up the line, groundcovers take over in an area with masses of Heuchera in the foreground, Aster tartaricus ‘Jin Dai’, and Deschampsia cespetosa. Further down, the Deschampsia yields to a “field” of chartreuse Sesleria autumnalis. The High Line plantings are, in a sense, a new direction for Piet Oudolf (though most of the plants aren’t new). Because of the nature of the place (it’s meant to evoke the original wild plantings that grew spontaneously on the abandoned rail line) and the physical constraints of planting in a relatively shallow “ground” (this is after all really an elaborate green roof), Piet’s High Line plantings are subtler, more compact, and considerably more restrained than we usually expect from him.

High Line - James Golden - 10A native Vernonia (Iron weed), positioned in the center of the traffic flow so as to force visitors to see it, as they must move around it to either left or right, must have attracted a lot of attention when it was covered in bright purple flowers. Even now, in seed, it’s quite a sight.

High Line - James Golden - 11

All along the park people are constantly coming and going, or stopping to rest in lounge chairs, reading, visiting, taking the sun. I doubt that many pay as close attention to the plants as I do, but it’s obvious they do get a lot of attention. The design of the High Line makes this happen by virtue of simple geometry and limited space. After passing beneath the Standard Hotel, visitors are immersed in the plantings as the park passage divides into much narrower paths.

The rather preciously named Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve is probably as close as any part of the High Line gets to the original wild vegetation, and it is a beautiful thing showing an amazing range and subtlety of colors in the plantings, even this late in the season. And again you can see the recreated rail line serving as a nostalgic reminder of the park’s origin.

High Line - James Golden - 13And of course, this is New York. There are the views. Off to the east side is the Empire State Building.

High Line - James Golden - 14Moving further up the park into the Chelsea Grasslands, off to the left we see the IAC building by Frank Gehry with its irregular shape, and a knockout building (the tallest of the three, with color-tinted windows) by Jean Nouvel, named Nouvel Chelsea and, no, you probably can’t afford to live there. (I haven’t mentioned, yet, that the High Line has spurred amazingly rapid development of the former meat market district and western Chelsea). Yes, vigorous capitalism is at work. Even the illustrious Whitney Museum plants to relocate to the High Line’s southern terminus on Gansvoort Street in a new building to be designed by Renzo Piano.

High Line - James Golden - 15Nearing the end of the park, you’re likely to smell the distinctive odor of the native Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), which is planted in vast masses. At night, the fragrance envelopes you. The effect of this is akin to sudden bodily contact, at the most intimate level.

In the future, the park will continue north from here.

High Line - James Golden - 16The High Line was created at a likewise “high” cost. The first section (section 2 is under construction, and section 3 is still in planning) cost more than $86 million. This astonishing “garden in the sky” could have easily become a contrived natives-only plant display, with educational signage no less, on the one hand, or a less-than-tasteful gimmick to promote commercial development, on the other. It is neither. Instead, through some miraculous balancing of competing forces (and there are few places with more competing forces than New York City), we have a sophisticated garden-park that satisfies just about everyone who visits it.

The finished park is a creative, meticulously designed and built, and magnificently planted linear garden that recaptures the sense of place of the abandoned rail line I remember from my youthful days in New York. In a literal sense, it re-creates the former industrial west side, from the Meat Market to the former wilds of western Chelsea, and gives us a beautiful, new garden in the sky, one that has already begun to transform this part of Manhattan. The grittiness of the original rail line will certainly be lost over the coming years. Will that make a difference? Who knows? But for now the High Line keeps all its promises.

James Golden

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