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Vincent Scully & The High Line

ALAFARGE_DSC01343Earlier this week Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line, received the prestigious Vincent Scully Prize. Awarded by the National Building Museum in Washington, it was created to recognize extraordinary practice, scholarship or criticism in architecture, historic preservation and urban design. The namesake of the award and its first recipient was an art history professor at Yale University. New Yorkers may remember Scully best for his comment about the atrocity that replaced the majestic, Beaux-Arts Penn Station that was torn down fifty years ago this month: “One entered the city like a God. One scuttles in now like a rat.”

Paul Goldberger, in introducing the co-founders, spoke about the impossibility of the High Line, and “all the reasons why it couldn’t work.” I recently re-read David and Hammond’s High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, the tick-tock of the entire reclamation and preservation story, and “impossible” is just the right word. The book is an unlikely page-turner, and I recommend it as a tonic for these very particular days when our government is shut down and it’s hard to believe in anything good in the public realm. The existence of the High Line is a miracle, pure and simple, and it shows that innovative, creative, beautiful — and impossible — things can be done in our communities.

There are dozens of people who helped make the High Line the place that it is: early supporters, both in and out of government, who gave invaluable advice and support to the fledgling Friends of the High Line; landscape architect James Corner and his team; architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf; and a staff of incomparably talented and dedicated staff, both in the garden and the back office.  David and Hammond are like dual conductors of a symphony orchestra: not the men who make the music but the ones who enable it.  It’s worth watching their speech online — click here for the video on YouTube — because it not only recaps the whole story but it also conveys the energy and optimism that have driven the entire project from its earliest days. It’ll put you in a good mood, I promise.

David closes his comments by quoting the second winner of the Vincent Scully Prize, the great Jane Jacobs, whose love of neighborhood and city were inspirations to both men. But along this urban greenway that did so much to preserve a sense of wildness in the center of our thriving, growing, city, I hear Scully’s voice resonating. In the 1960s, he testified in hearings to protest Con Edison’s plan to build a massive power plant at Storm King on the Hudson River, some 60 miles north of Gansevoort Street, “at the very threshold of New York.” The victory to preserve Storm King marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement; it was the first miracle story in New York State, and every activist since has carried a bit of the mountain in his soul. Here’s what Scully said, some 50 years before the opening of the High Line:

“Storm King…is a mountain which should be left alone. It rises like a brown bear out of the river, a dome of living granite, swelling with animal power. It is not picturesque in the softer sense of the word, but awesome, a primitive embodiment of the energies of the earth. It makes the character of wild nature physically visible in monumental form. As such it strongly reminds me of some of the natural formations which mark sacred sites in Greece and signal the presence of the Gods; it preserves and embodies the most savage and untrammeled characteristics of the wild at the very threshold of New York. It can still make the city dweller emotionally aware of what he most needs to know: that nature still exists, with its own laws, rhythms, and powers, separate from human desires.”


The Quiet Park

I have left town for a week — my first vacation of the year, and much-needed — and find myself in my own garden pulling weeds. It’s very quiet here on a small mountain along the Hudson River in Columbia County. Frequently a train goes by and toots its horn. If it’s a big one — a long CSX freight train — I can even feel it rumbling through the house. “The rhythm of the rails,” as Steve Goodman wrote in “City of New Orleans.” Cue Arlo Guthrie.

As I was weeding this morning, before a thunder storm rolled in, I was thinking about that other rail bed down south, and it occurred to me that one of the most striking features of the High Line is how quiet it is. For the two years that Section Two was under construction we worried about the noise that would come from thousands of people passing by our windows.  I heard that around 35,000 walked through the park during the Gay Pride weekend.

But it’s completely, astonishingly, quiet down there.

There’s something about the High Line that not only slows people down but quiets them too. In two years I’ve never heard anyone screaming into a cellphone. Today, people who sit on the lawn seem to speak in whispers; there are buildings all around us to amplify the sound but I’ve not yet overheard a single conversation. No radios or boom boxes. Occasionally a small child shrieks in joy but that’s always a welcome interruption.

Of course it wasn’t this way when the trains were running. In 2003 a woman named Patricia Fieldsteel described in The Villager what it was like when she moved into an apartment near Gansevoort Street.

“Slightly before 2:50 a.m. the building began to quiver and shake: an unearthly shrill series of screeches, wheezings and the rattlings of Brobdingnagian chains seemed headed straight for the window by my bed. I groped for my glasses and peered out between the dusty slats of the Venetian blinds. A decrepit freight train was creeping out of the south side of the Manhattan Meat & Refrigeration Warehouse across the street. Huge refrigerated trucks were parked along Washington St., their motors running, spewing noxious fumes that were already seeping through my closed windows. Then the raw steer carcasses started to roll and the odor of blood and hacked-apart flesh mixed with the other charming aromas. The High Line was making its deliveries….”

The High Line is more connected to the city itself than any other park in New York, running as it does right through the middle of busy streets and up along the avenue. And yet it’s so startlingly quiet. It’s possible that this is the effect that great and beautiful design has on us. It’s humbling to walk through such a lovely place, particularly when you’re surrounded by reminders of a complex society, both industrial and technological, on both sides and at every step along the way. It’s a place that allows you to slow down and think.

I’m glad that the people who run the park are closing it early on days when there are massive crowds downtown. Whatever the reason, the effect is that it preserves this idea of the High Line as a place apart. It’s not a spot for partying and ballyhoo — there are tons of great places to go for that.  It’s the quiet park, and somehow — at least so far — the millions of people who pass through it every year seem to appreciate that.

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Lights on the High Line

Last night’s twinkling of lights
on the new section of the High Line (my little patch is between 22nd and 23rd Streets) made me think about the lighting throughout the park. It was designed by Hervé Descottes of L’Observatoire International, a lighting design firm based in New York.  What’s most remarkable — in a city of blaring, flashing lights — is the restraint that Descottes imposed on his design. The chief example of this is the fact that all the lighting is set below eye level. Never on the High Line will you turn away from something because there’s light in your eyes, and never will you quickly turn around to look at something because it’s cast in a spot light. Like great book design you don’t immediately “see” it; it’s so well integrated into the narrative that it only enables it, never overpowers or even suggests itself.

This is a city of big egos, filled with designers and architects whose work constantly pulls at you. “Look at me, over here, see this detail, this brilliant effect.” With the lighting on the High Line Descottes did something entirely different. He lights the path — an important piece of business — and he places soft, lovely, LED lights under the guard rails and here and there amid the plants. It seems at once random and planned, and in any case completely organic to the park’s overall design.

I had no idea what it would look like out there once the new section of High Line opened, and I confess I worried about the lights. Would they pierce the living room window, like the old Chase Bank did before the (even more garishly lit) condo-in-progress blocked it?

Last night the lights popped on for the first time, against a backdrop of rain, thunder, and lightning.  There was no one there — no workmen, no tourists — just the twinkling glow against the evergreens. Hats off to you, Mr. Descottes.


Cold, Clear Nights on the High Line

Lately the High Line has been particularly magical at night. These frigid evenings seem to bring out only the hardiest of souls, and so the place is wonderfully lonely. As the sun sets the lights in the park pop on, but as you’ll notice they are all below eye level, so the light doesn’t really announce itself, and it never gets in your eyes. It shines a glow on the sleeping plants and grasses, dances shadows through the art deco rails, and provides just enough brightness to light your path. The High Line designers clearly spent as much time contemplating light in the park as they did everything else.

One thing I realized on a visit last week is that the Jean Nouvel building — the one just to the north of the IAC “sail building” — still has very few tenants (or maybe they all live in Paris and Oslo), so the windows remain dark. Which lends the IAC building pride of place, at least for a little longer. I love both of these buildings and think they work gorgeously together: the combination of smooth, seemingly rounded glass surfaces of the IAC against the cut glass, recessed, multi-colored spectacle of the Nouvel. It’s one of those happy flukes of architecture when two very different, modern, buildings go up side-by-side and the beautiful and startling results appear to have been planned precisely in advance.

The architectural viewscape of the High Line changes constantly, month by month — as new buildings go up — but also hour by hour with the orbit of the sun. If you spend some time walking the park at dusk you’ll see what I mean, and be sure to walk in both directions because the view is quite different heading north and south. If you get up there soon, before the weather warms up (if it ever does) you might find yourself alone, as I did, fingers frozen against the camera shutter.

At the southern end, near the Gansevoort steps, you have a treat in store as you walk through the grove of birch trees. It’s like a little gallery in an art museum: one room filled with handsome young trees, lit just so. But unlike a museum, if you come back the next morning it’ll look completely different. The park is always lovely at night, but these windy, freezing, winter evenings offer up all kinds of new views and discoveries.


Farewell Pier D

Driving down the West Side Highway last Sunday we met with a sad surprise as we approached 64th Street: Pier D was in the process of being dismantled. It was an icy day and several boats and a large crane were at work taking apart the old wreck. The Times ran a story with a photo on Tuesday and I managed to get uptown on Thursday to catch a few glimpses of the very end of the process. There were several tugboats and even a skiff carrying two men. It was so cold I could barely click the shutter; one can only imagine what it was like for those guys, hour after hour, clanking around old pieces of iron on a tugboat in the Hudson River.

This blog is devoted to the High Line, which begins a mile and half south of Pier D, but last May I ventured north to pay tribute to the architects and designers who so beautifully incorporated the dilapidated vocabulary of the rusting piers and remnants of the old shipping industry into the renovation of the waterfront parks. That post is here, along with photos of Pier D. The City says that the old pier was dangerous and posed a hazard to boats on the River today, so it had to go. Here it is back in May:

And here it is today. We can remember it fondly, and again thank the folks who had such vision for the City’s waterfront as they reconceived it for a 20th century visitor. Farewell old friend.



The long weeks with no (apparent) progress on my section of the High Line have caused my eye to wander, and lately I’ve been admiring the majestic water towers on the roof of the London Terrace Towers apartments across the street from my apartment. (That’s 23rd Street, just off 10th Avenue.) I’m reminded of how these buildings were completed in 1929, during another severe economic meltdown. A real estate broker once told me that the builder committed suicide before the complex had been finished, but I can’t verify that. I do love how the architect conceived the housing for his water towers. See those brick silos on the roof that enclose them as though they were bell towers.

Fans of Charles Kuralt will remember his fondness for the old water towers that grace so many of New York’s buildings. To him they were American heirlooms, and to give them their props he did a piece about Wallace Rosenwach, the master cooper whose family has been hand-crafting the barrels since 1896, when Rosenwach’s grandfather paid $55 to buy the business from the widow of the man he worked for.

Kuralt’s book American Moments explains that every building in Manhattan that’s seven stories or more must have a large water barrel on its roof, raised up on stilts, that will supply the sprinkler system with enough water during a fire “to dampen whatever is burning while the firefighters are still on their way.”  So pick a block, any block, and all you have to do is look up. There you will find “the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” right there in the middle of our booming metropolis.

As Kuralt wrote: “In other places you have to dig down to find the past. In New York City to find the past you have to go up. New York City is an odd place.”

Needless to say Kuralt would have loved the High Line. I thought of him recently as I was walking north near what I call “the paper clip building” on 14th Street, just a bit west of the Apple Store; the steel beams of this rising tower are so skimpy they look they come out of a Staples carton. I happened to look up and noticed a bright, oak, barrel sitting on the roof of the half-finished building. To this day the City continues to rely on the power of gravity to buy a bit of extra time for the firefighters. I’ll grab a photo of that brand new water tower as soon as I can.

Meantime, here is Kuralt’s.


In Praise of Urban Architects & Designers

Watching and studying a great public space in progress has made me think a lot about the decisions that designers and architects make as they create the places that we will all inhabit and enjoy.

Every weekend I drive down the West Side Highway on my way home from upstate, and it’s hard not to notice (because we’re almost always stuck in traffic) the new park that snakes its way up the bank of the Hudson River in the 60s.

What you see very dramatically from the highway (and a bit less so from the walkway inside the park) is the way the ancient river structures have been echoed in the modern architecture. (Okay, “ancient” is a bit over-the-top, since these structures aren’t much more than 100 years old, but in the age of Twitter I’m going to let it stand, just this once.)

Look at the twisted wreck of Pier D….

This pier was originally built of wood in the 1880s and was angled in a particular way to enable rail cars to roll down and unload cargo from ships. It was destroyed by a fire in 1922, rebuilt with steel and then finally destroyed for good — by another fire — in 1971.

The designer who planned this section of the park along the West Side Highway (it’s at around 64th Street) paid wonderful homage to Pier D and the longshoreman who worked it by creating the benches you see here…

It’s just a suggestion, nothing heavy-handed, but it connects a passerby to the old days when this pier was a vital commercial link, providing a way for grain, milk, vegetables, and other supplies to reach the city.  (Not unlike the High Line, by the way; follow some of the links in my blogroll to learn more about the history and purpose of the original railroad.)

Even the small, incidental seats that line a cement wall and are clearly intended for unceremonious sitting — tying your shoe, tightening the straps on your roller blades, enjoying a quick smoke — echo the twisted wreck of Pier D.

There’s a story in the Times about how Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner in 2003, had to race down to the waterfront to stop a crane from dismantling the pier, which he had committed to preserving. We all owe this man a debt of gratitude, as well as the designers and architects who crafted so many decisions as they were conceiving this park. They are a source of pure delight to the eye and the spirit, whether you’re strolling along on a beautiful spring day or stuck in a traffic jam on the highway above.

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The Unfinished Nature of Life

Walking on the High Line today I discovered that there’s still an unfinished section in the part of the park that’s open to the public. I shot a paver from that section (it’s at around 16th Street) back in mid-September, and there it was, five months later, still unfinished. There’s also a wonderful contraption called a Grasshopper, which is used to lift and move heavy materials like concrete pavers. This scene has remained untouched for months. Who knows why.

But it suddenly conjured a memory of something my father said ages ago about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 112th Street and Amsterdam. His grandfather, C. Grant LaFarge, had been one of the architects; he designed the austere, dark, Romanesque/Byzantine section in the late 1880s. It wasn’t until 1941 that the cathedral finally opened but it wasn’t finished; World War II delayed it for another 32 years and the building remained in a state of incompleteness throughout my teenaged years. Work continued on and off for another 20 years — embracing two periods of financial distress — before Philippe Petit famously walked the high wire (from 150 above street level) across Amsterdam Avenue to deliver a silver trowel to Bishop Paul Moore, in honor of the start of the next phase of construction. My dad had died by the time a fire destroyed the north transcept of the church and the gift shop in December 2001; the scaffolding went up again and didn’t come down until 2007. (You can read the whole story on the Cathedral’s website.)

When I was a kid we used to visit the church often, and it was perpetually in a state of construction. The massive building is an odd mixture of different architectural styles that seem to have evolved over centuries, so when you walk through it you get that wonderful experience that New York City often offers of old and new, one style vs. another, all somehow unified by its New York City-ness. And you also get this other sense that I felt last week on the High Line: it’s always in medias res, not quite finished, getting a touch-up or an overhaul, “under construction,” “coming soon,” whatever. There’s always the promise of something more — even, maybe, something better.

So here on the High Line — itself in a perpetual state of construction — the finished part isn’t really finished yet. The sign makes no promises — “Area Closed — Work in Progress.” You can recline on a teak bench, gaze out at the Hudson River and enjoy one of the most beautiful views in the city. But the orange cones are there to remind you that the place is still unfinished. What my father always said, as we’d walk around the cathedral, is that the unfinished quality of St. John the Divine reminded him of the fact that he was unfinished too. He thought we all are — we’re each of us a work-in-progress. That, plus the fact that all this unfinished business reminded him of his grandfather who died long before his work was done, made the scaffolding, barricades and  construction apparatus a perfectly natural, even beautiful part of life.

I was a young grasshopper then, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Thanks, High Line.