Abandoned rail's an urban dream
A MoMA exhibit and a new Web site dare to envision an oasis that meanders down the West Side
BY JUSTIN DAVIDSON
April 19, 2005
The idea of a public park on the High Line is slowly slouching out of dreamland. Regulatory and financial impediments remain: the federal government has to approve the rail line's transfer to the city, and there is still the small matter of $100 million to be raised. But at least it has become easy to imagine a future for the disused railway that snakes down the West Side of Manhattan from the Hudson Yards to the Meatpacking District.
A few springs from now, West Chelsea clubbers could nurse their hangovers on a boardwalk brimming with wildflowers. Couples might plan to meet on the glass-railed overlook above Gansevoort Street. Children could pause on the way up gently angled stairs running through the guts of the structure, to watch through a glass wall as fish dart through artificial wetlands above 14th Street.
Tomorrow, in a coordinated assault on naysayers, the Museum of Modern Art opens an exhibit and the nonprofit group Friends of the High Line launches a new Web site (www.the highline.org), both based on a set of new plans by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the team that won a design competition last summer. Rich in detail and realistic in scope, the new sheaf of renderings and diagrams lays out an irresistible day when a ruin of the industrial age will have metamorphosed from glowering eyesore into verdant pedestrian highway.
To begin with, the team has planned just the southernmost five blocks, from Gansevoort Street to 14th Street (optimistically scheduled to open in 2007) in the hope that the first phase will be visionary but achievable. The planners will have to remain flexible and inventive. The High Line crosses an area that is transforming so convulsively, where the chic factor is rising so quickly, that the few butchers left among the gleaming boutiques are beginning to look like extras placed there to give the scene some authenticity. A high-rise condo designed by Jean Nouvel was beaten back, but the hotelier André Balasz has hired Polshek Partners Architects to design a luxury hotel that could grow beneath, above and around the rail line, the way an oak tree envelops an old fence.
For now, the High Line is weedy, dangerous, rusted and romantic. (It's also private property: Trespassers beware.) Seeds that hitched rides on freight cars came in from distant states and blew off onto the tracks, creating a seam of imported wilderness. With every passing year, the iron structure looks less like an urban castoff and more like a precious relic.
The new design capitalizes on all this evocative neglect. Rather than creating a ruthlessly manicured allée or a paved gangway for skaters and cyclists, Field Operations & Co. have hewed to a minimalist mantra: "Keep it simple, keep it wild, keep it quiet, keep it slow." The industrial buildings that hug its sides and sometimes arch over it will not be hidden by arbors. The grasses that now entwine the ties and rails will not be banished or confined to a bordered bed, but will be encouraged to poke up through the gaps between concrete planks.
That system of planks is the technical core of the project. The slats can be tightly fitted so that only moss will grow between them, or tapered and separated so that they disappear into tall grass. They can be bent up into benches or made to dip down into the beds to give the obsolete el a topography of its own. The effect will be that of a blurred borderline, a strip neither on the street nor removed from it, neither quite urban nor completely pastoral. It will be a park like nothing New York has seen before.
"The High Line" exhibit will be on view through July 18 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., Manhattan.
For tickets and information, call 212-708-9400 or go to www.moma.org.
Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.
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