Skip to article

Art & Design

Architecture Review

On High, a Fresh Outlook

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

People walked along a path in the High Line park, which opened to the public on Tuesday in New York City. More Photos >

Published: June 9, 2009

I keep picturing Carrie Bradshaw on the High Line, and it terrifies me.

Ever since it was unveiled in 2005, the design for this park, conceived for a strip of elevated rail tracks abandoned nearly 30 years ago, has been the favorite cause of New York’s rich and powerful. Celebrities attended fund-raisers on its deck. City officials endorsed it. Developers salivated over it, knowing it would raise land values.

I worried that it would one day be overrun with tourists and film crews. I imagined turning on the television to see Carrie stumbling down its promenade with a broken heel, weeping over Mr. Big. How, I wondered, could it possibly retain the tranquillity that made walking along its rusting, decrepit deck such a haunting experience? So I was overjoyed this weekend when I climbed the stairs at Gansevoort Street, entered the new city park and felt an immediate sense of calm. Designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the first phase of the High Line, which opened on Tuesday, is a series of low scruffy gardens, punctuated by a fountain and a few quiet lounge areas, that unfold in a lyrical narrative and seem to float above the noise and congestion below. It is one of the most thoughtful, sensitively designed public spaces built in New York in years.

But what’s really unexpected about the park is the degree to which it alters your perspective on the city. Guiding you through a secret landscape of derelict buildings, narrow urban canyons and river views, it allows you to make entirely new visual connections between different parts of Manhattan while maintaining a remarkably intimate relationship with the surrounding streets.

The park, which currently extends as far north as West 20th Street, is conceived as a series of interwoven events, like chapters of a book. Approached from the south along Washington Street in the meatpacking district, its 30-foot-high steel deck, supported on big steel columns and sliced off brutally at one end, makes for a striking contrast with the green, leafy landscape atop it. A street-level entry plaza, paved in concrete, is tucked underneath, and a broad metal staircase, with sleek brushed stainless-steel handrails, leads up to the structure’s underbelly. Rusted Corten steel plates line the opening in the deck’s floor, emphasizing the violence of the cut.

A subtle play between contemporary and historical design, industrial decay and natural beauty sets the tone. The surface of the deck, for example, is made of concrete planks meant to echo the linearity of the old tracks. The path slips left and right as it advances, so that at some points you are right up against the edge of the railing and at others you are enveloped in the gardens.

And those gardens have a wild, ragged look that echoes the character of the old abandoned track bed when it was covered with weeds, just a few years ago. Wildflowers and prairie grasses mix with Amelanchier bushes, their branches speckled with red berries. Mr. Corner designed planters to hold the taller trees, and the Gansevoort entry is marked by a cluster of birches. On Saturday the gardens were swarming with bees, butterflies and birds. I half expected to see Bambi.

Occasionally, you catch a glimpse of a fragment of track lying in the grass, a carefully placed reminder of the High Line’s former life.

What saves all this from becoming a saccharine exercise in nostalgia is the sophistication with which these elements are fused together. The benches, for example, have a sleek contemporary feel; they are made of simple wood slats that lock into the deck’s concrete planks. The lighting, too, is uncommonly subtle. Most of it is embedded in the bottom of the handrails to keep the focus on the plantings and keep glare to a minimum.

As you continue north, the narrative keeps shifting. The park tunnels through an old brick commercial building just above 13th Street; dimly lit, the cavernous space offers an escape from the heat of a sunny day or from a downpour. Farther up, a spur breaks off and dead-ends into another building, creating a more private pocket overgrown with grasses and shrubs. The most original feature is a small amphitheater that angles down from the center of the deck near 17th Street. Sitting on rows of wood benches, visitors can look through an enormous window up the length of 10th Avenue, the cars and taxis roaring out from directly beneath their feet.