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Thursday, July 29, 2004
Remaking Tracks
Four plans would transform the High Line, an overgrown vestige of the city's industrial past, into a vibrant swath of its future

The Holl design
The Holl design (Photo by - Architects with Hargreaves Associates and HNTB)

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"4 Teams 4 Visions: Design Approaches to the High Line Master Plan" - on view at the Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place, between Bleecker Street and West Third Street, Manhattan. For more information, call 212-683-0023 or visit

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July 29, 2004

A strip of forgotten wilderness runs down the West Side of Manhattan like a weedy seam. The High Line, an abandoned elevated railway that snakes its way from West 34th Street to the Gansevoort Meat Market, is a rusting relic of the industrial age. Built in the 1930s to carry freight in and out Manhattan's manufacturing district, it was eventually condemned to obsolescence by the combined forces of gentrification and trucking.

It has become a pastoral avenue that nobody sees. In the 24 years since the last load of frozen turkeys was delivered by train to a Greenwich Village warehouse, weeds and wildflowers have sprung from its gravel beds, obscuring the tracks and suggesting a possible future as a verdant walkway above the streets. Some local businesses see it as an obsolete eyesore, shutting light out from the sidewalks and depressing property values. But the Bloomberg administration and a small army of celebrities have sided with Friends of the High Line, an organization that wants to transform the dilapidated structure into a destination.

Last year, that nonprofit group solicited ideas about how to accomplish that. It received 720 suggestions, from the minimal (leave the weeds) to the preposterously extravagant (a mile-and-a-half-long swimming pool). Now the organization is conducting a more realistic competition for a master plan and has narrowed the field to four teams of architects.

The romance of the project has attracted major talent. Zaha Hadid, this year's Pritzker Prize winner, leads one team. Another includes Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, which has been hired to refurbish Lincoln Center. A third is captained by the esteemed architect Steven Holl and the fourth, called Terragram, is led by the landscape architect and Harvard University professor Michael Van Valkenburgh.

So far the process has produced only general design approaches. An exhibit of the four proposals is on view at the Center for Architecture until Aug. 14. Whichever team gets the job in the fall will then plunge into a new round of studies, debates and brainstorming sessions, emerging with a full-fledged master plan next year.

In the meantime, New Yorkers can look forward to a new kind of urban park, a distinctly local equivalent to the European passeggiata. The pedestrian boulevard will thread its placid way through a neighborhood's shuddering changes. In the past 20 years, the westernmost slice of Chelsea, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River, has metamorphosed from a gritty industrial district to an area sprinkled with art galleries and chichi restaurants.

The Bloomberg administration is trying to shape the next phase of that transformation by applying a nudge here and a brake there. Last fall, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Gansevoort Meat Market area as a historic district, protecting its cobbled streets and its warehouses, with their corrugated-metal awnings, from demolition.

At the same time, the city planning commission unveiled a proposed rezoning of West Chelsea, which would allow a flock of new apartment buildings. Meanwhile, the city is negotiating the tension between change and preservation by cheering on the renovation of the High Line.

Its future as a park is far from a sure thing. Money must be raised - somewhere between $60 million and $100 million - and the federal government must be persuaded to fold the project into the rails-to-trails program through which disused railroad tracks can be converted into parks and bicycle paths until they are needed as train routes again (in most cases, never).

Each of the four finalist proposals for the High Line would create an immeasurable improvement in the life of Manhattan. The tragic mistake would be to demolish the High Line or let it continue to decay.

Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro teamed up with James Corner and his landscape firm, Field Operations, to create the most provocative and vivid of the four proposals: an undulating platform that would preserve some of the railway's current sense of wilderness.

For now, the tracks run through an uncultivated grassland. The proposal would pave the structure with long concrete planks, sometimes tightly fitted, sometimes separated by gaps overflowing with vegetation. Meadow would shade into strips of brush and woodland thicket, fading, perhaps, into patches of artificial marsh.

Like a combination of boardwalk and dune, concrete ramps would arc above the trees, providing lofty views, or swoop down between the steel girders, cocooning pedestrians in greenery and allowing them to forget for a moment the city all around. The up-and-down intentionally slows the typical New York City quick-march to a contemplative stroll. Those in a hurry need only click down the stairs to the churning sidewalks.

In all the proposals, the High Line becomes a place of spectacle, too. This team's more fanciful renderings envision high-flying acrobatic demonstrations and a stretch of elevated beach, complete with swimming hole. But Field Operations also foresees havens for more easily conceivable activities: outdoor movies, people-watching and light shows illuminating the line's several passageways through existing buildings.

At the southern end, sculpted nature gives way to raw industrial artifact. Naked steel beams extend over a long, grand staircase by the Gansevoort Meat Market, where a glass wall turns butchering into a spectator sport. Perched above it all is a cantilevered glass gallery like the top of a "T," a transparent box whose principal purpose is to let people see and be seen.

Zaha Hadid

The core challenge of the High Line will be to make attractive the idea of lifting street life into the air. Hadid, the celebrated Iraqi-born architect based in London, draws pedestrians through vertical space like salmon upriver, in an instinctual flow of desire. In her Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, for instance, she merges floor, wall and walkway to give the museum the feeling of a continuous, ribboning structure.

Her proposal for a High Line master plan has some similarities with that of Field Operations: zones of vegetation that bleed into each other without formal borders, and a surface that rolls above and below the horizontal plane defined by the railway girders.

But Hadid envisions a more liquid structure, an architectural stream fed by the tributaries of building, park and street. At 18th Street, people would enter her version of the High Line by ambling up a looping, meadowed, handicapped-accessible ramp that doubles as the roof of a tubular building. The hurried and able-bodied could climb a standard set of stairs, but the gestural drama of the landscape emphasizes the ramp.

In the end, Hadid's team may leave blanks at various access points for other architects to design. But in the conceptual renderings, which are a good deal more specific and legible than Hadid's usual elegant abstractions, the High Line has acquired a seamless, molded-concrete curviness reminiscent of a 1960s flight terminal.

Markus Donchantschi, one of Hadid's collaborators, suggested that benches might emerge out of a ramp, become articulated (identifiably benchlike) for a few yards, and then disappear again back into a floor or wall. At the Gansevoort Market, the walkway would slope gently up and end on a rooftop observation deck, giving the building below the cozy, space-age look of the Teletubbies' burrow.

Steven Holl

The architect Steven Holl, who lives in Greenwich Village near the southern end of the High Line and works near the other end, has been floating plans to salvage it for more than 20 years. His priority now is to get at least a segment of it open to the public soon, so that redeveloping the rest will seem irresistible. Eventually, he hopes to make the High Line part of a green loop connected to the new Hudson River Park by a series of pedestrian bridges that would soar above the fierce traffic of West Street.

Holl also hopes to move the West 26th Street flower market down to the meat market, so the smell of blooms rather than blood would fill the wide intersection at Gansevoort Street. A spiraling ramp full of flower stalls would rise above the warehouse building, like a scented lookout turret.

The actual lookouts - the security officers monitoring the High Line's full length - would be headquartered in a long glass gallery jacked overhead at 18th Street: a "translucent membrane bridge," Holl calls it.

Holl has paid special attention to the rail line's underside, partnering with the artist Solange Fabião to create a 1.5-mile lighting display that could be used for artwork or advertising.


Of all the finalists, it is the Terragram team, led by the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, that draws the greatest inspiration from the way the High Line looks today: a strip of urban wilderness. In this plan, still painted in broad philosophical brushstrokes rather than architectural details, a narrow concrete walkway meanders past patches of unkempt-looking greenery or a thick forest of sunflowers. The High Line has a particular ravaged beauty, heightened by neglect: Above, according to the team statement, is a "resilient volunteer wildscape," below, the "sublime industrial underbelly of the rail corridor itself."

All the architects evince an almost sensual fondness for the High Line's bare steel, the rare frank manifestation of a skeleton that, in tall buildings, is usually hidden. In projects of adaptive reuse such as this one, there is always a balance to be struck between preserving an architectural memory and giving it new life; Terragram's plan celebrates messy history rather than a high-gloss future.

That's the crux of the competition. Assuming that in the long run the Friends of the High Line are successful in their quest, the final selection of a master planner will determine just how raw and brutal an old industrial muscle is permitted to remain or how smooth and civilized it will become as it runs through the heart of an ever-more-chic Chelsea.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc. |  Article licensing and reprint options


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