The High Line: Above, Behind

The High Line in New York is a rare enough beast. Put simply, it’s a park; a linear park on a disused 1930s rail-line above the city-streets, construction began in 2008. Two sections are now open; the park snakes its way well over a mile through Manhattan’s meat-packing district, traversing twenty city blocks. By any measure, it’s been a success; the first thing a visitor notices is just how busy it is, yet how calm. Yet while it’s a lovely park in its own right, it’s something else; it’s a new way of looking at a city.

When discussing the appearance of cities, it’s easy to forget  just how much of what we see is chosen. Look at the apparently haphazard movement of a streets – the straight or winding line from one thoroughfare to the next, intersected by a thousand individuals’ distinct pathways – and the feeling is one of being in an anthill. The street pretends to be a straightforward manifestation of its peoples’ activity, just as a stroll through a city gives an impressionist view of how they work. However what we see is never a simple manifestation, it is a view - edited, worked, selected.

One of the inbuilt limitations of the “street”, as a public environment, is that we only see what the property owners choose to show us. In particular, a city centre presents a view that is selected – or at least moderated – by commerce. The phrase “back-of-house” more or less sums this up, but the phenomenon goes deeper than houses with ornamental front gardens or businesses with service yards hidden out back. Almost every scrap of city – particularly city-centres, where people mix so freely with economics and decorum – is, to some degree, sculpted.

The political examples of this sort of controlled vista are numerous. A while ago Dublin’s mayor went to quite extraordinary lengths to remove beggars from the city centre, for example; the weak arguments about public safety simply obscured the core truth that such people are considered unsightly, all the more so when the textbook view of urbanity moves only between air-conditioned shopping centres and outdoor cafés on neatly-paved streets.

Much city-planning embraces the pavement-café concept of the city. And so the hidden, unsaleable components are quietly concealed; travel around an industrial estate (or even an edge-of-city IKEA or Walmart) and you are effectively viewing the city’s “back,” these areas deemed unsuitable for the commercial cyclorama. Once, it was commonplace to see factories within the city-centre, an active part of the urban fabric; now they are banished to the periphery and beached amid car-parks and delivery yards. In an age so many people lazily describe as “post-industrial,” loading bays do not form a part of our idealised cityscape. This aesthetic may be primarily economic (property prices are the main generator), but it’s no less political for that.

Within shopping and leisure districts, of course, there are a different and more subtle series of controls. The street-form itself guides the onlooker’s perception, for example. The accepted single-storey form of the shopfront, with its brightly-coloured signs and goods creating a perception-filter hovering four metres above ground level, draws one’s view downwards; the bustle of city-streets, the need to look around at all times, only reinforces that effect. The clean unbroken line of buildings along a street mean that voids in the city-plane become anomalies to be ignored. Few people notice the storeys of a building over a McDonald’s. Fewer still look at the roof that pokes up beyond the parapet.

Or more succinctly: in a city, only tourists look up.

 

Right, but this is supposed to be a review of the High Line, of the way it sneaks over New York streets and between the rooftops, two-to-three stories above ground. It is, ultimately, an elegant piece of “found” urban architecture. And yet it’s so much more.

When visiting the High Line, it’s easy to think that the strength lies solely in the idea. Turning a railway line into a public park is an easy, seductive one-liner; once everyone buys into it, the rest is simply a question of decent execution. And yet it would have been terrifyingly easy to mess the basic idea up at any point. The High Line has to take a series of decisions about what kind of space it wants to be; it gets all those decisions so quietly right, and executes its central idea with such a clean, clear simplicity, that it almost hurts to look at it.

For such a daring endeavour, the point of The High Line is oddly modest. It isn’t about the park – it’s about encouraging the park-goer to look beyond. Had this been an ornamentally-planted meadow of greenery replete with rose bushes and fuchsia, it would have been nice - but it would also have been an introverted oasis, grabbing attention for itself, not encouraging anyone to look at the city surroundings. Instead, the landscape feels like the found space it is; the paving is an obvious echo of railway-sleepers, the planting reflects the self-seeded landscape that had reclaimed the railway lines before the park was built. This isn’t a garden, it’s formalised scrubland. This is accidental, here by chance, it declares; by fortune, you have a chance to look around.

All of which hides the unfussy craft behind the project. Were it careless, would anyone take it seriously? The role of craft in art and design is too raged-over to sum up in a phrase, but one of its effects is this: it makes us take notice. The High Line is careful enough to cause us to ask why someone brought us here, and search for answers. The user looks at the effortless way the benches are formed from the paving cracking away and upwards from the ground; the delicacy with which the street names are engraved into that beautiful perimeter handrail; even the subtle quality of the unfussy wiremesh fences. Who put this overhanging platform over the bones of the old rail line? What did they want us to see?

That’s the balance this place understands. It’s careful enough to make us look, but quiet enough that we don’t look at the park itself. It achieves something rare, which is to do just enough. We look for answers, and see another city.

This is the city of flat roofs and air-conditioning units, pipework branching from roof to roof like mechanical creepers.

 

Those buildings, sometimes old and neglected and bristling with years, floating unnoticed above the commercial plane.

 

Alleyways cut between buildings, dark and utilitarian, in shadow.

 

 

Building-backs, formerly elevated and unseen and now at eye level, catching the sun in all their bedraggled elegance.

 

Cutting through the existing urban fabric, the meat-packing district on one-side, the view to the docks on the other, the monuments of industry fading to the sea.

 

Standard street-furniture, light-standards and road signs, are suddenly seem from above; for the first time juxtaposed against a backdrop that isn’t the sky, they become alien and other.

 

The city shows us its back.


All this makes the High Line quite the most subversive project you will see for quite some time. As the opening stretches of this post make clear, it’s a stunningly anti-commercial project; we look beyond the facade that is so important to commerce. So it’s fitting that this stretch isn’t blighted by the seemingly-obligatory coffee-stands and kiosks. Look at the crass, unnecessary kiosk that blights Dublin’s most comparable public route, the Liffey Boardwalk. It doesn’t need to be there and it shouldn’t be there; taking pedestrians towards the river, away from the thundering of cars, was quite enough. The High Line has no such interruptions. Its only misstep is the sculpture at the halfway point that we walk between; attempting to create a “dynamic” piece by having us walk between us, it looks absurdly ineffectual in a park that does the same thing to an entire city.

The Standard Hotel near the High Line’s southernmost point is an interesting focal point. A 337-room giant, it’s also a fine building; at first it reads like a very 1960s relic, but look closer and you see the care in the detailing, the subtly angled formation of the concrete “leg” that holds it up. By leaping over the High Line it doesn’t disturb the park at all; pass beneath it and you have the sense of a building undercarriage, worked and yet raw. The glazed facade is a thing of beauty. Overall, the building a lovely piece of work.

And yet what we have here is, beneath all that, an erosion. This is a building that addresses the High Line. As a deliberate anomaly – the developments were more or less simultaneous – this is adds an interesting texture. But it also means that, in a project about the back of a city, the commercial city is already beginning to turn and show its face.

This is natural, of course. Nothing can – or should – exist in stasis, and a park is no different. It may be subversive, but anything so successful has its own effect on the values of real estate. The High Line has substantially boosted property prices in the area; the meat-packing district through which it snakes is already clamouring for gentrification. Business – the pavement cafés and the glass-eyes of shops that have become the ad-man’s shorthand for “city” – has noticed. Think of the future, and you can already smell the coffee from the clamouring kiosks.

All this is part and parcel of cities built by commerce. Whether it should be bemoaned, encouraged or simply accepted is a long, irresolvable argument. The High Line is a thing of beauty, and it will change as all things do.

So perhaps it’s more important to highlight this project as it is… and to add, forcefully, that there may only be a few more years to enjoy it as such. It’s an illicit pathway that makes roofs, air-handling units and broken brickwork into things of beauty. If at all possible, make sure you see it now.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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