On a sunny fall Saturday in October 2011, I was attending an AIA seminar at Pratt University’s Manhattan campus on 14th Street in New York City. During a lunch break I took a walk due west and arrived at the southern end of the High Line – a linear urban park constructed on a section of elevated and abandoned railroad tracks that originally served the city’s meat-packing district.
I had heard about this very cool and innovative work of landscape architecture, architecture and urban design when it first opened and wanted to see it for myself. So I, along with hundreds of other visitors climbed the steel plate steps to the main level… and then the transformation happened.
When walking around a city like New York, with all its density, people and traffic, the simplest things such as a change in level, a unique vista or the widening or narrowing of a space can be extremely important and have a dramatic effect on a person’s experience. Be it visual relief or a break from the din and monotony of city life, the “different” places within the city offer something special – a new way of seeing the city, of moving through space or witnessing juxtapositions that are not visible from street level or from inside a building. For me, the High Line was a vivid example of this simple yet powerful urban phenomenon.
The High Line is elevated above the typical street, yet it functions like a different kind of street. It is continuous, made for movement of people and linking places together. It passes along side and through buildings, creating those interesting views and perspectives that make life in the city so intriguing. The High Line is also an historical artifact, adding a sense of time by contrasting new and old while re-tracing a very real part of the city’s past. It is also a device for creating that all-important urban connection: bringing together the natural and manmade. A different take on the traditional idea of a “park”, the High Line’s natural landscaping grows among the abandoned steel railroad tracks while the paving materials, benches and other hardscape elements are detailed to merge with the landscape and with each other. Together, a deliberate kind of “fusion” takes place that combines landscape with architecture, history with contemporary life and a slower, quieter pedestrian space overlaid onto a noisy, bustling streetscape. It creates those unique conditions that are so very important for human beings to experience.
I could only spend a short amount of time on the High Line that beautiful afternoon and I’m sure there are many aspects and details about the project that I have overlooked. But the sense of discovery I felt during that opportune visit was very palpable and real. It made me, a native of Montana and a life-long suburbanite, appreciate the city in a whole new way.
Images courtesy of Dale “Gene” Graff