the first phase of the highline

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opened a few days ago.   wow!    the highline is an elevated freight train track that was originally built in the 1930’s to alleviate the danger of trains running on tracks at street-level on the west side of manhattan.  the rails went out of use in the 1980’s, the highline deteriorated, and was slated for demolition until local activists came up with the unlikely proposal of a garden path through the industrial wastes of what is one of the ugliest bits of manhattan.

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the recently completed the first phase (at a cost of $86 million and change)  runs from gansevoort street in the meat packing district to 20th street and is between 10th and the west side highway/11th avenue.  it can be accessed at either end and in several spots in the middle via stairs.

from the street it holds little promise.  it’s another story from up top…

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the project was designed by diller scofidio + renfro and james corner field operations landscape architects.   a walkway of concrete planks switches back and forth across the  platform, under and through structures, relating to the original tracks that provided direct connection between factories and warehouses.

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the planting is appropriately weedy and owes a great deal to the designs of the dutch landscape designer and plantsman, piet oudolf.   you “get” the “feel” the highline must have had when the idea for a green space here first occurred in the 1990’s – nature reclaiming industrial deterioration.   i can’t wait to watch the plantings grow in, change with the seasons, and take the structure.

this is a brutal site.   it will be absolutely pounded by wind/rain/snow/sun.  the plant choices are smart and durable and shift beautifully and naturally from one micro-climate to the next.

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but make no mistake.    this is design.   when andrew suggested we go check it out after dinner last night, he said “it’s interesting, the details are almost like interior finishes.”    he’s right.   if there’s a fault to the project, it’s that it’s too designed.    as louis would say, wilfull.    it seems the designers had too much ego or too little self-confidence (or both) to allow the unique setting and good plantsmanship to carry the project.

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it’s just a little too slick.   more courageous architectural design would have better evoked the romantic urban decay the planting does.

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i first visited the highline at night — it’s open until 10p.    it’s well-lit and patrolled and an evening stroll allows you the voyeuristic thrill of views into expensive modern apartments as well as gorgeous views of the city and river.

the project will eventually run up to 34th street (almost the front door of my ny gallery!).   in the meantime, the highline promises to bring life back to a part of the city, that with the collapse of the chelsea gallery frenzy, has been pretty sickly of late.

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