Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sign of the times- the High Line

The High Line has been open for a bit now and it is the object of everyone's desire. It has created buzz in the design professions for its innovation and execution and the real estate business which hopes to capitalize there. But it also has a gravitational pull, attracting anyone who comes into physical or professional proximity.

It is also important as the first significant built work of Field Operations, a startling fact given how heavily James Corner and his cronies have influenced and expanded the field of Landscape Architecture in recent decades with their brilliant writings and investigations. And there are some amazing things about it- the expensive details of weathered steel and glass rails and ipe decking and furniture are well-executed. The plantings by Piet Oudulf are complex and beautiful, artfully composed scenes that fade and flower throughout the seasons. And for my money, the precast concrete paver details that wells up from the ground plane and in then dives into the gravel planting beds is brilliant- suggestive without being metaphorical, expressive without ostentation. That said, the High Line is also a tremendously cynical take on the practice of landscape design and a guileful ruse by James Corner given his previous pedantry regarding authenticity and ecology.

The most brilliant move in the entire park is the mere premise of a public space there. Someone many years ago had the temerity to recognize the character of the place, producing an eventual groundswell of support to create a park there that found a voice when Robert Hammond and Joshua David put their heads together and started the Friends of the High Line. Joel Sternfeld helped this cause immesurably with his photo series highlighting the stark beauty of the High Line and the unique perspective of the city found there. However, the most prominent experience that the High Line now offers is now some beautiful and expensive paving and planting details and views of prominent and expensive buildings, restaurants, and bars. The High Line is open for business- Come On In! (unless you have a dog, a bike, want to jog, plant something, cut a flower, sell something, ask for money, smoke, etc.- only approved and prescribed uses will be permitted. Thank you.) So it's not a democratic and open space, but then, this is New York City, where all parks are walled off and playgrounds are surrounded by 16' chain link fencing. No, the real sinister significance of the High Line is the fact that it is the newest and most prominent example of two decades of projects throughout the city where the social and industrial capital built up in the city over the centuries is being cashed in.

Field Operations tells us that the design is: "Inspired by the melancholoic, found beauty of the High Line where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure, the design team aims to re-fit this industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure." Now, despite the apparent attempts to confuse us by hyphenating refit, it is evident that in actuality the design team took a photo of the High Line, photoshopped it to make it more palatable to a larger and richer constituency, and then sold it. It is less the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and more Battery Park City. This is landscape as economic generator- selling the image of something in order to create economic investment from hotels, restaurants, and high-end real estate. Mayor Bloomberg has proudly proclaimed as as much. To wit, the last experience on the High Line is an eye level view of a billboard and the chance to ponder buying Armani's new style based on the dimpled-ness and abdominal definition of their current model.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing; pragmatically it is a good way to get a bigger design fee and draw attention, get rich constituents on your sid, and bag a new commission. The design stops the processes that were taking place by intervening, ossifying those processes, killing them to make a beautiful image, then selling it. And the place is left devoid of authenticity. One could debate the merits of this approach (though it is not debatable that this is the most common and acceptable approach for commoditizing our post-industrial landscapes) but the real problem here is that Field Operations' concept is disingenuous because they claim authenticity: "the singular linear experience of the new High Line landscape is marked by slowness, distraction, and an otherworldliness that preserves the strange wild character of the High Line..." In fact, they undermine that very character, capture an image of it, and sell it. Left behind is not a wild place that allows people access but a novelty park that is a boon to local real estate and restaurant owners with a huge maintenance budget and local alliances all pledged to maintain the "wild" look and keep unwanted users away.



And so the bell tolls for Field Operations with the realization of this cynical and disingenuous public space, and another unique space in New York City is polished up and postcard-ready. The details are lovely, and the very fact of its existence is novel and appreciable, but the concept is recycled from 1980's landscape design and the bombastic claims of its designer are a facade. The supposedly unique character of the High Line has been stultified and the current cultural meme, the photoshopping of the landscape, continues.