Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

It took me a while to love New York City, but the more I get of it, the more I love it. Here are just some of the structures that are part of the fabric of this bustling, energizing--sometimes enervating--city.

Toeing the line between the past and progress in Manhattan’s architectural landscape
Text and Photographs by: Carren Jao
Edited by: Judith Torres
Additional images courtesy of:
The High Line: Iwan Baan, 2009; James Shaughnessy, 1953; Author Unknown, 1934

Since the dawn of the 20th century, Manhattan’s architectural landscape has been a perpetual symbol of modernism. Each additional structure seems built on the energy of this city teeming with life, impatiently waiting for the wonders of tomorrow. Manhattan counts among its gems: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Hearst Tower, Lever House, the Flatiron Building, the Guggenheim Museum, Central Park––the list goes on and on, a list that makes designing new structures in Manhattan a daunting task.

How does one add to this already vibrant landscape? More importantly, how does one differentiate yet another addition to the city’s cramped quarters without losing sight of what is already present in the borough? These are questions without hard and fast answers, and here are some ways designers working in Manhattan have responded.

The High Line

Caught in the grip of the Second Industrial revolution, when progress continued to pick up speed with the advent of steam ships and railways, the City of New York authorized street-level railroad tracks on Manhattan’s West Side in 1847. Little did they know that such an act would also trigger a steady stream of tragic accidents resulting from freight train and street-level activity. 10th Avenue, where the railroad tracks were laid, became known as Death Avenue.

Years of public debate finally resulted in the approval of plans to create the High Line, a project that lifted railway away from pedestrian traffic in Manhattan’s then-largest industrial district. The High Line ran from 34th street to St. John’s Park Terminal, was 13 miles long, and cost an equivalent of $2 billion today. Instead of sidestepping major buildings, the High Line actually goes through many factories and warehouses, allowing train cars to roll inside the buildings in order to transport milk, produce, and raw materials for commercial purposes.

By the 1950s, interstate highways became the preferred mode of transportation. Railways, including the High Line, saw a drop in patronage. In 1980, the High Line ceased operations, carrying one last load of turkeys into Manhattan. In the intervening 30 years, the High Line sat abandoned. Weeds and wayward trees grew where mighty trains used to roar. Graffiti defaced the structure and demolition was in the cards. “A lot of people thought it was a blight,” Katie Lorah, Deputy Director of Communications for Friends of the High Line, said.

Fortunately, before demolition became a sealed deal, writer Joshua David met painter Robert Hammond during a community board meeting in 1999. They discovered a shared passion for the railway and soon after formed Friends of the High Line in an effort to save the viaduct. Their efforts caught the imagination of the city and made possible this New York fairy tale happy ending.

A decade later, on June 2009, they unveiled the first of three planned sections of the High Line. The second phase, which extends the renovations to 30th Street will open in the fall of 2010. The total cost for the High Line is projected to be $152.3 million.

The High Line has transformed a railway system into an aerial park lifted 30 feet above street level. From the ground, pedestrians are only privy to the structure’s six-foot deep steel beams and girders. If you’re not looking for it, the High Line literally passes over your head. But, as you ascend the stairway that ends on top of the High Line, you are greeted not by the signature ruckus of trains on the track, but nature’s serenity in the form of gray birch and Allegheny Serviceberry. As you walk along the path, concrete planks beneath your feet taper into comb-like teeth, giving way to seemingly naturally occurring patches of grass and shrubs. “Keep it wild,” say the signs on the waist-high patch of plants. In some cases, the planks peel up and transform into sustainable IPE wood—a perfect spot for luxuriating under the sun.

Though no longer abandoned, the High Line maintains its air of wildness by its mix of architectural and landscape elements fashioned by landscape architect James Corner, of James Corner Field Operations, architecture firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro and Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudolf. Over 210 varieties of trees, shrubs, and plants were cultivated based on the plant life that grew there during the High Line’s years of neglect.

The first section of the High Line expands and contracts along the original railway, giving visitors more space to mill about at some points. On the path looms the Standard Hotel, a mid-priced hotel straddling the pedestrian activity of the Meatpacking District below and the revived energy of the High Line. The viaduct also cuts through the High Line building on 14th street and the Chelsea Market on 15th and 16th streets.

Steel melds with plant life to become sanctuary. Unlike Central Park, Manhattan’s centerpiece of nature, the High Line is not an escape from the city, said Lorah. The allure of the High Line is that it embraces the industrial, yet adamantly maintains its untamed spirit. It’s a heady mix that obviously appeals to Manhattan’s driven city dwellers. [continued in the next post]

The High Line
From Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues

Open from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM daily.
(212) 500 6035


Jen Laceda | Milk Guides said...

Love the Highline. Love Manhattan. I miss living there.

Carren said...

Me too! I love the peace and quiet up there. We should go when you come visit the city! :)

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