Mystery of the High Line

My son Billy stands next to iconic trackage at New York's High Line. (Photos by David Brussat)

My son Billy stands next to iconic trackage at New York’s High Line. (Photos by David Brussat)

My son Billy and I visited the High Line in New York City for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been dilatory in getting photos up. We started after sitting at outdoor seats for a while watching people enter and leave the new Whitney Museum, designed by Renzo Piano and now open at the southern end of the pathbreaking new urban park.

The idea is marvelous, of course, using an abandoned elevated rail path through the once hardscrabble architecture of the West Side and a story above its streets. Today, the park has increased local property values and the proximity of the High Line (and its sky rights) has been invaded by new modern architecture, mostly regrettable (but I repeat myself). Fans of the urban greenscape will marvel at the variety of plant life; art fans will stop and gawk at some of the art plopped along the way. Urbanists will revel in the persistence of the architecture’s obtrusiveness, whatever they may feel about its style.

It has been said that the High Line represents the apogee of Landscape Urbanism. If so, then Landscape Urbanism – a nebulous concept to begin with – certainly will never achieve the success of its rival, the New Urbanism. Reviving the principles of city, town and village design that once created great places throughout what NU’ers call the “transect” (the scale of the land’s human density) will never be displaced by a concept of urbanism that relies on substituting greenery for hardscape so long as the value of urban space continues to skyrocket. Landscape Urbanism probably reached its apogee with the creation of Central Park. Even with the High Line, LU is bound to head downward from here on out.

I wanted to visit the High Line at dusk but we were too early, and I wanted to traipse the entire way to its conclusion, but our time was limited. My thought, as we turned back toward the new museum and the High Line exit, was “Is this all it is?”

No, I missed out on a lot of it this time, but there will be next time, and maybe at dusk so that we – perhaps I should say I – can indulge my inner Peeping Tom by gaping at the human comedy behind the windows that look at the park from its edgy edges. And I’m sure that the second half of the High Line will thrill me even more than the first half did. That may not be a high bar, but there you have it, and here are some photos:

DSCN6642 DSCN6625 DSCN6650 DSCN6654 DSCN6655 DSCN6657 DSCN6658 DSCN6660 DSCN6667 DSCN6661 DSCN6663 DSCN6665 DSCN6669 DSCN6674

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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9 Responses to Mystery of the High Line

  1. barry says:

    David’s post disappoints me. While the High Line does have some awful modern buildings along the route, it is still a net bringer of beauty to the neighborhood, through the plantings, the Hudson River views, the idea of reusing a historic industrial site for public enjoyment, and through the spirit engendered by diverse people enjoying themselves walking, strolling, or sitting in an area in our biggest city away from the traffic. I see no rivalry between enjoying vegetation and enjoying beautiful built structures.
    I’ve seen the same in the earlier Paris version, Viaduc des Arts (or “Promenade Plantee” on some maps) – what a way to enjoy Parisian streetscapes without the hassle of too many street crossings.
    We’ll never know if RI could have done something similar with the old Jamestown Bridge, now demolished.

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    • I don’t disagree with any of that assessment, Barry, but although I didn’t express 100 percent admiration for the part of it I saw, and looked forward to a more complete experience, I don’t think I said anything that puts enjoying the verdure up against enjoying the buildings.

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  2. John Norquist says:

    David and Ed,

    I walked the High Line in 1989 before it was decorated. My sister Janet, then a graphic artist at the NYTimes, lived in nearby Tribeca and knew how to access the abandoned tracks. The view and experience were spectacular, especially with the added thrill of trespass. I’ve visited the HL twice since its legalization as public Right of Way. I liked it in 89 and I still like it, but the main virtue of the High Line project was opening it to the public. Some of the public art and greenery will deteriorate the next time hard times hit NYC, but that won’t matter much because its fundamental attraction is the ROW itself and the adjacent neighborhood.

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    • Yes, John, the High Line is quirky and admirable in its conception. It is a distinctly different urban experience. Modern architecture I would automatically dislike takes on an invasive allure. I dislike the modern architecture around Waterplace Park in Providence, but it does do the job of creating the sense of an “outdoor room” for the space. It would perform the same task with far greater allure if the style of the buildings, at the same scale, were trad. But we must be grateful for small favors in our harsh built environment.

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  3. Justin Lee Miller says:

    Could we build a long narrow elevated park through a big city from scratch? I doubt it. Perhaps in a place like Rotterdam or Hamburg, and even then it would be difficult. You sort of have to start with a neighborhood no one cares about, but has enough old fabric to make the project worthwhile.

    Same question with the beloved Soho loft. Developers have been going crazy trying to replicate them or at least evoke them, and it always looks phony. Faux exposed brick? Who wants that?

    Is it possible to have nice things from the start, and not the warmed up leftovers of another generation?

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    • Justin, this is a chicken or the egg question. In order to get past the queasiness of inauthenticity in new traditional design you have to get beyond its relatively rare, one-off nature, which is the result of current inequities in the development process rooted in how the modernist establishment has sought to maintain its dominance in the field. You have to be willing to put up with some bad trad to reach the point where new tradition can pick up where old tradition left off.

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      • Justin Lee Miller says:

        My point is something different altogether. My point is that much of what is celebrated and sought after in New York is repurposed. From infrastructure like a grid not built for cars. Neighborhoods built for industry but now used for housing like Dumbo, Williamsburg, and Soho. Or a gorgeous old bank building turned into a CVS pharmacy or a Trader Joe’s. And, of course, the High Line. The High Line is the strangest of these because it’s virtually impossible to reproduce. Architects will rave about it, tourists will flock to it, academics will point to it as good adaptive reuse, but no one is going to build their own High Line from scratch.

        David Brussat’s reply to Justin: I agree with regard to the probability of another High Line that comes close to equaling its various attributes, but I think it is possible. As for other ways that the use of parts of New York has changed, yes – but this has been how cities have evolved for centuries. I don’t know how long this mostly positive feature of cities can be maintained when so much that is built can only be repurposed with difficulty.

        (I am trying to get around WordPress’s limit on the replies it allows to comments.)

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  4. Edward Keegan says:

    Synopsis: (1) I didn’t expect to like this. (2) I didn’t really see much of it. (3) I didn’t really like this.

    David, you really do need to see the entire thing–and to view it through the lens of urbanism, rather than setting it up as Landscape Urbanism versus New Urbanism.

    It’s really a remarkable work of infrastructure re-imagination, and an amazing asset to NYC.

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    • Ed, I don’t think that’s very fair, but I accept it, having set myself up for it, and would add only that I did actually praise the marvelous quality of the idea, and I did voice the hope of being more pleased by the second half next visit.

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