The Friends of the High Line have released the preliminary design concepts for the High Line, the old elevated railway track in Manhattan’s West Side. Despite my support for preservation of the High Line and my unwavering jealousy of the people who have the balls to climb up there (which is technically illegal), I must confess that I am not feeling so excited about the current design proposals.
The High Line is a fantastic example of urban decay chic. The iron support pillars are rusty and covered in spray paint, while equally rusty railings and ornate iron details run all up and down the track. Abandoned and deserted stations quiety crumble up above the city, while grass and weeds snarl the tracks, ties, and exchanges sinking into the stones. Having never been up there myself must be content to browse through pictures that more daring people have taken; but suffice it to say that I love the way it looks as is. I heart urban decay. Most of this beauty will be gone once the renovation/preservation is complete.
This isn’t to say that the proposed design isn’t amazing. Much to the contrary. If you go through the little animated tour, you can really see some of the smart things they’ve done. For example, to maintain the overgrown, grass filled tracks the designers, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, have proposed using a combination of hard and soft materials to form organic walkways through the space; a hard surface winds through the area with softer edges transitioning into the grass, moss, and woodland flora around it. They’ve also built in what appears to be a glass bottomed wetlands, a beach like sun deck, and some interesting modular and adjustable seating options. In order to preserve city skyline views at night, ground lighting, rather than overhead street lamps has been added throughout the park, so that people can safely travel through at any point in the day or night.
Where is the line between preservation and and modernization? While the proposed design is quite beautiful, I’m not sure that it is preserving as much of the High Line as it should. In my estimation, preservation should not only encompass the original structure, but also the soul and feeling of the area. The proposed design sports giant, modern glass walls on the stairwells, and it appears that the iron struture will be painted grey. While the iron railings will be preserved, in order to meet city regulations, a mesh (read fany chain link) fences will rise above these Art Deco relics to eight feet tall (and up to eighteen feet in some places). This mesh apparently will have some sort of glass insets, which makes me think the effect will be more prison/greenhouse than park. The whole design is very slick and modern, with a slight nod to the current state through the walkways, wild flowers and a variety of grasses. Where is the rust? Where are any references to it being a train track at all?
It appears that the design was created with the “new” Meatpacking District vibe – sleek, glass, cold blue-neon nightmare hotels and clubs with their equally sleek and boreal clientele standing in lines six deep outside. Like the High Line, the beautiful old and decaying warehouses and buildings in the area are rapidly being turned into these “modern” structures, whether by completely gutting the old and maintaining load bearing walls or by bulldozing them completely. When I walk through New York’s older neighborhoods I don’t want to see giant glass staircases and gun-metal grey architecture. I want to see bricks and rust and iron – I want to see the history, I want to see the lives of the people who lived there reflected in the space.
I’m sure that whatever is eventually done with the High Line will be beautiful in it’s own right, but I’m worried that the intentions of the designers are falling in line with the developers, rather than historical preservation. I am not against change; but why change something that is so beautiful to begin with? It seems to me that this design is simply replacing a landmark with an elevated pathway, using the original supports and pillars in order to say that they’re “saving” the High Line. Saving isn’t the word I’d use.