All my regular readers and anyone even remotely tapped in to the pulse of New York architecture know, of course, that I'm talking about the High Line Park by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (2011).
In another sense, I'm sort of glad that I chose this moment to go to see it, because the second phase, from Twentieth to Thirtieth Streets, was only just completed. I suspect I got a much more full impression of what this project is all about because there was more of it to become acquainted with for me than if I'd gone last summer.
My companion for the day was actually my mom. We've discovered that the cultural events we enjoy seeing together are not limited to performances at Lincoln Center or museum shows, and include things like this. She's been open to the topic of architecture and design through my devotion to the subjects and, for instance, was nearly as transfixed by the writings of Ada Louise Huxtable as I was when I lent her the book. But this is not her main area of interest. Like me, she is a sponge for learning and information, and where our expertise overlaps I think is in communication and language. Only I've been applying them to the visual arts and especially architecture. She's a great person with whom to have discussions about architecture and design for the very reason that her experience with it and opinions are not shaped by the blinders of an "insider's" view, if that's what you'd call me. In a way, they're much more pure and less elitist or overly academic.
The true triumph of the High Line is that in our own separate ways, and in many other ways that intersected, we both thought it was glorious and wonderful.
Speaking of museums, our day actually started out trying to get into the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan museum. That just wasn't meant to happen. I won't go into it, but at a certain point I realized our luck was not going our way at the Met and we should just leave and forget it. That will need to be a later post.
I was glad to have my camera in the vicinity of this first building, because I think it's so cool. It's the Westyard Distribution Center (1970), by Davis, Brody & Associates.
It's just so massive and imposing. The way it narrows toward the top hints at something ancient, namely a pyramid, but it also has the effect of making the building appear taller than it is. One small detail I never noticed before was at the corner piers. If you look closely, the two perpendicular walls are cracked open by the tiniest sliver. So while, from afar, they look heavy and strong, when you get up close, they turn paper thin.
We started our journey at the northern end of the High Line at Thirtieth Street and walked south.
I wanted to look at the very northern end and noticed that it turns west toward the river, what could potentially be an incredible approach to the Hudson river if they decide to continue it. I assume that this would transport materials from barges on the river to the factories and warehouses in the Meat Packing District and back again. I tried to determine if the small amount of building materials piled up on the other side of the chain link fence were reminiscent of the ones used for the new park and indicating that they do intend to continue northward, but it was difficult to tell.
We were talking about how, if they do continue northward, it would make the perfect junction with what has been discussed as incredible new development over the west side rail yards, something west Midtown has been sorely needing for years.
The High Line's plantings are really remarkable. Having the not-yet-renovated section at the north to use in comparison is great. You can see how the new flora very much appears as if it grew there by chance, but more beautifully than were they mere weeds.
A coworker was telling me about some friends whose apartment overlooks the High Line. One of them writes little plays and then they perform them out their windows for people who happen to be passing by. First of all, only in New York. Secondly, what an absolutely fantastic idea. Thirdly, I think it only goes to prove what a work of genius and transcendental success this park has been, that it was not only highly creative in conception and execution, but that it has given rise to further bursts of creativity. I wonder if this building is where my coworker's friends live.
One minor problem I noticed in this northern section is the width of the path. The fact that it would be so easy to correct if they chose to do so is another wonderful thing about the design. Now that I'm thinking about it, however, I believe it was intentional. What I'm talking about is how the path is just not quite wide enough for two pairs of people to walk side by side in opposite directions without one of them needing to step out of the way. The measurements for that would be so easy to determine, and must be entirely ingrained in the minds of DS+R, whose work so often rejoices in the pedestrian. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I'll need to conclude that forcing visitors to mingle in this way encourages a sense of community that the city below often makes it all too easy to avoid.
The furnishings are also extremely well-designed. And that I can say they are designed--in fact, designed into the very fabric of the park--is one of the things that makes this whole project a true work of art. I really loved the warm, dark tone of the wood against the cool grey stone and the greenery. Further south in the older section, it becomes apparent that the wood will weather to a grayish color, as well, making for less of a contrast but blending into the stone quite nicely: a change of material without a change in color.
Starting at Twenty-Seventh Street, the path rises up above the level of the plantings and remains over it all the way down to mid-block south of Twenty-Fifth. Further expression of what this has accomplished is in that there are smaller gravel paths accessing the plantings but are restricted to maintenance staff.
It's as if DS+R wanted to completely remove all human interference with the natural landscape from this section of the park, to allow it to grow unfettered and undisturbed, something that happens virtually nowhere else I can think of on the island of Manhattan and in probably not anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens, either. Looking over the edge, I noticed that they were planted rather sparsely. I was curious if this was intended to grow in naturally over time to completely fill in, and perhaps also other plants that happen to find their seeds there by chance. I love that idea and actually have an "orphan plants" garden on my fire escape where I nurture whatever plants happen to pop up in my pots (unless they're bad weeds).
In the middle of the raised section is another very interesting moment. It was the first of many occasions I found to observe what I'll call "the theater of urban life," something for which DS+R should be famous if they aren't already. Lincoln Center is just chock full of them (come on my tour and ask me, I'll show them all to you). On the other side of this wooden bench, which faces the footpath, is another bench facing the opposite direction that looks out onto Twenty-Sixth Street. It's essentially inviting you to just sit and watch the city.
Even more interesting, though, are these arms that branch off in seemingly random directions. One of them looks back onto those wooden benches and, although somewhat obscured by greenery, focuses your attention again on the other visitors to the park. Another one I found particularly indicative of their concept because of at what it encourages you to look...or more precisely, what it doesn't. This protruding balcony invites you to step out to the end of it, but only to show you something perfectly ordinary, a plain gray warehouse building now presumably offices for some graphic design firm or similar. It's as if DS+R are asking you to look more closely at the banal details of a city which so often reeks of the tacky spectacular.
Now we arrive at the first of the crazy new buildings to go up because of the High Line that one discovers when traveling south. This one is 245 Tenth Avenue (2009) by Della Valle + Bernheimer, who have since split into two firms. Taken in and of itself, this is a pretty cool building. The unfortunate thing about it is that the two things it has going for it--namely its unusual angularity and its random pattern of windows--were both accomplished much better and more suavely by two other buildings in its immediate vicinity that I'll get to below.
And they come at you rapid-fire after this. The whole neighborhood has been stuffed full of unusual buildings. The next is the one that I think pretty decidedly carries its angularity with more strength. Not only that, but the way it expresses its engineering in response to its profile is fascinating. This one has gotten quite a lot of press so many of you probably know that it's HL23 (2010) by Neil Denari.
Immediately next door to this is another one, High Line 519 (which I sort of by accident pronounced the way I think it's supposed to be: "High Line Five-One-Nine") by Lindy Roy. I had already looked into Roy, because she designed the new art gallery at the Metropolitan Opera House. I'm sure that guy sticking his head out the window with I guess his daughter? thought I was taking a picture of him, not realizing they'd be nothing more than a blurry dot in the image.
Down a little way from those is a group of tiered platforms that have a sort of amphitheater (of urban life) feeling to them. It's the same wood, presumably, as the benches that will similarly weather to a lighter gray. While it's most likely constructed with a frame of steel or some other metal underneath, I really liked how at the edges, it's made to look like wooden planks stacked up as if in a lumberyard. It's a great little detail that celebrates the industrial history of this neighborhood.
General Theological Seminary anyway because I've always thought it was such a beautiful building. The architect was C. C. Haight, and most New Yorkers will know that it has an incredible and rather large walled garden in the middle of the block that I assume is closed off to the general public.
Jean Nouvel's 100 Eleventh Avenue (2010). I've been intending to go get a nice long look at this one ever since it was completed but just haven't had the chance. It remains an unfortunate side note in this story. My mom even said in a rather funny matter-of-fact way, "I don't think we're seeing the best view of that building." We had sort of discussed getting a better look at it on our walk back uptown, but at that point all we really wanted was a glass of wine. This view does in any case show the randomized window patterns I mentioned above in regard to 245 Tenth. More on this one in a future post.
Right across the street from Nouvel's is Frank Gehry's IAC Building, which I won't bother to discuss here since I already wrote a whole post dedicated to it.
Annabelle Selldorf, which didn't particularly need to be built, and the equally bland Metal Shutter Houses in between them. But the Shutter Houses are by Shigeru Ban and should not be underestimated. The shutters refer to giant garage doors that open up residents' entire wall to the outside. Absolutely astonishing when you think about it. I am curious, as one article pointed out, as to whether winds would ever be calm enough blowing in off the river--not to mention at the right temperature--for residents to take advantage of the shutters.
Opposite this are a beautiful old red-brick tenement building and two of the newer additions to the neighborhood. Nearest the High Line is another project by Della Valle + Bernheimer, 459 West Eighteenth Street (2009). This one was said by at least one critic to be more successful than the one above. I'm not all that convinced. The black and white marking off of two very distinct blocks in the massing is a little bit too obvious for my taste. If it were me, I'd use a more subtle difference in texture or something along those lines. In its defense, the slanted windows in the top three floors are very cool, and evidently at a certain time of day, sunlight streams into one of those windows and back out the other side.
The one further from the park is the Chelsea Modern (2008) by Audrey Matlock. Although I think she's done more striking work than this, it's quite a fine building. What you'd never notice from this far away is how the zigzagging bands of glass intersect one another at tiny junctions. It's just one small detail that helps to elevate the building to a higher level of artistry.
Shawn Hausman in the hotel's design. Here is the elevator lobby on the top floor. I realize you can't see much, but the abstract quality of this image only serves to amplify the otherworldly quality it had in abundance.
Gratefully, the one hostess recommended that we look at the restrooms. I'm glad she did because they truly are astonishing. There's a large number of individual little rooms off a branching, angular hallway. The ones on the inside are completely black with only the dimmest vertical bar of red light at a couple of their corners. They have to be impossible to photograph well. Even with a tripod and a long exposure time, I think the quality of the (lack of) light would be distorted at best.
|Photo by Ginny Raffa.|
A lot of restrooms that play with these ideas of modesty and exposure will employ glass that automatically frosts over when the door is locked or the lights are turned on. It's possible these windows do that, but I don't think so. It's possible that the light inside is so dim that even after dark, you'll see not much more than a reflection on the glass from the outside; New York never gets very dark, anyway, except in a blackout. If nothing can be seen from outside, it's more just an effect for the guest using the restroom. I was reminded of the public restroom I'd heard about in Times Square but never got a chance to see. It was inside a box of one-way mirrored glass. Doing your business, you could see out, but no one could see you. Evidently the challenge to one's sense of modesty was still quite powerful.
While the plays performed by people in apartments overlooking the High Line are presumably more or less legitimate, if avant-garde, the funny thing here is that the performances going on inside the Standard's room windows have evidently been more along the lines of amateur erotica. There have been sightings of various sex acts being put on display at times. In the bar's restrooms, this is practically enforced.
At this point, there's only one building even remotely close enough to the Standard to see anything, it's not completed yet, and appears possibly to be offices, not residences. I have a feeling, though, that any residences there or in future buildings to go up will be absolute paradise for perverts with telescopes. It makes it all the more ironic that for whatever reason, they have a problem with seeing men's legs, which I'll get to below.
In any case, they are some of the most incredible interiors I've seen in a very long time. It's the work of Roman and Williams. It starts with Modernism from the early-twentieth century, when the High Line was built, at the ground floor. The inspirations move forward in time as you rise to the top of the building. Their inspiration for the bar was Warren Platner, a designer of prominence in the 1960s and '70s, who also worked with Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and Raymond Loewy.
This makes it all the more disappointing, especially considering my great respect for the design, that the attitude was overpowering. Attention Boutique Hotels. You want something other than a derisive warning to Stay Away from (with all humility) savvy and knowledgeable writers like myself? Instruct your employees on this very important fact, of which we've been reminded time and time again where I work: you never know who it is you're encountering. For all they knew, I was the multi-billionaire best friend of the hotel owner's son being treated like an interloper.
I was wearing shorts. It was about ninety-five degrees outside, for crying out loud. I wouldn't say the hostesses and security were "condescending," but they were about as unaccommodating and unwelcoming as they could possibly have been without descending fully into condescension. They have a dress code: No Shorts. Despite the fact that they were not open, there were no patrons to be seen anywhere, and they were quite obviously still merely setting up for the evening's crowd, I was permitted only the most fleeting glance at the bar proper, and not without a quickly-diffused admonishment from one of the security guards.
Racist because they very often are designed to keep out an element perceived as troublesome: the "thug" element, which usually refers to Black men. "No Sneakers," for instance: this makes no concession whatsoever to whether the sneakers in question happen to be a $30 pair from K-Mart or one-of-a-kind Nike prototypes worth thousands of dollars.
Sexist because men are required to be covered from head-to-toe, but women, and most prominently the hostesses themselves, I have absolutely no doubt can be wearing the tiniest miniskirts and enter unimpeded to adorn the space like furniture in all their sexually objectified splendor. If the Standard has a "no thong showing in your ass crack above low-rider jeans" dress code, I'll give you a billion dollars. While this next statement is unfortunately tinged by male privilege, I'll also add that women may therefore dress appropriately for the summer temperatures, while we men must be overdressed and uncomfortable. They didn't mention my sleeveless shirt, but I can imagine they probably don't allow tank-tops, either.
Classist because these codes are so often based in what is typically a white middle-class assessment of what garments are appropriate or inappropriate in a given environment. This is a cultural construct with opposing alternatives. Ironically, it's not aristocratic. Many of the unusual, avant-garde garments found at the highest price points would be frowned-upon, also (and were with me, at the 21 Club. We ate elsewhere).
Heterosexist because in the more conservative venues they would in no way account for the many varied ways individuals choose to express their gender identities. How would the bigoted host of an expensive old-school restaurant apply their "dress code" to a woman with short-cropped hair wearing a man's tailored suit, for instance?
While I'll be the first to invite anyone to enjoy the fun of dressing up sharp for the pure pleasure of doing so on a special night out, I call for the boycott of any business strictly employing dress codes to enforce their outdated and disgraceful discrimination. This kind of thing has no place in a city as diverse and multicultural as New York. I want no part of it at all.
We ended our day with a big pitcher of sangria and a little food at another one of my favorite buildings in New York, the National Maritime Union Building (now the Maritime Hotel, 1966), by Albert C. Ledner.
my criticism of Michael Graves' project for Donald Trump. But the obviousness of the porthole windows here works so much better because of its 1960s context. For Pop, the more obvious a symbol was, the more successful it could be to accomplish what was needed in this time of questioning and transition. Furthermore, it's a warm and kind gesture considering that the original guests would have been presumably ship captains and the like, as if in an attempt to help them feel more at home away from home.
There's also a bit of wear and tear that could never have occurred in the short time this has been in use as a hotel, and which it would make no sense to employ as a sort of false aging technique, especially since most 1960s interiors work was so slick and glossy. I really hope their fireplace is still operational. What a delightful place to hang out on a cold winter's night.
Over dinner, I was talking about how I'll be interested to see the High Line again after it's settled in to itself, so to speak. It's too new now, and hasn't found its rhythm. There are too many tourists, too many people going to see it for the first time (and of course, I was guilty of that myself), it's too novel for too many of its visitors. It will be interesting to see how, when the buzz dies down, how it will be used by its regulars. The other thing is that Central Park, in comparison, has not only a century-old rhythm in place, but it's also much larger. The amount of tourists who visit Central Park could never be enough to dilute the rhythms of its local regular users (and I've often been surprised by how many tourists do go, if only to sit and eat lunch--I mean, most of these people come from places where there's a forest out their backyard, and the rest of them from places that also have parks). The High Line, on the other hand, feels inundated at the moment, overwhelmed. I'll be pleased to see how it grows into the landscape of the city over time.
So there's my visit to the High Line Park. As an added side note, if you're interested in learning more, 92Y is hosting a talk by Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Charles Renfro at 8PM on October 4th. It appears they'll be discussing the park and also Lincoln Center, which I'm very excited to hear, although I already know just about everything there is to know about that.
All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte, unless noted.