The High Line: When Architecture Really Isn’t the Answer

Architects can’t resist the lure of buildings—even if the brief doesn’t really call for them.

What is it with architects and buildings? Why, when given half a chance—and in the design competition in question they may have been given even less—do they insist on architecture? We’ve just enjoyed several decades during which the field’s thought leaders struck the theme of architectural universalism again and again with epic force. Architects, the thinkers argued from their redoubts in the finer schools, were capable of taking on any problem, scale be damned; they were the natural go-to professionals for the reconsideration of the tools of everyday life at the domestic scale—what else were all those Graves teapots telling us?—as well as the problem solvers to call first with any questions about the disposition of urban space. The Bauhaus-born idea that architecture’s ambit spans from “the spoon to the skyscraper” may be the only early Modernist tenet to persist unquestioned.

And why not: there’s jobs in it. During the recent boom and bubble years, when fees could be readily passed on to the consumer, architects made impressive inroads on the retail front. More recently they have triumphed at the opposite end of the size spectrum, usurping urban planners in the urban-planning job of the century at Ground Zero. But now we have the High Line, and the misplaced prejudice for buildings seems stronger than ever.

The future use of that nearly one-and-a-half-mile stretch of abandoned elevated railway along Manhattan’s West Side has been considered ever more urgently in recent years, a discussion promoted by that rusty white elephant’s effective lobby, Friends of the High Line, established in 1999. Last summer the Friends unveiled the finalists in a design competition that drew more than 700 entries from 36 countries. The purpose of the group since its inception has been to promote the idea of a linear park on top of the unused 30-foot-high, 30-foot-wide rail bed. The place has been taken over by native wildflowers, and the Friends’ admirable goal has always been to preserve that unlikely wilderness snaking through and above the galleries and gas stations of West Chelsea; comparison to the Promenade Plantée, in Paris, is made endlessly. But with one notable exception, the four architect-heavy teams chosen as finalists sought answers to the subtle problem through the blunt tool of architecture. (Unfortunately the winner, announced at press time, wasn’t that exception.)

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It seemed a strange choice of strategy given that, apart from the local landowners a noncommercial reuse would discomfit, everyone—civic advocacy groups; the many elected public officials drawn to the cause; Joshua David and Robert Hammond, the entrepreneurial cofounders of the Friends—professes to love the High Line just the way it is: untamed, raw, and alluringly forbidden. So what was Zaha Hadid thinking, fresh from her surprising Pritzker Prize win, when she submitted a proposal to layer on a train of spoogie default-mode Zaha Hadid buildings? “The buildings connect it to the neighborhood,” she said at the unveiling in July. But the evidence of her design suggested her heart was in another connection—and she admitted as much when presenting it: “The project is a great opportunity to connect to current discourses that all have to do with morphology and the landscape.”

Other finalists also smothered the High Line with alien forms and ideas. Though he said he was “not wedded to any of them,” a team led by Steven Holl nonetheless proposed to root its plan in ideas for buildings. Holl’s team offered up the most daring poetry of the four in its statement—“We see the High Line as a suspended green valley in the Manhattan Alps”—but the images said something else: Let’s build! There were several pavilions that recalled the blocky aloofness of Holl’s trailblazing 1981 project for the High Line, “Bridge of Houses,” and there was another that echoed a form so dear to the architect—a kind of spiral in tortured prismatic bars—that he has already proposed it three times before on Manhattan’s West Side alone (years ago as a rebuke to Donald Trump’s Riverside Drive South development, and twice at different scales for Ground Zero). In places the High Line is cradled by low-rise tenements and high loft buildings; elsewhere it passes through gentrifying old warehouses. The appeal of the thing is as a respite from construction—is there not enough old-fashioned architecture all around?

The winner was avant-garde landscape architecture partnership Field Operations in collaboration with Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, who have recently and quite generously added the name of a long-serving colleague, Charles Renfro, to their shingle. This team did not propose an excess of buildings for a project that needs none—though they would interrupt the flow on high with an amphitheater—but neither did they leave well enough alone. “What will grow here?” they asked—a question that allowed them to frame the task in the trendy language of experiment and discovery with which all the parties are most comfortable. So the High Line becomes a canvas for games of the mind—quite enough of which are being played in the galleries nearby. The design calls for a slow bleed between different ecologies—tall grass plains, young woods, “mosslands,” and so on. Can the High Line support a wetland for aster, carex, and verbena? Yes, it can. But to make it do so because it’s possible seems a touch mannered. Diller said the team cleaved to “a mini-manifesto of four words: slow, illicit, unruly, synthetic,” but the only quality they managed to evoke in this rigidly overdetermined plan is the last.

The best hope for giving the High Line what it needs—access, a light grooming, and very little else—was the plan proposed by the last of the finalists, a team led by landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh; celebrated brownfield revitalizer Julie Bargmann, of D.I.R.T. Studio; the much maligned urban design powerhouse Beyer Blinder Belle; and A.R.O., New York architects known for eschewing form for form’s sake. This team named itself TerraGRAM—a reference to Archigram, the experimental partnership of the 1960s with which they profess to share a belief in “the primacy of time and process in the service of program and invention” and an aversion to “the ‘form obsession’ of the 20th century.” That sounds like a standard-issue architectural platitude, but their ideas bear it out. TerraGRAM’s High Line looks the most like the one that has so successfully ensorcelled supporters of such divergent taste in design as Martha Stewart and Mayor Bloomberg. Indeed apart from a walkway, a fine-tuning of plantings to suit the various microclimates of the place, attention to a few toxic hot spots, and a well-considered scheme for phasing access—beginning with a devilish idea to simply roll up what Bargmann called “one of those airplane stairway thingies”—it’s hard to tell what TerraGRAM would add.

This team alone had the confidence, and the humility, to let the High Line be the High Line. There’s one proposed new structure overhanging the railway at it’s southern terminus in the Meat Market, but—exhibiting the light hand of A.R.O. at its lightest—it doesn’t even come close to overshadowing the main event: an elevated path through the city, the simple experience of which—not architecture—is the goal.

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