"In clinical psychology, voyeurism is the sexual interest in or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviors, such as undressing, sexual activity, or other activity usually considered to be of a private nature. In popular imagination the term is used in a more general sense to refer to someone who habitually observes others without their knowledge, with no necessary implication of sexual interest. Voyeurism (from the French voyeur, "one who looks") can take several forms, but its principal characteristic is that the voyeur does not normally relate directly with the subject of their interest, who is often unaware of being observed." - definition of voyeurism, Wikipedia
The opening of the High Line's Section 2 prompted me to make a visit in early June. My previous visits have been on tranquil, cool, breezy days, near sunset, and my response to the garden was almost a spiritual one, like an epiphany. I was curious to see if the time of day, the beautiful light, was the cause of that response. The day I chose was very hot and humid, and I went at noon.
|The High Line starts in the "cheek by jowl" Meat Market district. Hard to believe such a sublime experience has its origin in this hard edged, urban neighborhood.|
But first, some preliminaries. This time I visited the garden alone, and being alone allowed me to focus on the plantings and the experience of the High Line in a way I hadn't done before.
The "hanging gardens of Gansevoort Street" seem rather incongruous in this setting. But once you go up the stairs, you're in another world, meaning not natural at all, a theatrical creation of great artifice (and artistry).
The entry stairs make you look at the sky, and at the striking building of the Standard Hotel, which, cleft down the middle, with its arms folded toward you, draws you up.
Once on the upper level, the swank materials and finishes tell you you've clearly entered into a highly "designed" landscape, a sophisticated world in dramatic contrast to the gritty streets below. How ironic that the High Line, which bills itself as bringing nature into the city is, in fact, an extremely artificial construct. This is not a negative attribute.
As soon as you reach the top of the stairs, the plantings announce a profound change from the nether world of the street below. To one attuned to Piet Oudolf plantings, the delights start immediately. I do wonder what others, those who don't know who Piet Oudolf is and who don't particularly have an interest in plants, see. I have no idea.
The plant forms, textures, and colors play off one another, setting off a pattern of seeing that is reinforced by the design as you move along the linear park. On this visit, I was struck very powerfully by the "musicality" of the plantings. A visual theme will be introduced, perhaps two contrasting forms like the Carex and Amsonia in the image below, then that contrast will be carried on with other plants as you move along.
All the High Line plants are very much on public display. The artificiality of the situation--an expensive, well appointed yet severe platform elevated above the mundane world of the city--puts the plants on display, almost as if they were staged on a table. It's hard to avoid looking at the plants with anything less than intense concentration.
But that's not the whole story. The High Line design also makes you look at people. Again, as in a stage set, everyone is on display. Even the buildings along the line are on display, right in your face. We'll see examples of this below. Yes, there is a voyeuristic element to the delight of the High Line.
There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, that some residents of the Standard Hotel, which straddles the High Line (just visible in the upper left above), performed various lewd and lascivious acts in full view of the public when the park first opened. I don't know whether those stories are true, but the anonymity New York bestows, and the exhibitionism that anonymity makes possible, is very much a part of the experience of the High Line. Perhaps this is what accounts of the intensity of its effect on visitors.
I think this is akin to the heightened sense of awareness many feel when traveling to new places.
This lovely specimen of Red Bud (Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy') beckons for the attention of passersby almost like a harlot. (I jest, but there's some truth in the metaphor.)
And its color prepares the way, visually, for a "grove" of purple Smoke trees (Cotinus) just down the way.
This use of Cotinus is, I think, exemplary of the transformation the High Line can make in the way we see plants. I, like many gardeners, cut my purple Cotinus to the ground each spring. It gives them a much deeper color, though the bloom is lost. I've often seen Cotinus left to grow year after year in anonymous front yards and thought how ragged they look. Oddly shaped, scraggly. I've been quite critical of these plants that haven't been treated "properly."
Yet, by focusing attention just on that irregularity, that awkwardness--on the very things I normally would dislike--the High Line works a kind of transformation in the way I see. They are planted where they stand out in open space, "naked to the world" so to speak, and they are absolutely beautiful ... full of drama.
Are these people seeing and liking the Cotinus? I wish I knew. Note the people stand out even more than the plants. This, too, is part of the unique experience of the High Line--the voyeuristic focus on other people living their private lives in public. We'll see more of that below.
Speaking of voyeurism, here is a look down to the plaza area of the Standard Hotel. You can watch people from here too. And they can watch you.
And how about this thoroughly not private space? Think of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart leaning out his apartment window, watching his grotesque neighbors, and discovering something. He thinks it's murder. Remember his obsession with putting the pieces of the story together. His use of the camera (like me in this post). There, you've got it!
Not all the plantings shout at your. Some quiet musicality is going on. As you walk along the pathway, you may notice that a new plant will appear, then a little further along, several, or several groups will appear at irregular intervals, and further, perhaps a big clump or mass. These photos do not capture that, but it's one of the most moving parts of the High Line's design.
Many plants are used in similar "waves" of planting, appearing singly or a few at a time, gradually building to a crescendo, then diminishing in frequency, and all the while, other plants or combinations of plants repeat similar patterns.
As I walked the High Line on that hot summer day, I experienced something akin to a visual music, an almost abstract plant painting achieved through repetition of complex and changing patterns. It brought to mind an image of spiraling galaxies, their organization most visible at their dense, swirling centers, with dissolving arms of stars drifting off from the edges.
Like Jimmy Stewart. Putting the pieces of the story together.
The highly geometric foliage pattern of the native plant, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), calls attention to itself, particularly next to the bare gravel and hard, rust covered rails. (I think this is what the Japanese call Wabi Sabi.)
The combination of Amsonia hubrictii and Sumac above is certainly an intentional comparison of similar, yet differing, shapes and textures. This is another of those comparisons on put display for your pleasure.
The view off to 14th Street, another opportunity for "hidden" gazing at people and things.
An opportunity to lie down and take the sun, read a book, people watch--if you don't mind being watched yourself.
A flooded portion of the walkway offers a refreshing respite from the heat. A place to take off your shoes or sandals, and walk barefoot through the flowing water.
Of course, this isn't anything approaching nudity, but it is sensuous.
The shade of the Chelsea Market underpass is another way to beat the heat. It's certainly appealing to the senses, like most of the High Line, but isn't every garden supposed to appeal to the senses?
This is a garden?
Yes, an urban garden.
It's easy to see right into the offices ...
... but the vegetation provides some measure of privacy. Ha!
A male Sumac stands proud and erect.
The Northwest Spur Horticultural Preserve goes nowhere, but it's a striking artificial prairie, probably most beautiful in the fall. Here is probably as good a place as any to put the comparison of the High Line experience to voyeurism and exhibitionism in its place. These are certainly part of the defining characteristics of the High Line, as is delight in the plantings, as well as the opportunities for recreation, play, and socializing it provides.
Think back to the original garden, where Adam and Eve were happily naked, until they disobeyed the rules and gained knowledge of good and evil. Then they wanted to cover themselves. What does the High Line say about our culture? I think that is a valid question, though I'm not sure I have the answer.
A window on the world, or more accurately, 10th Avenue. Need I say more?
And next to it is this park-like setting, where a visitor can get a little shade, talk to a friend, maybe listen to her iPod.
A billboard. Can you see what it shows?
The High Line before it was the High Line. A clever juxtaposition of past and present. (But the old line shown here appears to be a section that has yet to be made part of the High Line park, a piece running east to west that would become part of Section 3, when, or if, it's built.)
We're nearing the end of Section 1 here. Section 2 is much narrower. It forces you to be closer to other visitors to the High Line. But leading into Section 2 is a prairie like area suffused with sunlight and openness, until it ends in a thicket of trees (called the Chelsea Thicket), then a new lawn.
Here is the lawn. By public demand. I don't care for it, but maybe I'll think better when the construction on the building on the right is completed. Does the High Line need to be all things to all people?
And what do we have here? Are these guys exhibitionists or just sun bathers on the grass? Am I a voyeur or just a passing stroller?
She, certainly, is taking a stylish stroll.
This striking building has a deck right up against the High Line ...
... and its owner has constructed a quite beautiful driftwood (natural material) screen to provide a bit of privacy. Privacy, who's kidding whom?
To be clear, I'm not panning the High Line. I love it. I believe most people who have visited it also love the experience. This park/garden is an extraordinarily creative endeavor that broadens the concept of what a garden can be. Though I repeatedly refer to its voyeuristic and exhibitionist meanings, I don't think those elements interfere in any way with enjoyment of the garden. History will probably tell us, if we seek it out, that these are also pleasures human beings have taken in gardens since the beginning of civilization.
People haven't changed that much!