Tuesday, August 02, 2011

High Line: Urban Theater in the Garden

"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!


  1. Hi James, it's been wonderful going along with you on your stroll. To me, people unwind and let go a bit more than they would on the street, simply by being in the presence of nature. For that reason alone, the High Line has value. In congested cities, putting a garden anywhere you can has a relaxing effect, though as you suggest, the overriding visiblity here may make visitors more aware of their relation to others than if they were in a 'private' garden space.

  2. Fantastic! I love this post it bought such life to the High Line and reminded me of walking part of the Promenade Plantée in Paris. There too it was impossible not to be as interested in viewing the people posed on the various seating areas or strolling the walkway, as enjoying the planting scheme.

    The more cynical side of me wondered how long before this is covered in litter and graffiti? Or, is it that being unable to unwind, relax and enjoy the presence of nature helps create a vandal free space.

  3. Thanks for one of the best blog reads I've had this summer. That the High Line has succeeded on so many levels is just a breath-taking design narrative with so many threads to follow. That it has succeeded brilliantly, drawing in people, businesses, tourism, raising local real estate values, is a vivid lesson I'm sure other cities must be paying close attention to. Probably the first great 21st century urban park.

  4. Oops - just noticed in my comment above I meant "is it that being ABLE to unwind... helps create a vandal free space".

  5. Dang, James, you've got a coffee table book already done. Get this to a publisher soonest.

  6. Yes, its just people using space isn't it. For all those purposes that they have used it for for thousands of years. Stunningly beautiful in its understated designey bits. Like the paving seeming to part for the vegetation or maybe the vegetation seeming to part the paving. Lots of good travel to offset the linear effect. Tho am I the only one to look at the before shot on this post and think: how amazing!
    Thanks very much for this, James

  7. Wonderful essay and commentary James, not to mention your stunning photographs. I feel no shame in being a voyeur, particularly in such an exquisite grarden of delights. I look forward to seeing the Highline with you again.

    Good work! Will

  8. Faisal, I agree with you. But I do think New York bestows beau coup anonymity, and that is an important part of the High Line experience. I know it played a major part in my decision to move here many years ago. With anonymity comes freedom if you're a "maverick" in any sense, or so it seemed at the time.

  9. Arabella, I have the feeling you will absolutely love the High Line (if you haven't visited it already). As to litter and graffiti, the High Line will remain clean so long as massive private funds continue to flow into its upkeep. Let's see what happens in 15 or 20 years. Frankly, it's hard to see how the present level of spiffiness can continue indefinitely. Thanks so much for you comment.

  10. Denise, you capture so much of what the High Line has accomplished, and you do it without my cynicism! "The first great 21st century urban park"--hope your prediction turns out to be true. I remember your post on the High Line, so you're a true connoisseur.

  11. Allan, no publishers are clamoring at my door. What can I do about that? Thanks.

  12. Robert, you always cut to the heart of the matter: just people using space to do what they do. It is a beautifully designed place, in all its details. There's one problem that that paving thing, though. People tend to walk into the grooves and loose their balance. There are little strings on metal rods all over the place to warn wanders away from that danger. Actually, there appears to be an effort underway to design a kind of guard to prevent tripping. I'll have to show it on another post. Thanks for the comment.

  13. Will, you were with me on my first BIG VISIT to the High Line. I look forward to visiting again with you. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  14. The lady with the parasol reminds me of images of old NY at the turn of the last century when ladies and gentlemen would promenade through Central Park showing off their finery while looking at what others were wearing and whose arm they may have been holding. Just as now, there may have even been the odd person here and there looking at the plants.

    I enjoyed this post!

  15. Great photos! I'm looking forward to seeing it myself someday. I rather liked the lawn -- if the other plants are music, then the lawn is a nice moment of silence.
    The awkward Cotinus reminded me of some very old, damaged boxwood I photographed at an old estate here in D.C.
    You have to reassess your usual idea of and reaction to the plant.
    Thanks for sharing your walk.

  16. Les, I like that lady with the parasol. And she needed it that day. I almost made it to the far end of Section 2 of the High Line, but I simply wilted in the heat. You're a master of understatement. "The odd person here and there looking at the plants." You're probably right.

  17. Those ancient boxwoods at Tudor Place are stunning! Thanks so much for that post; I missed it. Wouldn't it be great if they pruned them all up, and made them look like miniature trees, like giant bonsai?

  18. This is the best tour of the High Line I have seen. Not just a look at the park walkway and plantings, but a way to experience it. You have made me realize how an artificial and staged space can still be beautiful and restful and "gardeny", but also be an art installation, complete with buildings and streets as sculpture, people as dynamic elements, and all the plants as paintings.

    I have a whole new way to look at cotinus now!

  19. I think that might make some of the good ladies and gentlemen of Georgetown faint. But nature -- time and weather -- is shaping them in unexpected and enlightening ways anyway.

  20. You're right to hold the High line in high regard.

    I'm curious as to how things grow. Is there much depth of soil up there. Is it high maintenance?

  21. Wonderful post, James, this is the next best thing to actually visiting (which I hope to do, someday). I love how you link it with a sensuality...which, let's be honest, should be the case with most gardens (even if not always with a sexual connotation). Even without the context of it's location...what is any garden buy constant sex...every plant striving to grow and reproduce within the span of a few months. What seems benign is constant drama, unfolding before our eyes. I love Oudolf...but you're right...I wonder what others unfamiliar with the style think about it...if they notice the patterns you did (even if just subcounsiously)...shouldn't SOMEONE write a book about this garden already!?!

  22. Laurrie, glad you enjoyed the walk (on my terms). And thanks for telling me the post made you see something in a new way. I think that is the essence of the High Line. Though I love the overgrown Cotinus on the High Line, it won't look the same in my garden. I don't have a place where you would see it against the sky. So I'll continue to cut mine to the ground each spring.

  23. Rob, it's really a huge green roof. I don't know the exact soil depth, but I believe it's only a few inches. That raises the question of how trees are planted. Some are in raised planters with Corten steel finishes, but other trees appear to be planted "at grade" so to speak. Perhaps there is some kind of "well" of soil to get more depth for the roots. I don't know, and I haven't found any information on that on the internet. But I do know most of the perennials are in very shallow soil. I should talk a park tour so I can ask those questions. I always see gardeners maintaining the plantings, so I do believe it's a high maintenance planting.

  24. Scott, interesting subject--sex in the garden. Certainly, a garden should, first of all, appeal to the senses. I firmly believe that, though some "conceptual" gardener fans might disagree. But I'm certain sexual uses of gardens go back many centuries. I recall that Tim Richardson gave some space to that subject in his The Acadian Friends, his historical/cultural book on the history of the English garden from the17th through the 18th centuries. And, of course, there's the Garden of Eden. But I'm sure less than 1% of the High Line visitors give even a passing thought to all this. It would be interesting to find out what people "see" when they visit the High Line. While it can be a very peaceful place, you at the same time can be almost in a state of sensory overload, with the plantings, all the people, the views into the city. Repeat visits make it easier to sort our all the stimuli. Surely someone is writing a book on the High Line. Several, probably.

  25. James,

    The first time I saw the Highline, it was quite a religious experience for me. It was recognizable Oudolf in style, but in an entirely new, more American way. He captured the fallow feel of the previously abandoned rail lines, but in an artful, cutting edge way. Brilliant.

  26. Thomas, I'd really like to hear more about your experience seeing the High Line. My last visit, at high noon on a very hot day was less "spiritual" than past visits, but more mesmerizing because of my intense awareness of the evolving planting patterns, waves of pattern, experienced over time. I haven't been able to put what I experienced in words yet. It was the excitement of discovery of the new, yet at the same time, the familiar--something like an invisible, or ineffable, "breath" that carried me along in a kind of delightful poise.

  27. I finally got to see the High Line this weekend, and have referenced you and your wonderful picture essay in my blog post about it.

    I have pored over these pictures and your thought provoking description here so many times, and was afraid actually being in it would not live up to what I was expecting! But the park did not disappoint. It was a great experience for me on so many levels. Now I need to go back and walk it slowly and do it all again!

  28. Laurrie,
    I'm glad to hear to got there and liked it. I was there last week, just two days after Irene, and the High Line was looking rather weather worn. I still enjoyed it, and in fact, was pleased to see that it can even be appreciated when the plants are not in their most pristine condition (lots were sort of flattened by the heavy winds and rain). The High Line does bring nature into the city, and even the damaged plantings have meaning. From looking at your photos, I see they have recovered. Asters were just beginning to bloom in little spurts when I was there, but I see them going full steam in your photos.

  29. Great journey James - many thanks.

    I walked the first section in 2010 and again the whole route a couple of times last summer. Even better, my two kids (21 and 24) ran the length one morning and we all had breakfast in Chelsea when I caught up.

    New York is so lucky to have these new gardens, now how about you and some other bloggers come and write about our Olympic Park and also an amazing under valued park by the Thames barrier?



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