Higher and Higher

Barry Munger
The Chelsea Thicket, which marks the beginning of the newly completed middle portion of the High Line, New York City, May 2011

Rarely do additions to works of architecture or engineering by the same designers who created the originals attract as much comment as the initial installments. Thus there was some question as to just how much excitement could be generated by the debut this June of the second segment of the High Line, the innovative park created atop the long-derelict New York Central Railroad freight trestle that runs along Manhattan’s far West Side between the Meatpacking District and Midtown.

Upon its inauguration, in 2009, the first portion of this landscaped thirty-foot-high promenade—which extends from Gansevoort to West 20th Streets, or roughly one third of the scheme’s entire projected length, with the second part now open between West 20th and West 30th Streets—was greeted with universal praise, and rightly so. Seldom in modern city planning has a single work of urban design brought together and synthesized so many current concerns, including historic preservation, adaptive reuse of obsolete infrastructure, green urbanism, and private-sector funding and stewardship of civic amenities.

Happily, the same elated reaction that greeted the first segment occurred again this summer, as the newly completed middle portion of the High Line revealed that rather than being simply more of the same, the park is evolving into a much more varied experience than many had anticipated. The second half-mile stretch feels different from the first in that its route is straighter and narrower (two tracks wide as opposed to four in the southernmost section). It makes fewer jogs and lacks the extravagantly sweeping arc of the northern end of the viaduct, which, if it is built, would bring the High Line to a dramatic culmination when the whole project is finished.

Because all the park’s components are being executed by the creative team comprised of two New York–based architectural and planning firms, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio+Renfro, along with the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf, the High Line feels wholly consistent and yet never repetitive throughout its mile-and-a-half length. For example, at West 26th Street, the design team has created the Viewing Spur, a bleacher-like observation perch that is a virtual cousin of Tenth Avenue Square, the much larger wooden amphitheater at the viaduct’s widest point on West 17th Street. But the Viewing Spur differs from the Tenth Avenue Square because of a huge, empty, oblong metal rectangle (the size of advertising billboards once mounted on the trestle’s parapet) that playfully frames the street below like the outline of a movie screen.

Once again, Oudolf’s selection of botanical material is superb. This summer it featured such flowering perennials as allium, catmint, coral bells, cranebill, rosemary, salvia, and yarrow, along with trees and shrubs including chokeberry, holly, magnolia, redbud, roses, sassafras, and shadblow. His random-looking…

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