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On a high!

A few years back on a half day transit stop in New York city I calculated that I have just about enough time to visit one place in the city before I had to dash back to the airport in time for my onward journey. Although I had been to NYC a few times before there was one project that I really had to revisit – so I headed west to the meat-packing district to see a landscape project, a kind of newly evolved species among urban gardens.

Like with any other cultural product (art, literature, architecture etc.), landscape too is a constantly changing field and with time it is possible to identify one exemplary example which best expresses the aspirations of an era.

In a lot of ways the High Line park, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSRNY), together with landscape architect James Corner and garden designer Piet Oudolf, is ‘the perfect garden’ of our times! The design was the winner of an open design competition that contemplated how the abandoned elevated railway line running through the meat packing district could be reused to benefit NYC. DSRNY designed the entire length of the High line as a series of simple landscapes strips that bring back the joy of walking through wild meadows to the heart of Manhattan.

The garden weaves it’s way between, through and above a series of buildings creating pockets for different programmes but above all creates an opportunity for New Yorkers to de-congest. In an interview a few years back Liz Diller, one of the key designers behind this project, explained beautiful “The high line, if it’s about anything, it’s about nothing, about doing nothing.” The high line offers a very different experience of New York City from plus 30 feet and is an amazing place to while away time watching people doing all sorts of things – walking, snacking, reading, exercising, relaxing and also doing nothing. 🙂

This is one of those amazing and rare projects which is meticulously detailed, yet it doesn’t lose focus of the larger picture. The success of the High Line, it is today one of most visited sights in Manhattan, has spawned countless similar regeneration efforts that mix infrastructure and landscape in innovative ways across the world (a few of the interesting ones being – the Hofbogen in Rotterdam designed by Doepel Strijkers, the Garden Bridge in London designed by Heatherwick Studio, Lines of Life in Singapore designed by Nikken Sekkei Architects, the 11th Street Bridge in Washington DC designed by OMA and the recently opened Skygarden in Seoul designed by MVRDV).

While I stroll on the High Line pondering about all this a rude alarm on my phone reminds me of my waiting flight! On the flight home, I wondered why every urban walkway couldn’t be like this? Imagine if the monstrous sky walks being built around the world (like the ones in our large cities – Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru) were treated with this sort of passion, overgrown with greenery waiting for garden lizards and butterflies to recapture their cities. Wouldn’t that be amazing!?!

P.S. I would recommend combining a trip to the High Line with at least half a day exploring it’s immediate context – Chelsea (with some great Art Galleries, the Chelsea market and lots of interesting eateries), seeing some of the great architecture that has come along the garden (including projects by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel) and a visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art.

All photos © Sahil Latheef



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