While walking on top of this New York’s old freight railroad I feel like travelling through time. At seven meters high I ask myself if that old modern utopia about dividing cars and pedestrians in overlapped levels was really preposterous. Maybe, as the Manhattan’s dreamers from the beginning of last century imagined, walking through sky-streets was not that absurd. What would Harvey Wiley Corbett say if he would be walking with me today?
Corbett dreamt of a city where each block would be an island surrounded by a flow of automotive traffic: a “Modern Venice” where each building would be accessed through a continuous network of elevated and arcaded walkways surrounded by shops, restaurants and all the necessary services needed to recreate the environment of a traditional street. Although his ideas remained unbuilt, the illusion of a three-dimensional circulation, where the movement of the horizontal city will be also spread vertically, would be on the birth certificate of many modern projects…and in the death one as well. Time, sometimes cruel with architecture, would eventually undress its weaknesses. “Our aim is to create real sky-streets so as to make people dependent on them to go into their homes (…) streets will be places, not corridors or balconies” used to say Team X’s member Peter Smithson. However, many of these streets ended being precisely corridors; long, uninhabited and dangerous corridors.
How to move in alternatives ways throughout the city has been a constant question for architects and urbanists. Still, history seems determined in proving us that the typical social interaction of the horizontal city could not be replicated vertically. For the philosopher Lieven de Cauter “(…) as soon as you leave the ground, there is the problem of feeling you are not in a real public space”. Maybe the Highline, unwittingly, will help answering the question.
The High Line is a lineal park that crosses southwest Manhattan from north to south. It works a bit like his older first cousin: the less fancy Promenade Plantée in Paris. It is a hanging garden that goes through Chelsea and Meatpacking districts, weaving a group of isolated blocks in its way. Its history is young, as the new Manhattan dreamers. In 1999 the two neighbors Robert Hammond and Joshua David got together to create “The Friends of the High Line”. They wanted to save the railroads from demolition because at the end, they thought, destroying them would have been more expensive for the city than turning them into a public space. The next step would be the one of his friend Joel Sternfled, a photographer that would spend some time documenting the landscape over the old structures. With his images the dream could be real; the nature had appropriated the High Line and showed the path to follow. Ten years later the project was done with not too much, it was a very precise intervention: some more steel, concrete, wood and of course greenery… lots of greenery. “We are constantly protecting the High Line from architecture” said Ricardo Scofidio. Some rails – like calling back memory – were left at their original place and also some vertical accesses were added too.
The High Line is a new paradigm of public space, not only because of its exquisite design but also because of its public-private management model: the responsibility for its maintenance is shared between New York City and the “Friends of the High Line”. The project has transformed southwest Manhattan and revalued each property in its wake. The buildings that used to deny it now are announced with “…a view to the High Line”. Maybe part of its success lies on the fact that it does not pretend to replicate the characteristics of a “traditional” street; the High Line does not depend on the activities next to it, but generates new conditions nurturing each adjacent building in multiple ways. Neither is it an infinite neutral corridor waiting for people to activate it.
A small theatre that descends towards 10th Avenue, an open cinema that projects over an old wall, a billboard that – instead of a posh perfume – frames pedestrians taking a break, sections where the railroads cut across old buildings (like Nabisco’s with its fantastic Chelsea Market) and elevated platforms that allow to have a walk between the trees. This linear park is a sequence of well-defined spaces, but different at the same time, which allows to occupy them in countless ways.
Probably Corbett would say that the High Line is really not his dream come true; looking down he would realize that there is still a flow of pedestrians and cars interacting on the ground. But I also bet he would agree with me that this old railroads generate a new condition: 1600 meters of a new, though oddly familiar, congestion.
Published in El Comercio the 07th of December 2012