Harnessing Friction on the High Line

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In 2103, the Museum awarded the fifteenth Vincent Scully Prize to Friends of the High Line co-founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, for their work in creating one of the most successful urban revitalization projects to date. Under their leadership, the High Line has become an international model for other reuse projects and community activism. Since its first section opened in 2009, the High Line has served as a catalyst for the re-development of Manhattan’s West Side and has prompted more than $2 billion in investment in the neighborhood.

Friends of the High Line co-founders and winners of the fifteenth Vincent Scully Prize, Joshua David and Robert Hammond.

The Vincent Scully Prize and endowment were established by the National Building Museum in 1999 to recognize exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design. The Museum honored Vincent Scully himself with the first Vincent Scully Prize in 1999. The prize grew rapidly in international prominence with the selection of laureates known for their advocacy of thoughtful urban spaces and historic preservation, exemplary practice of planning and design, commentary on design in contemporary life, and promotion of traditional arts in architecture.

The Prize was presented with an original talk by Mr. David and Mr. Hammond. In “Harnessing Friction”, they discussed how the High Line tapped the seemingly incompatible forces of money, real estate, and politics versus community, preservation, and design to create new kind of public place for the 21st century.

National Building Museum Online sat down with Joshua and Robert to discuss the process of taking the idea of the High Line and turning it into a reality.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): What role did community outreach play in seeing the High Line project through to completion?

26th Street Viewing Spur, recalling the billboards that were once attached to the High Line, a frame now enhances, rather than blocks views of the city, at West 26th Street. ©Barry Munger, 2011

Robert Hammond (RH): Community outreach played such a critical role in this project since it really started from the neighborhood of supporters. So many big projects like this start from the top down—whereas the High Line began with a group of residents wanting to do something so early on in the process. Actually, Josh and I met at a community board meeting, and much of our organizing was with people in the neighborhood. These were folks that were outside the normal community board process and brought in a lot of people.

Throughout the last fourteen years, we’ve held over a dozen community input sessions. We didn’t wait until we had a design to ask what the community and people from the city thought. We had a community input meeting before we even picked a design team. Throughout that process we’ve gone back to collect input into the process.

Joshua David (JD): The community played an essential role in so many parts of the project. There were parks supporters in the community concerned with the lack of green space in this part of Manhattan. There were historic preservationists, who loved the High Line itself, and who also worked to make sure that new buildings near historic districts were scaled properly. There were neighbors who wanted to make sure that commercial enterprises didn’t overtake the High Line and others who wanted to make sure that we created a landscape that was reminiscent of the original landscape that seeded itself up there. In so many ways, the High Line that you experience today is the embodiment of the voices of all the people who participated in the public process of making it.

NBM Online: What social and political hurdles that are unique to building in New York City did you face?

RH: I feel like people think it can be so difficult to do things in New York because there’s so much skepticism and cynicism here. I actually find that people think big in New York. One of the reasons that I think people like this idea of the High Line is that it seemed so unlikely and had the hope that New York can still do new, big projects.

JD: In a city like New York, particularly in Manhattan, no site is a blank slate—it’s likely that different stakeholders with different objectives may already set plans in motion that could affect the future of the site. In the case of the High Line, we stepped into a debate that had been going on for some 15 years, with property owners who’d been working for years to advance a legal strategy to get it torn down so they could develop; a political decision in favor of demolition that went back to the since-defeated plan for Westway, a major redevelopment project on the waterfront; a political and civic movement to make the West Side Rail Yards the site of an Olympic stadium; and a community movement to rezone the area through a community-led rezoning process. All of those parties were putting pressure on the system to get the outcome they wanted.

NBM Online: In 2003 you launched Designing the High Line, an open international design competition that produced some wonderful yet at times outlandish schemes including a lap pool that ran the length of the park. How did the ideas competition spark the city’s imagination?

Falcone Flyover, aerial evening view at West 26th Street, looking South. ©Iwan Baan, 2011

RH: Designing the High Line was an ideas competition—it wasn’t to select the design. It was meant to have people think about the High Line in different ways. A lot of people told us not to do an ideas competition because the High Line was already thought of such a crazy, improbable project that it wouldn’t make sense and that we should be doing a practical, real design competition instead. But what it did was get people to dream big, which results in some of our favorite ideas including a mile-long swimming pool and an urban rollercoaster. It was during this time where people started first hearing about the High Line. Back in 2003, even neighborhood residents didn’t even know about it. The ideas competition created a great deal of awareness and helped us to put it on the map in the design world.

JD: We were trying to define the High Line as a public space that would be as unique and unusual as the High Line itself—that we weren’t saving it to put standard issue park treatments up there. The ideas competition really helped people see it as a place where anything could happen. And so in the competition that followed, in 2004, when we were actually selecting a design team, the competing teams all understood that we wanted them to think in an expansive way about what the High Line could be.

NBM Online: When approaching the High Line’s look and feel, how important was it to preserve the historic patina of the elevated tracks and the wild plant life that already existed?

RH: When we first started this, we’ve always thought of ourselves as a non-traditional preservationist group. We weren’t sure if we had to restore the exact feeling of what the High Line was in its untouched state. It was over time, especially after Joel Sternfeld published his photographs of the structure in Walking the High Line, that’s where a consensus came about that we wanted to preserve that wild feeling. But we didn’t want to leave it just as it was—we didn’t want to create a Disney version of what was up there. I’ve often thought of that great line from The Leopard that says, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” The design team of James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf did such an incredible job of not just preserving the magic that was up there, but also creating a different sort of magic that speaks to that wild type of experience.

JD: The decision to reinstall some of the original tracks was one we spent a lot of time on. Initially, there was some concern from a few members of the design team that keeping the tracks was a theme-parky gesture, but we continued to look at what it meant to keep them, or not. We visited the Promenade Planteé in Paris, where none of the tracks had been kept, and what we discovered that a crucial element of the structure’s original purpose was undetectable, and we felt it was important for the structure to communicate on its own—without the support of black-and-white historic photographs—what it had originally been built to do. Part of the High Line’s power is its ability to place you in several different time periods simultaneously, and the tracks were a key part of communicating an essential part of the High Line’s past. Also, we just loved the geometry of them, their heft, the way their monumental physicality played against the delicate plants that sprung up between them

NBM Online: The neighborhood around the High Line now houses buildings designed by internationally recognized architects including Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, and Neil Denari. How was the High Line a catalyst for this development?

RH: It’s really exciting that you can stand at any point along 19th Street and see buildings by Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Shigeru Ban, Neil Denari, Annabelle Selldorf, and Zaha Hadid (happening soon!). Sometimes when a building is going up by the High Line, it’s not so exciting. People ask, “How did you allow that?” We don’t actually have control of what happens around the park. The design of the High Line did, however, impact developers chose in selecting forward-thinking designs and innovative architects for these projects. It’s also interesting that the park runs through several historic districts so you can see the High Line’s past and its future.

JD: A major wave of development was coming to the High Line neighborhood with or without the High Line. In fact, when we were just starting, rezoning plans had already begun with the assumption that the High Line would be gone. I went to some of those early meetings held by the Department of City Planning, during the Giuliani administration, where a rezoned neighborhood was presented to the community with the High Line erased from the map. So in some ways, the High Line takes more credit and more blame for the development around it than is appropriate. That said, what the High Line did do is establish an identity of design innovation for the entire neighborhood—developers began to understand that a large part of the appeal of this neighborhood, with the High Line at the center, was a sophisticated and ambitious design vision, and that affected the architects they chose for many of their projects. I’m thrilled to see some of the buildings that have been built around the High Line, and there are some great new projects on the horizon.

NBM Online: The High Line has become an inspiration for cities across the U.S. looking to transform aging infrastructure into new civic spaces. What single piece of advice would you share with those who are working on like-minded projects?

RH: The most important advice is to just start something. You don’t have to have experience or definitive plan or money. That’s the magic of it—just starting it. People get hung up on when they think they need these things—in some ways, it’s better to have neither. It forces you to be resourceful and look for others who have the skills to gather around the project.

I find it very gratifying that so many people are inspired by the High Line. The projects I’ve found most interesting are the ones that are responding to their own neighborhoods and what their communities need rather than just trying to replicate the High Line and other cities.

JD: Robert likes to talk a lot about the importance of starting a project—to plant the flag, say that you are doing it, so that people can begin to rally around you. I agree, but projects like this are also about persistence. You have to be prepared for so many more frustrations and failures than victories, and it’s important to build that into your expectations accordingly. Even if you are successful, it’s likely to take a lot longer than you thought! Setting smaller, achievable goals along the path to the big goal was, for me, the thing that allowed me to begin and to persevere. If I’d said, at the start, success meant opening the High Line to the public, having its design be acclaimed around the world, having millions of people coming to the park, I probably would have never started. My goal in the beginning was much more modest: to have a meaningful public discussion about whether or not demolition was really the right answer to the question posed by the High Line. No one was really considering what could be made of the amazing opportunity it presented. So with that as a goal, I was able, with Robert, to start.