July 18, 2009 1:36 am

Manhattan’s elevated park

 
Present-day High Line park, overgrown with plants and with a view of Manhattan

The High Line now, with views of the Empire State Building

One of the most striking tropes of any sci-fi city of the future has always been the stratification of travel, the elevated railway, the monorail, streets in the sky, the flyover. From Le Corbusier to the World’s Fair Futuramas, the skyscraper skyline has always been interwoven with aerial roads and tracks.

For a while, these visions seemed to be coming true in New York. The Empire State Building was crowned by a Zeppelin mooring mast, the Rockefeller Center introduced a layered city of subterranean plazas and terraces while subway and rail lines cut swathes under and over the city in complex webs of structural steel.

But it didn’t last. The High Line, a freight railway built to service the huge industrial buildings around Chelsea, was begun in 1929 but, by the 1960s, after less than a generation, was already defunct. Wandering around Chelsea today, wending between galleries and lofts, between photo-shoots and audition lines, it is hard to see it was ever there. The High Line’s rusty legs poke hesitantly through the cliffs of masonry but, occasionally, glimpses of the railway flash into view; a delicious art deco detail, a rusty riveted column, a web of steel beams. Now it is being revived in a vision of the new transport for the future, a new vision of the stratified city. It is becoming a place to walk.

The surface of the High Line has been made into an elevated linear park and, in a rare stroke of urbanistic genius, a defunct amenity, long considered a strip of urban blight, has become an engine of regeneration.

Its rebirth has spawned a boom in development along its length and its environs have become the city’s most extraordinary architectural showcase. It is becoming a kind of museum of contemporary design. And at its heart is the Standard Hotel.

The Standard is the latest venture from hotelier André Balazs. After making a success of luxury hotspots from Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont to Manhattan’s Mercer, the Standard is a different proposition. A substantial new-build hotel amid the scraggy boho-chic of the Meatpacking district, it is not a luxury destination but a mid-priced stopover. It is also the best piece of new hotel architecture in recent years. The 19-storey building straddles the High Line on a pair of chunky retro concrete legs and the sleek but muscular glazed tower evokes the brutalism of Marcel Breuer or the city’s United Nations buildings. Designed by architects Polshek Partnership, it seemed to come out of nowhere.

Its rooms, decked out in a kind of retro-futuristic-nautical, give the most astonishing views over the city. The vista sweeps out over the Hudson and out to the Statue of Liberty while the endless activity around the meat storage units below roots the views in the gritty everyday life of the city, such as workers with blood-stained aprons and wasted clubbers at dawn.

But it also looks out on to its own vista, the long, green expanse of the High Line. The story of these old tracks is an encouraging tale of perseverance and preservation. Joshua David and Robert Hammond set up the Friends of the High Line in 1999, garnering instant celebrity support. Working hard to encourage community activism and commissioning New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the plan emerged to turn the tracks back into a more refined version of the picturesque wilderness they had become.

An exquisitely sylvan set of photos by Joel Sternfeld showed the lines as they were, an artery of untamed foliage flowing through the city and they helped people understand that this could be a green amenity rather than a toxic eyesore.

 
High Line railway in Manhattan in 1953

The High Line in 1953

It helped also that this had been done before, in Paris’s wonderful Promenade Plantée. The architects of the High Line, who are also responsible for the recently-opened Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Centre, worked hard to analyse the strange collection of plants that had gathered and thrived along the tracks. The very particular ecosystem was maintained and encouraged, rotten tracks were removed and replaced. The park enables the visitor to walk, uninterrupted by crossings and lights, across 18 blocks of the city centre.

Along with the new arrivals, there’s still plenty of the old Chelsea on view. The glistening skyline spike of the Empire State Building keeps the journey focused as the former tracks wend their way up from Gansevoort Street. The path passes under the brick hulk of the former Nabisco factory, its massive underbelly delicately graffitied in filigree tags, its once-shattered windows transformed into an artwork by Spencer Finch, each new pane derived from a colour study of the endlessly changing waters of the Hudson.

There is the radical new architecture itself spawned by the prospect of the High Line’s urban revitalisation: Neil Denari’s extraordinary HL23 Tower bulges over the tracks, its base squeezed on to an impossibly tight site, the cross-bracing rippling up through its skin in an echo of the High Line’s metal structure; there is the space-age pod of Diane von Furstenberg’s crystalline loft by architects Work; there is Shigeru Ban’s wonderful apartment block, an open crate of terraces with aluminium screens to shutter it up like a storefront; there are the patchwork façades of Jean Nouvel’s 11th Avenue condo tower and beside those the rippling fronts of Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters by the Chelsea Piers.

As the High Line crosses over 10th Avenue, the structure reveals an unusual view to Midtown and the structure dips down to make a hanging public space suspended above the flowing current of traffic. There is the industrial vernacular that litters the route: metal bridges, an industrial version of Venice’s Rialto, spanning between mountainous brick buildings; there are the spindly hats of the dwindling water towers, so characteristic of the city’s roofscape.

Already the revived landscape of shrubs and reeds, saplings and grasses is obscuring the tracks and railings, the latticework sides and deco details. The High Line has become a wonderfully strange landscape, a park that takes up no space, which drifts through the city like a magic carpet. If Central Park is the most extraordinary monument to nature, a huge slice of Manhattan’s natural landscape in the midst of the world’s first modern city, then the High Line is nature winding its way back through the grid, reasserting itself over the city of industry.

And this is the moment to see it. New York is at its best at the moment it changes, the dark grids of still-exposed structural steel skeletons, the hum of construction, the evocative juxtapositions of fire escapes and scaffolds, decay and renewal, water towers and cranes. For now, the clubs and the warehouses, the meatpackers and the models, the glaziers and the gallerists co-exist in a slice of real urbanity. One day, it’ll all be condos and museums but, for now, this extraordinary linear park offers the most thrilling architectural walk in the world.

Edwin Heathcote was a guest of the Standard Hotel, 848 Washington Street, New York, 10014, www.standardhotels.com

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Where to stay

Standard Hotel, New York

Aside from the Standard (pictured right) there are plenty of other choice hotels in this area, writes Sophy Roberts. The Greenwich Hotel, co-owned by Robert De Niro, opened last year in TriBeCa. With a private club-ish style, it’s easy to miss. That’s because there’s no discernible signage and staff are dressed in “mufti”. There’s a discreet drawing room rather than look-at-me lobby. All the rooms are different and have a homey style: warm woods, good collections of books, and interiors flooded with natural light.

377 Greenwich St, rooms from $475, tel: +1-212 941 8900; www.thegreenwichhotel.com

The Jane Hotel is a conversion of a 100-year-old seaman’s lodging where survivors of the Titanic stayed in 1912. The credentials are good – this new hotel is by the team behind the Maritime and Bowery hotels (the latter one of the most atmospheric neighbourhood hotels in New York, located on the Lower East Side). The Jane, however, will only suit a certain type of person, which is indicated by the price point: one-man cabin rooms cost $75 a night. Forty “Captain’s Cabins” will open in September and will cost about $200 a night.

113 Jane St, tel: +1-212 924 6700; www.thejanenyc.com

My favourite in the Meatpacking district is the Hotel Gansevoort, especially in summer . This is not necessarily because of the rooms, which are a fairly predictable mix of contemporary/masculine chocolates, cream and glass, but because of the rooftop pool, one of the most dramatic in Manhattan.

Ninth Ave at 13th St, from $295, tel: +1-212 206 6700; www.hotelgansevoort.com

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