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There's no wonder every city wants a High Line

Owen Hatherley
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New York’s elegant and subtle High Line is a machine for generating property speculation, says Owen Hatherley

Criticism of the ill-considered proposal for a Garden Bridge across the Thames is sometimes answered with the riposte ‘but what about the High Line?’ The transformation of a freight line in Manhattan into a public park has become a paradigm for a new form of urban-rural infrastructure, with cities everywhere hunting out their own versions. Visiting the original, whose third and final phase opened just a few weeks ago, makes it obvious that not even the aggressively sentimental talents of Thomas Heatherwick could produce anything of remotely comparable quality. It was equally obvious that the High Line is a machine for the generation of property speculation that even London might ‘envy’.

Manfredo Tafuri wrote that New York’s skyscrapers were best conceived not as architecture, but as ‘real live bombs, designed to explode the real-estate market’ – the likes of the Equitable Building, 40 to 50-storey Beaux Arts slabs on tiny plots. The combination of the steel frame, the grid plan and the wealth of American agriculture and industry all came together to create a new kind of infrastructure, one based on making money first and architecture much later. The High Line, while totally different in its conception and history, is infrastructure with a similar effect.

The High Line is elegant, suprising, and marvellously public

This interwar goods line was saved from demolition by a grass roots campaign, and it is managed now by the Friends of the High Line. Its architecture, a collaboration between James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is elegant, surprising and marvellously public, at least until you find the long list of things you can’t do there (listen to amplified music, organise a protest). It can be deeply subtle, as with Piet Oudolf’s unsentimental planting: stark grasses rather than the bumptious oaks favoured by Heatherwick; but the route it takes is a metropolitan thrill ride, going past the sleek Modernist warehouse of the Starrett-LeHigh Building, the insanely monumental London Terrace apartments, the smart towers of the Penn South social housing scheme, sailing across the roofs of tenements until it comes to the rail yards at the back of Penn Station. Here, at the third and final phase, the industrial activity that was once the purpose of this infrastructure reveals itself, as silvery Amtrak trains are fed into the Brutalist maw of the Westyard Distribution Center. It’s New York as three-dimensional Sant’Elia drawing, and it’s unforgettable.

That’s only what preceded the High Line. Postdating it are a dozen bespoke towers, hotels and galleries, ranging in quality from Gehry’s clumsy InterActiveCorp to the swish Niemeyer-esque Standard Hotel. They’re rammed alongside or even on to the High Line just as skyscrapers were rammed into the grid. Like early skyscrapers, they use facades as camouflage, albeit non-orthogonal geometries rather than Baroque trimmings. That list of do’s and don’ts appended to the elevated park didn’t extend to control over development. The final explosion, obliterating the last trace of industry, is Hudson Yards, a cluster of skyscraping glass prisms courtesy of KPF, one of them planned to be taller than the Empire State Building. Manhattan’s history of profit following infrastructure has come full circle: the death of New York as an industrial city turned into glorious spectacle, and the apotheosis of New York as the ultimate city of speculative development. Only now it’s the result of a grass roots preservation campaign.

However fine as architecture – and it is very fine – that may be the High Line’s lesson. A few years ago, Newham Council presented potential overseas investors with a map showing an ‘arc of opportunity’ through the borough. In New York, that ‘arc’ is a disused railway viaduct turned park. No wonder every city wants one.

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