I’ve been exposed to so many incredible images of the High Line since it opened in 2009. Its timeline of garden opening and install coincided with my sojourn in landscape architecture school. Photos shot with perfect light, framed from tip-toe views at the back corners of beds appeared in magazines and on landscape blogs from coast to coast and across the world. Most of the coverage is breathlessly enthusiastic. So I was incredibly excited to visit this remarkable project.
The story behind the High Line is phenomenal. One sentence summary: abandoned railway line is about to be torn down, when it is rescued and transformed into one of the most famous landmarks in the world. The design team was phenomenally high-profile. Landscape architecture celebrity firm James Corner Field Operations were project leads. Diller Scofidio + Renfro architected it. And the phenomenal Piet Oudolf did the planting design.
Time to ratchet back on the expectations. First off, the High Line is a highly trafficked and narrow public space. The actual experience of the High Line is like walking down a long hallway with prints on the wall. Given the traffic on the walk, you don’t have an opportunity to stand back and look at the plantings. It feels like a corridor - a gallery where you can’t step back far enough to actually take in the paintings on display.
I couldn’t help contrasting the experience of the High Line with the experience of visiting the Lurie Garden in Chicago. At the Lurie Garden, the setting affords an expansive view that’s more similar to the tallgrass prairie landscapes which have inspired the grandeur of Oudolf’s style. The wide open garden space is laid out against the phenomenal backdrop of the city skyline. Oudolf has this phenomenal way of taking the forms and structures of prairie plants and combining them into magical jewel-like panoramas. At the Lurie Garden, you feel truly immersed in billows and drifts of foliage and flower.
Because of the linear nature of the High Line - set up by the underlying railroad structure - the plantings become a fringe or frame that you look through and over to views of the city. There’s not much depth to the plantings. You can cheat that depth in photos. Skillfully shot photographs - the beautiful images that you see across the internet and print media - give a sense of depth and immersion. The High Line doesn’t feel like that. The diffuse plant structures - grasses and persicaria and Japanese anemone - that get layered up to magical effect in Oudolf’s plantings at the Lurie Garden and Battery Park seem thin and insubstantial in the High Line plantings.
Some of the most successful plantings on the High Line are the areas that are built up with large shrubs and small trees - Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, A. laevis), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) and Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla). The larger leaves and dramatic structures of these plants give them formal presence within a smaller space - they claim space individually in ways that diffuse grasses and prairie perennials can’t. These areas of more structurally-developed planting remind me of how Atelier le Balto approached a similarly corridor-like space in their Jardin Sauvage at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. Massive round leaves of Umbrella Plant (Darmera peltata), jagged whirls of European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis), and giant pinnate Ailanthus rise around a narrow boardwalk that snakes through a narrow alley between looming apartment buildings. Such strong forms claim a narrow space in a way that diffuse grasses can’t.
As a public space, the High Line is undoubtedly a success. It draws immense crowds of people. It has turned a curious public gaze to landscape architecture and planting design that is rarely turned in our direction. But because of the corridor-like nature of the spaces, isn’t the best example of Oudolf’s planting genius. Go and enjoy the public life along the High Line. Catch the views from a garden 30 feet in the air. But go with expectations for a park, not a garden. And go see another instance of Oudolf’s work (like Battery Park - it’s just a few miles from the High Line) to appreciate the full range of his talents.
This piece was originally published as a blog post titled “The High Line (Gardens of New York, Part 3)” at www.calebmelchior.com/journal/the-high-line-gardens-of-new-york-part-3.