After Katie’s post on the highline, I began to wonder about the nature of the High Line park. As a public park it occupies a curious liminality between an urban space reclaimed by nature and a ruin reclaimed by human residents. After the High Line fell out of use and into disrepair in the 1980’s the track was abandoned and became a bubble within the city devoid of human contact. As dirt and seeds accumulated on the structure it became a bastion of unmanaged, wild flora. Grasses and flowers considered unwanted weeds in the many small, manicured plots of earth around the city flourished there unchecked.
In 2003 an open ideas competition was held for “Designing the High Line,” which solicited any and all proposals for the space’s reuse. 720 teams from 36 countries submitted their entries and hundreds of them were put on public display in Grand Central Terminal (1). The competition was narrowed down to four finalists, whose proposals can be seen here.
The winning team – James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro – proposed a park that would celebrate the “melancholic, unruly beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure.” Rather than changing the line into a recaptured urban space, the team proposed an objet-trouvé approach: to integrate pathways and seating into the existing dialectic between nature and urban decay. The atmosphere and plantings would reflect and emulate the “self-seeded landscape” with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of native species. The team’s vision calls for a perpetually unfinished park, where plants and walkways can evolve and change over time, stressing the ephemeral nature of human construction. The plan was lauded in current architecture magazines and termed “Agri-tecture,” where “relationship rules between organic and material alternate.” (2)
Yet what does it say about our urban culture that when faced with hundreds of choices for the design of the park, the one chosen most closely reflected urban decay and the transitory nature of human environments? Why is the visible manifestation of nature’s reclamation of a once-urban space considered a peaceful and delightful excursion destination? In most cases the vision of crumbling cities overrun by nature is reserved for science fiction movies or the aftermath of catastrophe. Images of the city of Chernobyl permeated by grasses and trees evoke stark feelings of desolation and perhaps nostalgia.
However, I must admit I find curious satisfaction in the idea that if humans were to disappear the constructions of humanity would be claimed and subsumed into nature. So perhaps the answer lies not in the fear of the ephemerality of human construction, but the comfort of the resiliency of nature.