Brooklyn Bridge Park on opening day in the pouring rain with stroller." /> Brooklyn Bridge Park on opening day in the pouring rain with stroller." />

Alexandra Lange | Essays

Has the High Line Ruined Us?

Ouroussoff reviewed it Friday (no further comment). D-Crit student Frederico Duarte fills in the backstory. I went to Brooklyn Bridge Park on opening day in the pouring rain with stroller. Never has the lack of snacks and bathrooms seemed so desperate. So I went back this morning for a real look. It was sunny. Everyone seemed to be having fun. Line out the door at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Lawns, big stairs, binoculars closed. Playground open, with warning about stainless space bumps: too hot. Conversation with husband looking at Lower Manhattan: Which is worse, late chunky modernism or early shiny postmodernism? Cesar Pelli looking better with age.

In the foreground, I found myself staring at the wide avenue of asphalt ringing the outer edge of the park. A sturdy row of benches made from old-growth pine recycled from adjacent warehouses follows the edge of the pier, but behind it there is a good 20 feet of black, ordinary asphalt. It looked banal. Around the lawns, a set of fences made of logs and wire had appeared since the opening, suggesting a sort of retro, national-park aesthetic. But in other places, minimal rails powder-coated black separate traffic from bushes. Which is the “real” railing? Is this park urban or rugged? The lawns, the sod an unearthly green, look lovely but limpid. What should we do here? If there was a message, I found it hard to read. And then I felt churlish, since this is only a fifth of the park, and it isn’t even done yet. Since when did a lawn and a view become not enough?

Since the High Line, that’s when.

The real challenge for Brooklyn Bridge Park may be that the High Line has ruined our expectations for park design. Every part of that park reinvents the wheel, from the akimbo water fountains to the custom sidewalk planks to the underslung lighting. It is, as I wrote last year, park as industrial design, park as gadget.

Each element, whether path, street furniture, flower bed, has to function in multiple ways to keep the landscape from getting cluttered. To put it another way, the High Line is a park as designed object — emphasis on object, since all parks are designed. The parts of the High Line, as well as the whole, are all as carefully considered as a tool that has to fit in your hand.

This approach has come with unintended consequences: I have never seen the fountain work, the combination of delicacy and intensivee use have made maintenance perpetual, and now Phase 2 has been put off to 2011 as the Friends search for more funding. Michael Beirut even argued that it was too designed.

Everyone understands that Brooklyn Bridge Park is in a different category, without DVFs and Dillers waiting in the wings. (When I suggested to a Brooklyn Bridge Park official that they should look for a single donor for the $4M it will cost to add a bridge from Squibb Park on the Promenade, she suggested no one in Brooklyn was rich enough. To me it seems like a golden naming opportunity.) It is park on a budget, park in Brooklyn, park for families. Different in so many ways and yet, I wanted the paving to have interest. I wanted the lighting and fences and benches and future concessions to tell a single story.

This is the design critic’s paradox: why design if paint and lawn chairs are enough? My answer would be that I don’t think they are enough. Jeanette Sadik-Kahn’s squares aren’t really places yet, they still need edges, foci, personality. Like Brooklyn Bridge Park, they currently rely on their views. That is enough for casual visitors, but I don’t think it is enough for ongoing fascination. I think Brooklyn Bridge Park is going to grow up to be somebody, but I don’t know who it is yet.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [2]

Wow, this seems way off base (which is surprising considering the author). Designing a park as a complex object (layered objects within layered objects) is not a new conception. In fact, it goes back to the beginning — check out Olmsted's description of his and Vaux' proposal for Prospect Park in his letter to the Brooklyn Commissioners.

The park, like many public spaces, relies not only on their views but on the agency of the individual people and groups (and water) that come and activate or appropriate it in different ways (like Sadik Kahn's squares). This is precisely what gets limited on the High Line, where the list of things you can't do is presented to you before you ever experience the place.

I wonder how many people have tripped or had an ankle turned by the over-designed benches and "feathered" paving? The paving requires the park-keepers to string little "keep off" wires at the edges of the walkways. And my wrists are STILL recovering from the trip-and-fall I took over the ramped-up support of one of the benches. In every work of architecture there are details that give pleasure, and then there are some that just make you say, "Wha--?"
Bill Hubbard

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