Walking the Chelsea Highline

Depending on who you talk to, the repurposed railway known as the High Line has a different history. The official story is that a non-profit called Friends of the High Line saved the structure from being demolished in the last decade of the 90s. Friends of the High Line has since gone on to spearhead all the renovations that have transformed this abandoned swath of train tracks into a gardened paradise, replete with cafes, benches for sunbathing, and, of course, public artworks.

The fact that the High Line has been transformed into a popular park distinguished by a distinct walking path, and different kinds of public programming that specifically engage art, makes it one of New York City’s most ambitious curatorial projects to date. What’s more, Cecilia Alemani, who curates for Frieze Projects at New York’s Frieze Art Fair, is the High Line’s head curator — and she seems wholly determined on exhibiting works that extend the uniqueness of the High Line’s elevated architecture.

Entering the High Line by way of the new Whitney building, a deliberately industrial-looking production from the architectural imagination Renzo Pianoa, one of the first properly artistic works that catch the viewer’s eyes is Alisa Baremboym’s “Locus of Control” (2016): a sort of bench-cum-prosthetic rainguard that weirdly distorts the line of vision of park visitors who sit inside it. Baremboym’s work forms part of an open-air, public exhibition (curated by Alemani) called “Mutations”: a year long intervention where artists introduce structures that seem digitally preconceived into the High Line’s virescent setting.

Baremboym’s work — a work of design as much as art — takes on an added significance when we consider how determined the High Line is to integrate the disparate trajectories of art and design. The perspective we take on artworks and architectural structures, while maintaining a walking pace, is key to this.

Walking north from Baremboym’s sculpture, as well as the more massive Whitney, what strikes you is how the High Line’s architecture designs your pace. As the poet Ben Lerner writes, “The power of the High Line…is that it feels at once triumphant and post-apocalyptic. Grass grows over the rails, trees among the trestles; it’s almost as if nature had reclaimed the infrastructure of a civilization wiped out by an unspecified disaster. I feel as if I were wandering through a composite, the rails peeking through the C.G.I. And the elevation itself is eerie, an acknowledgment of rising seas.”

The design firm primarily responsible for redeveloping the highline is James Corner’s Field Operations, who have been selected to redevelop the Seattle Central Waterfront, The Knowledge Corridor of San Juan in Puerto Rico, and Freshkills Park in Staten Island. This last project is perhaps most closely affined with their work on the High Line, if only because it involves taking unused space, hidden away in some outer-borough of New York, and turning it into a public park.

James Corner’s project for Freshkills Park will take what is currently an abandoned landfill, which at one point served as an informal burial site for stray bits of buildings in the wake of 9/11, and transform the area into a public park, where the methane gas trapped just under the detritus will be used to supply electricity to some 20,000 Staten Island residents. The project is green capitalism at its finest. And Field Projects has already undertaken a similar construction in Seattle, where, again, private and public space intermingles, where the natural structures provided by the Olympic Mountains harmoniously coexist with small businesses.

Still, the main problem with capitalism has always been overproduction. A society that privileges profit over the laboring conditions that make profit possible never knows when to stop — when a company is actually too big to fail, or when the machinations of the economy actually drown out human lives. What Ben Lerner identifies as the “post-apocalyptic” aspect of the High Line actually lies in the way it suggests an overpopulated world. A mere stretch of 1.2 miles, the High Line was visited by 5,000,000 people in 2014 alone. This translates into almost 13,700 people a day. And on a humid summer afternoon you can feel the crush not only of the heat, but of endless streams of people bumping elbows before and behind you.

In preparation for this article, while I was taking in the High Line with a photographer, the sheer density of people became not a little inconvenient. One time was when I stopped to look at Guan Xiao’s sculpture “Rest In” (2017) — an eerily placed work that covertly comments on the need for aesthetic transformation of our world, strategically using the High Line’s two architectural poles of nature and design to express this. Perhaps the area wasn’t landscaped too recently, but “Rest In” seemed positioned like an idle stalker behind the long fronds of overgrown grass. And however I tried to get a satisfactory vantage point on the work, I either bumped into someone, or stood in someone’s way.

A bit after Xiao’s sculpture, you’ll find that Zaha Hadid’s West 28th Street Condominium Residences are prominently displayed. Here, little perches of metal and glass extend out from the proscribed path, so that park visitors can linger over the construction’s facade. (While not having any intrinsic connection to it, Hadid’s design is nonetheless associated with the High Line by reason of proximity.) What makes Hadid’s West 28th construction so enthralling is less the intrinsic loveliness of its layered exterior than the feats of construction happening all around it. The High Line offers a view of the some of the most fascinating residential and commercial structures in the city; and what makes it this way is the fact that you can see structures in progress.

Take, for instance, Thomas Heatherwick’s system of stairways (titled: “Vessel”), which is currently under construction at the Hudson Yards. The Hudson Yards themselves are a network of infrastructural alterations unified by name only. Yet what comes to light here, with regard to architecture and design, is something like a cross-section of everything the High Line is and everything the High Line is yet to become. This sense of temporal displacement is only enhanced by Radamés “Juni” Figueroa’s “La Deliciosa Show,” which sets the tone as you enter the Yards. “La Deliciosa Show” is a wall that functions like a metallic curtain darkening a room, letting in little delineations of light. When you actually enter into the Yard proper, actuality and potentiality converge. To your right, an office building has already been erected; to your left, there’s the emergent outlines of Heatherwick’s construction, which is still in progress. Concealed by a tarp, it nevertheless feels like a foreshadowing of the design innovations New York City will feature well into the future.

This union of the corporate and the innovative, whether in art or design, pervades the uniqueness of the High Line. A singular site, it attracts people from all over the world to engage with it and the works on display. Currently, the reigning motif along the High Line is one of carefully untrammeled luxury. Stippled with cafes and landscaped greenery, the High Line signals a world where profit can live harmoniously alongside nature. Whether or not this prospect is sustainable is a question that can only be answered within the province of architecture and design.

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere. His chapbook THE TTTROUBLE WWITH SUUNDAAYS was published by Louffa Press in 2014. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.