The term landscape might suggest images of shaded glens, rolling plains, sublime mountains, or manicured lawns. This descriptive vocabulary is primarily aesthetic or emotional. Yet the great surveyed grids of the West, the patterns of farming, transportation, housing, and industry indicate that the choices that underlie the form of the American landscape have a lot to do with function; the “American landscape” is a much less pictorially or scenically formed landscape than the ways we often choose to describe it. This interest in the functional qualities of the American landscape – and their patterns and sometimes beautiful manifestations – frames how James Corner of the New York firm Field Operations presented his work as part of the Architectural League’s annual Current Work series, a lecture now available as a podcast on the League website. With this introduction, he explicated two local projects: the development of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island and, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the rehabilitation of the High Line.
I will let Corner explain the specific design intentions and challenges of each project. Both Fresh Kills and the High Line are sites with highly functional pasts; their landscapes were formed to work. Yet their transformations into parks will provoke many to judge them with an aesthetic vocabulary.
Corner balances this tension by emphasizing the inherent beauty and form of the productive landscapes of the High Line and Fresh Kills, whether in recalling their pasts or in illustrating their new programmatic uses. For example, registers of grasses along the knolls of Fresh Kills are not only aesthetically attractive – formed bans of striking color– but also, in their role as agents of creating topsoil (ploughed under, grown again, and repeated until forming a rich soil), perform the active process of dump to park. Or the High Line’s versatile slab pavers manage both the pedestrian flows of the park and recall its railroad bed past, allowing the grasses and plantings to interact with the pathway in the wild manner the abandoned track once did. By celebrating the working nature of these now repurposed spaces for recreation, Corner connects the past and future with a refreshing directness, allowing the expression of an aesthetic vocabulary, while acknowledging these sites’ complicated histories.
The honesty in addressing the change in use at both parks strikes me as perhaps the most sensible way to preserve our history, while keeping our cities as vital, active spaces. In a time of diminishing resources and the constricted availability of new space, the reinvention of our formerly grand industrial cities must be a priority. The development of these parks, using their histories as functional, productive landscapes, shows an efficient, economically and environmentally sensible, and, perhaps most of all, honest approach to reinvention.
Nick Anderson is Program Associate at the Architectural League of New York. He lives in Brooklyn.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.