Engineer Walks the Highline

April 20, 2015
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The Highline offers a soul charging experience for walkers through the Chelsea and the West Village. An old elevated train line was converted into a public park and walking thoroughfare. Simple as the concept seems, the project has transformed the neighborhood and provided incentive for the largest new development in Manhattan – Hudson Yards.

I recently traveled to New York for meetings with clients and colleagues in our headquarter office in New York. That didn’t leave much time for sightseeing. Fortunately just getting around town can be a travel experience in itself.

I began my adventure on the Highline after leaving a meeting with James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), the landscape designers behind the Highline. We are working together to transform Chicago’s Navy Pier into an equally desirable destination for tourists and locals alike. JCFO has a knack for establishing community-prized spaces in unlikely sites.

I picked up the Highline near the major Hudson Yards train spur and construction site. Audacious developers have envisioned a whole new community of high rises and cultural centers directly above the existing tracks. My company has been involved in the engineering of several planned buildings.

View from unfinished Highline toward the Hudson River

View from unfinished Highline toward the Hudson River

The newest portion of the Highline wraps around the development, providing an in-the-middle-of-it-all view of the construction site. This portion of the Highline is likewise incomplete, offering only a simple surfaced path and guardrail. Critics have acclaimed this extension for its simplicity and glimpse of the decaying but foliage-abundant (aka overgrown) infrastructure that had occupied the whole of the Highline prior to the redevelopment. The scene, between the construction, the Hudson River view, and the overgrowth, exudes the feeling of a place in transition. My favorite point in any project is that incomplete state, while the structure that I’ve worked so hard on is still visible in all its unfinished glory.

As we progressed east then south to the completed portion of the Highline, my colleague pointed out the first of many examples of the Highline’s power to shape the landscape around it. The massive new high-rise under construction will deliver many tons of loading through its large exterior columns. But in the interest of preserving light and sight lines to the Highline, the designers have instituted sloping columns deviating from the expected efficient vertical orientation.

 

HL23 by Neil Denari

HL23 by Neil Denari

IAC building by Frank Gehry in background

IAC building by Frank Gehry in background

Standard Hotel by Todd Schliemann

Standard Hotel by Todd Schliemann

 

Shortly thereafter, visitors are treated to the latest architecture by the world’s most famous designers. HL23, by Los Angeles architect Neil Denari, is a metal-clad undulating form that actually widens as it rises. The IAC building by Frank Gehry is a rather toned down version of Gehry’s most famous works. Near the south end of the Highline, the Standard Hotel by Todd Schliemann looks like an open book, but it has garnered most attention for nude exhibitionists who don’t mind being part of the scenery on the garden walk.

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Opening in plate girder for window

 

The Highline architecture is at its best when opening up windows to the city. In several locations, the thick plate girders are cut out to form picture windows. It’s easy to lose several minutes entranced by the constant action on the street. However, like the Standards Hotel, the windows cut both ways, and it’s impossible to say who is on display the onlookers from the Highline or the passersby at street level.

As a structural engineer my attention is naturally directed up and to the architecture, but there is much to love about the landscape design of the highline itself. The path meanders organically around interesting plantings and reminders of the railway heritage. Some rail is strategically placed in paved areas and planters, contributing to the natural vs. urban give and take. The benches also appear inspired by the rails, rising out of the path gracefully and in linear fashion. JCFO was also smart to introduce “village greens” along the way. Sunbathers may choose the grassy areas or specially designed lawn furniture – some mounted to the rails.

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My favorite moments along the path were when the Highline passed by or through the historic buildings that represent the industrial origins of the communities through with the path passes. It’s not coincidental that the neighborhoods through which the Highline passes have names like Hudson Yards, Chelsea market, and the Meatpacking district. As the neighborhood redevelops to maximize property values made possible by the rediscovered community lifeline, I hope enough of the historic character remains to tell the complete story of the Highline.

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