The High Line (Phaidon Press, 2015)

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Two inches…

You need to make two inches of space on your groaning shelves to house The High Line (James Corner Field Operations, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro; Phaidon Press Inc.; New York, 2015; 452pp,; $75.00). Better yet, leave it out as evidence of your refinement and good taste, and a sure-fire conversation starter.

In its short life, the High Line—park, garden, promenade, mile-and-a-half short cut over the streets—has become an icon, its predecessors nearly forgotten as it spawns imitations and adaptations across the globe.

This beautiful book is a must-own for lovers of the park, urban renewal and gentrification (in the best sense of the word). In an amazing look “under-the-mulch” at the development of the concept, planning, design and construction of the High Line, its designers put it all on the line, sparing no secrets and adding more spice to the improbable tale of the resurrection of a feral landscape floating 30 feet above the city.

Phaidon has delivered a fine example of the book-maker’s art. The High Line has even higher production value than their offering of last year, the monumental The Gardener’s Garden. One miss was the separation of extended captions for an entire archive of historical material—necessitating continuous flipping back and forth to capture background. In light of the overall effort it’s a minor inconvenience. Beautifully put together, the physical book complements the material it contains and the care that went into designing it.

Densely visual, this five-and-a-half pounder is packed with photographs, maps, plans, construction documents and specifications, and planting plans. Many are foldout and, with the already horizontal orientation of the book, echo the narrow layout of the park itself.

It’s organized chronologically and catalogs its riches from the days before the idea of the High Line arose through planning, construction and use. Its life as a railway from 1934 to the last train in 1980 is not ignored, but it is with the creation of the Friends of the High Line in 1999 that things begin to take off. A 2004 design competition (won by the authors) starts the history of the project. This and the design process in 2005 mark the most interesting material in the book. Photographs detailing the construction process from 2006 through its three staged opening (2009, 2011, 2014) provide an incredible historical archive. It closes with reflections and observations, some expected, some not, now that the entire length of the project is open and ten years elapsed.

Light on text, its most interesting material for some will be the 28 pages of transcribed discussion—divided into three parts—between the design principals, Elizabeth Diller, James Corner, Ricardo Scofidio, Lisa Switkin and Matthew Johnson. Their personal thoughts and reflections enrich the book as they did the project. Inspired by the feral nature of the structure they encountered, they embraced a ‘keep it simple, keep it real’ mantra that belies the complications they faced. In some ways the repartee in these too few pages is more revealing than the eye-candy—a fascinating look into the designer’s mind and process. A true inside look at their work from concept, to process and through execution. It is an apt accounting of what Diller calls, “…the obsolescence of one program stimulating the invention of another…”. To round out your High Line library, put this book next to High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, by Joshua David and Robert Hammond, founders of the Friends of the High Line. The two together provide the definitive, first-person accounts of the High Line from its creators and designers.

The High Line is a celebration of a project, “the process is the thing” thinking—and a refutation of Picasso’s famous saying, “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” It might have been easier to pull the structure down and start with a blank slate. What a shame it would have been. Instead the concept of repurposing post-industrial structures rather than erasing the past has inspired urban planners around the world. Millions of visitors a year validate the decision to celebrate what has gone before and give it new life for years to come.

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