What we see in the photograph below is the most recent gem in a necklace of parks and other public amenities that make up Hudson River Park. This gem, possibly the necklace’s most brilliant so far, is Little Island.
Hudson River Park–extending from Battery Park City up to West 59th Street–consists of approximately four miles of planting, grassy areas, walking paths, bicycle paths, basketball/tennis/skateboarding courts, and creative transformations of some of the piers that once lined the Hudson River on Manhattan’s western edge. Those piers berthed the great ocean liners which once were our major mode of international transportation. To see how this particular stretch of the water’s edge appeared in the earlier 20th-century, open this link on Chelsea Piers; the first two photographs of this article show a long, continuous, and massive façade of masonry that extend for blocks, effectively denying New Yorkers both physical and visual access to the river’s edge.
Hudson River Park began to take shape in the late 1980s, and work has carried into the 21st Century. The above photograph shows (from right to left) the multiple-lane West Street; the planting edges which bracket the bicycle and walking paths of a small segment of Hudson River Park; that rusting arch, all that remains of Pier 54, which served the Cunard-White Star line; and finally, centered above all of this, Little Island as seen two years ago, during its construction.
The mere existence of West Street is what allowed Hudson River Park (and Little Island) to exist. This is, because from the late 1960s up to 1985, the major representatives of public and private power in New York City (and Albany) had their hearts set on building the Westway. This was to be a six-lane Interstate Highway, some of it tunneling under a landfill built out into the Hudson River–a way to provide developers with more land on which to build. Only in 1985, when the Westway project was defeated and cancelled, could it be replaced by something more amenable to human and urban life.
In this 2019 construction photo, only one crane is visible; but as many as four and (briefly) five cranes served in the assembly of Little Island.
Open this link to see a time-lapse video [4:23] of the entire assembly–click where you are told “Watch the Video” at the end of the third paragraph of the article.
Assembly begins with the installation of 267 pre-cast concrete piles, some driven as deep as 200 feet below the water. These were fabricated in Chesapeake, VA and transported by barge from the Elizabeth River to the site on the Hudson River.
Half of these piles would support a traditional, flat pier at a (safe) height of fifteen feet above the water, or four feet higher than the 500-year flood elevation level. The other 132 piers would rise higher as supports for the tulip-shaped concrete “pots” which contain soil & plantings, and which form the support for the undulating landscape that we see. These Tulip-shaped “pots” were cast in Schuylerville, NY, assembled at the port of Coeymans a few miles away, and transported by barge down the Hudson River.
No “pot” is exactly the same in form. Some weigh up to 75 tons. We are told that the installation of each pot took “a few hours.”
In this photograph, I picture the remains of Pier 54. Here, four years earlier, we see that the old pier bed was still intact. The structure that covered it, however, had been razed in 1991. Only the entry arch stands as a lone reminder of that long series of piers designed by Warren and Wetmore between 1907-1910.
So here we begin my visit to Little Island on the morning of June 5, 2021. All the photographs were taken that morning, with the exception of the plan and the aerial view (below), which provide you with an overall view of its compositional elements.
Here, on the far left, is South Bridge, the entry to Little Island. It passes under and through a forest-like cluster of pre-cast concrete piles and pods. Its wide opening forms the threshold between a city of concrete roads organized on a flat grid and an island of undulating topography crowned by 35 different varieties of trees. This transition calls to mind an age-old metaphor of the forest edge as the boundary of civilization. Pass through it and you abandon institutional order, enter a mysterious world of magic, experience a place of transformation which stimulates your subconscious. You no longer are in the city.
Barry Diller, the major funder of Little Island, clearly grasps its metaphorical implications in these thoughts: “It looked a bit of an enchanted forest….I want this park experience, leaving the city, going off…all of it is an oasis of everything fun, whimsical, playful that we can conjure.”
A wonderful aspect of this design is that we get to see its structure, the guts of this architectural wonder. That is because the heights of the piles/columns vary from 15 to 62 feet above the river. What we cannot possibly be aware of is that the placement of the 267 concrete piles was accomplished with only a three-inch margin of error. Also, the tolerances for the 132 pots that contain the landscape and create the terrain are also quite tight: each–even though differing in form and dimension–were designed to be nine inches apart with a mere three inch variation.
This view best reveals the elevation differential among those 132 tulip columns. This differential enables the undulating topography that makes the human experience so magical. Moreover, this differential also serves an important purpose below the water line. By raising up the two western ends facing New Jersey, and with the south-east edge seen here rising above the South Bridge, the design allows sunlight to penetrate underneath the Island, filter down, and accommodate the rich and diverse marine life below.
Take note also of the clusters of old wooden piles poking out of the water in front of the new concrete piles. These wooden piles are the remaining foundations of Pier 54, which supported the old Cunard Line pier. If we consider Little Island a work of art (which I think it surely is), we ought to call these old piles a palimpsest, an aesthetic element retained from an older work of art in the new one, now renamed Pier 55. Thomas Heatherwick, the chief designer of Little Island, found these wooden piles “absolutely gorgeous” and they inspired him to expose and make visible the structure of his own design.
These old wooden piles–all that remains of Pier 54–serve not only historical memory, however. They also are an important part of the Hudson Estuarine Sanctuary‘s breeding and feeding grounds–giving them an even more important reason to remain, undisturbed.
Thomas Heatherwick, like Barry Diller, also, understands the special quality that comes from creating an island, from separating it physically from the city: “the feeling of going across to an island is something that gives you permission to be different, and to feel something different, and for different things to happen.” [For this, click on Video, 1:59, under “Structural Design”]
Even though these people are entering Little Island, this and the next photograph picture the North Bridge, which serves as the main exit back onto Manhattan.
The four photographs above show the extensive use of Cor-Ten steel, a special steel alloy of high tensile strength whose own coat of rust renders it corrosion resistant in most environments. It was first developed in 1933 for railroad hopper cars. Here it serves as retaining walls for soil and plantings and as closely-spaced pickets to protect people from falling off an edge, yet not occlude any views. Its burnt umber tonality contributes to the overall natural aesthetic of the Island.
Everywhere on Little Island, small design details stand out. Here, for instance, the elegant aerofoil-like cross-section of the wooden railing not only enhances the beauty of the railing and reinforces its curvature. It also provides an appropriately ergonomic surface against which to rest a forearm and lean on, as this man is doing. The choice of wood, my guess is teak or mahogany, also serves this quite-conscious aesthetic. At the risk of sounding a bit clichéd, I can’t help citing that famous dictum of the German architect Mies van der Rohe, “God is in the details.”
Another interesting detail is the rough-hewn, irregular, craftsman-like aesthetic of these benches. I have no way to know, but suspect that their wood may well be sections of timbers taken from some of the old piles of the early piers.
This stairway leading down from the North West Overlook to the Playground offers yet another detail that I love. First, the complex bends of the steel railing that, of necessity, must accommodate the zig-zagging descent of the stair design. Second, the herringbone arrangement of the wooden steps. Third, the wood of those steps, which is black locust, a rot resistant hardwood that is native to New York State (and most of the East from Appalachia up into Canada).
The plantings were designed and coordinated by landscape architect Signe Nielsen of the firm MNLA. Boasting 35 tree species, 65 shrub species, and 270 different varieties of grasses, perennials, vines and bulbs, her design for Little Island offers nine zones of microclimates, taking into consideration different solar exposures, leaf protections and plant orientations. These inspire, in her words, “recreations for the mind, the body, and the age.” [For this, click on Video, 3:38, under “Landscape Design”]
Another detail, more whimsical, are these various stone steps that invite not only children but also adults (as we can see here) to take shortcuts and head ‘off the beaten path.’ The design of Little Island is all about discovery.
In two places on the walking paths, people encounter and interact with kinetic sculptures. When spun, these sculptures create hypnotic and dizzying optical effects. I was unable to find any name associated with an artist or designer of these, but in concept, they go back to some of the experimental works of the 1920s-1930s by Marcel Duchamp; works that he called Precision Optics and Roto Reliefs.
Clearly, even without the taking into consideration the enormous range of entertainment events planned for Little Island, we interact with or discover something new at every turn.
Even as we leave Little Island, we’re offered one, last “discovery:” a musical sculpture that no child (and few adults) can pass without stopping to play a few notes.
One might encounter intimate performances at several places on Little Island, but The Amph is a dedicated space for large audiences. This thrust-stage amphitheater seats nearly 700 people and has plans for some 500 events through September. Here is a list of scheduled events at The Amph from July through September, 2021.
Having exited Little Island, we now look back to see it bracketed on the left by South Bridge, on the right by North Bridge. What dominates our view, however is that clustering of tulip columns. Barry Diller recalls that he was sold on the design seven years ago, as soon as Heatherwick “came up with this little sketch of pods and tulips.”
Even though the men (Diller, Heatherwick, the engineers from Arup) refer to these as tulip columns, the women I know (my wife, my two daughters, other friends) are pretty clear that we are looking at stiletto heels. To them, Little Island is an obvious reference to Barry Diller’s wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.
The money to build Little Island (an initial $260 million along with a promised additional $120 million for two more decades of operations and maintenance) is courtesy of the Diller – von Furstenberg Family Foundation, not solely Barry Diller. To cite von Furstenberg (as quoted by writer Derek Blasberg), “This is completely Barry’s dream…but I’m here to make the story better.”
That, so often, is what a woman brings to a relationship with a man. This couple, through their Foundation, not only gave New York City the largest private gift ever for a park, but they also have fitted Hudson River Park with a most magical and brilliant gem.
Here are two other structures in Manhattan designed by Thomas Heatherwick. Flanking the High Line at 18th Street in Chelsea are his Lantern House condominiums, while a bit farther north at Hudson Yards is his Vessel, which he has said is neither building nor sculpture, but more “a piece of furniture.” Together, these three New York projects reveal the wide range of this British architect’s designing, about which it is said “you won’t find a signature style.”