Friday, May 28, 2010

On Hipster And Non-Hipster Urbanism

(Image of the new east london railway line under construction, via)

On the High Line the hipsters come and go
Talking of Diller and Scofidio.......

A friend of mine once proposed an urban golf course on the then empty Kingsland viaduct in east London. This must have been in about 1990 and the railway that once ran along it, slicing through Dalston as it went, had been closed for four years. Combining the irresistible poetry of industrial decay with dynamic spatial juxtapositions, the viaduct subsequently became a popular site for architectural student projects giving rise to speculations about linear parks and elevated housing schemes. The viaduct has now been reused as part of the recently reopened and extended East London line. An abandoned railway line reused as a......railway line! Fancy that.

Compare this with the also (relatively) recently opened Hi Line in New York's meat packing district. This former freight track, built in the 1930's, has been converted by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and Field Operations into the kind of elevated, linear park that those London architects used to dream about. It is beautifully done too, lined with pre-cast concrete pathways that evoke, although not too literally, railway sleepers that fade in and out of areas of wild flower planting.

The concrete is laid parallel to the High Line's route and powerfully reinforces the park's linearity. Sections of it occasionally rise up to form benches. The original metal rail lines have been retained in parts too and appear to have been left to run through areas of planting, a kind of literal metaphor for the railway having been put out to grass. The overall effect is of a careful intervention on an industrial found object. The brutal industrial infrastructure of the High Line, which cuts through buildings and across roads without any sense of urban decorum, seems to have been left to languish into artful picturesque decay.

This is an illusion though, as the still-under-construction sections of the High Line park reveal. Those preserved railway lines need to be carefully lifted up on blocks while wild flower beds are constructed beneath. The design is beautiful and impeccably well detailed but also unfeasibly tasteful. Tourists and New Yorkers come in droves to amble along it at the weekend like scruffier versions of 19th century metropolitan bourgeoisie from some post-impressionist painting.

There is also one very clever moment when the cooler than thou nature of the High Line folds in on itself. The track kinks across a street at one point allowing people on it to enjoy an incidental view of the racing taxi cabs below. Rather than just reveal this incidentally, the designers have created an amphitheatre at this point and provided a tiered series of steps on which people can sit and view the city as spectacle.

From the road though the roles are reversed and it is the urban spectators on the High Line that become the subject of fascination. Lined up in their elevated theatre box they become specimens suspended in their own personal reverie. The voyeurism of post industrial, leisure based, society - where everything becomes a tourist spot or a place of detached contemplation - becomes subtly revealed at this point.

Straddling the High Line is the New York Standard hotel, a self-consciously neo-brutalist structure that could have been designed by a funkier Richard Seifert. The hotel has its own brand of voyeurism going on in the form of sexual exhibitionists who take advantage of the plate glass windows that look down on the park below. And why not? The hotel flaunts its hipster credentials for all to see, strutting across the new park and begging you to admire its sheer bravado, so why shouldn't the people in it indulge in some high-class dogging?

Not far from the High Line on the lower west side is the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainments Complex. Here is another, older, and less hip version of the old industrial infrastructure of New York turned into leisure space. Far less refined than the High Line, it's a place to drink lager, eat hot dogs and practice your golf swing.

The golfing range is one of the most remarkable structures in the area, a vast multi-storey block of little rooms from which people continuously thwack golf balls that reverberate off the metal supports for the nets or plop gently onto the golfing green in the middle.

Dalston didn't get its elevated linear park. Or its golf course. What it got instead, perhaps most remarkably of all, is a railway......*

* This is where I'm heading next, so the second part of this post will be about the new railway... also, the photographs of the high line were taken on two different occasions the first of which was back in late January, hence the snow.


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Markasaurus said...

The ELL seems to have generated almost as much excitement in London as the high line did upon its opening (almost). I remember looking at the rail line that would become the high line years ago that it would be great if there was a light rail line through that part of the west side since it's always been underserved by public transit. A nice new park is a pretty good trade-off though, I have to admit, but Dalston is probably better off getting the railway.

James said...

There is, however, a driving range across the road from the section of the ELL you're talking about - on the site reserved for further expansion of the Broadgate complex. So close!

ana maria said...

there is a precedent to the high line that people tend to forget... it's the promenade plantee in paris: ...i haven't been there in a while, but i remember they used some of the space below the tracks for fancy shops, and there seemed to be generally more connections to the park from different buildings. i don't know much about the previous history of the train, though.

John Hughes said...

Ana Maria - the promenade plantee is one of the lines going to the old Gare de la Bastille.

(The part of that line between Vincennes and Boissy St-Leger is still in use as the RER A)