Karl Quinn surveys the politics and passion surrounding 800 metres of elevated steel and concrete in Manhattan.
Cold, hard and grey it might be but concrete sure fires the passions. Here we are on an 800-metre stretch of the stuff, built 10 metres above street level between 1930 and 1934, and deemed so valuable to the people of New York that a preservation order was slapped on it in 2002.
And now here we are on that same stretch, standing between two giant legs of the stuff – support struts for an 18-storey hotel built in 2009 – that has outraged some of the people who helped secure that preservation order. “It’s a disgrace,” says a woman in her 60s of The Standard, the neo-modernist hotel that straddles the concrete decking with all the arrogance of a building that’s just wandered in from the set of Mad Men. “I can’t believe they let them do this.”
The angry preservationist is a member of the volunteer support group called Friends of the High Line. She’s referring to the planning decision that deemed 10 metres of airspace above the concrete decking off-limits to the hotel’s developers but anything above that open slather. So it is that The Standard has, as it were, a foot in both camps.
There’s no doubt of the view held by many of the Friends in the guided architectural tour I’ve joined this balmy spring evening. For my money, it’s a nifty accommodation and The Standard is a great 1960s-style building made better by virtue of being ever so slightly humanised.
But the tension is understandable. The High Line exists only because of the efforts of a small group of residents who in the 1980s and ’90s fought against developers wanting to demolish this stretch of steel-and-concrete decking. The structure was built in the 1930s as a railway link between the massive warehouses of the Meatpacking District on Manhattan’s lower west side. (The railway was built in the air because so many pedestrians at street level were killed by the freight trains in the bustling area in the 1920s.)
It didn’t even have a name when they began their battle – the “High Line” was coined in 1999 by the Friends’ founders, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, as a canny way of conferring identity on a piece of urban detritus – but the battle to preserve it soon gained support. In 2002, the city deemed it worth saving. In 2004, plans for a proposed aerial parkway were unveiled. And in June 2009 the first stage of the refurbished space was finally opened to the public.
The park is a miracle of repurposing, turning a picturesque but derelict relic of the industrial era into an appealing and functional asset of the post-industrial age. Nods to its past abound – the heavy-duty “pool chairs” set on railway wheels and movable along small sections of track are particularly witty – but this is very much a space for the present.
The High Line runs over nine city blocks from Gansevoort Street in the south to 20th Street in the north. When the second stage, to 30th street, is finished – scheduled in spring this year – it will be more than twice that length.
There’s also another section, known as the Rail Yards, whose future is uncertain. If it is incorporated into the park as the Friends hope, the whole thing will be almost 2.5 kilometres long.
The High Line is less than 30 metres across at its widest point and barely a third of that at its narrowest but given the price and scarcity of land in Manhattan, crafting a new public park of this scale today is almost as great an achievement as the creation of that other treasure in the middle of the island, Central Park, in the 1850s.
I was lucky enough to visit the High Line twice last year. The first time was in winter, when the concrete slab decking was dabbed with snow and the gardens were almost barren, the wild grasses reduced to sad-looking tufts of brown, the trees stripped of foliage. It could have been a forlorn place but it wasn’t: simply being able to walk through such an architecturally fascinating part of Manhattan and to feel as if you’re part of it while also hovering above it, is a fantastic feeling.
It was on my second visit in late spring that the true wonder of the High Line became obvious. This time the garden beds were bursting with life, the trees seemingly doubled in height in the space of a few months, the many meeting areas well used. A fabulous reed pond was nearing completion. A timber-clad amphitheatre with a glass wall overlooking Tenth Avenue looked like the perfect place to sit and watch the drama of New York City unfold below. Young couples, many with kids in strollers, were everywhere – a small wonder, given the scarcity of lift access.
In its abandoned years, wild plants grew in the spaces between the sleepers on the old railway. The new plantings are well planned but they deliberately retain a sense of that wildness.
At the northern end of stage one there’s a painting hung off a wire-mesh fence, the landscape on the work seeming to merge with the ongoing rejuvenation located on the other side of the fence. Whether it’s intended or not, it works perfectly as a metaphor for the entire project (though what happens to it when stage two opens is anyone’s guess).
The Friends of the High Line run regular events, from music and theatre to guided tours such as the one I took with architectural historian, Matt Postal. You don’t need an excuse to visit but you do need one not to cap it off with a visit to the cocktail bar on the top floor of The Standard.
It’s a stunning room, full of stunning people, with a stunning cocktail list (not to mention the tab). But the view is the real reason to visit. Look to the south and you’ll see the towers of the financial district. Look north and you’ll see the Empire State Building and other treasures of Midtown. Look anywhere around the room and you’ll see some of New York’s most beautiful humans. It’s the perfect place to end a visit to the High Line, though convincing a High Line Friend to join you here for a drink could prove rather difficult.
The Standard Hotel construction data
West 13th Street and Washington Street
New York, New York
February 2006 construction commencement; anticipated completion 2008
Joint venture between Greenfield Partners, HotelsAB, Dune Capital and The John Buck Company
18-story, 200,000 SF building
General Contractor: Pavarini McGovern
Architect: Polshek Partnership
The design spans – and expands on – a century of modern architecture Vanity Fair
André Balazs’ emphatically nonstandard Standard Hotel New York Magazine
A luxury hotel growing beneath, above, and around the rail line, as an oak tree envelops an old fence New Yorker
The most unusual and significant New York building in years The New York Observer
Breathtaking The London Times
The King Standard Daily News
The Meatpacking district continues to heat up with the arrival of The Standard International Herald Tribune
…every room has stunning skyline or Hudson River vistas Travel & Leisure
A daring new building Metropolis
Hop on the High Line
The latest creation from André Balazs is a New York branch of his modish Standard hotels. Rising from one of the city’s most sought-after sites, in the heart of the Meatpacking District, two glass-curtain slabs literally jump the tracks of the High Line, the old freight railroad that’s been transformed into a park on stilts. The design spans—and expands on—a century of modern architecture.
by Matt Tyrnauer February 2009
Hotelier André Balazs, standing on the High Line, with the Standard towering above him. Photographs by Todd Eberle.
André Balazs is a pioneer in the boutique-hotel business; his company owns the Mercer in Manhattan, Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, and the Raleigh in Miami Beach. His latest project, now nearing completion in the heart of New York City’s Meatpacking District (MePa), is a branch of his lower-priced but almost intimidatingly modish Standard hotels. The new Standard—there are already two in L.A. and one in Miami—is situated on a small plot of land that is one of the most intensely sought-after development sites in the city. MePa—until recently a Weegee-esque province of bloody-smocked meat workers and transgender prostitutes—has become a high-rent district of shops, restaurants, and clubs.
Vote for your favorites on VF.com’s poll of the world’s 25 best hotels. Above, the Reethi Rah resort in Maldives.
“For the first time I had a hard time imagining what the hotel should look like,” Balazs says. “I usually renovate older buildings, and this was ground-up construction. Add to that the matter of the High Line and it was a unique challenge.” The High Line, which cuts diagonally through Balazs’s building site, is an 80-year-old elevated freight railroad running down Manhattan’s West Side, abandoned since 1980 but currently being transformed into a greenway, or park on stilts, designed by the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio & Renfro. The High Line’s first section is scheduled to open this spring, and already the park is considered one of the most innovative and influential urban-renewal projects of our time. “We had to be sensitive to this new landmark,” Balazs continues. “It tramples through our site, but it also defines it. That said, we wanted to not be overly shy or reverent toward it. Whatever we put up there would have to jump the train tracks.”
One of the streamlined guest rooms, with a midcentury feel.
The Standard, designed by Todd Schliemann of the New York firm Polshek Partnership Architects, is a Le Corbusier–style glass-slab building, floating above the High Line. It harks back to such New York City International Style glass buildings as Lever House and the United Nations. Schliemann explains: “The High Line is important, so we are not going to make it go through the building, or build around it, or hide it behind the building. We are not only going to step over it, we are going to exist above it.” Balazs and Schliemann recently spotted a New York real-estate blog posting that refers to the hotel’s “perpetual lap dance” with the High Line. “Very apt,” says Balazs. “The hotel straddles it in a suggestive way, but they never touch.”
The Standard hotel’s tower is a 20-story structure consisting of two colliding concrete-framed planes of glass curtain wall. From a distance, the building looks like an open book standing on end. The slab tower rests on poured-in-place-concrete pilotis, which hold it, heroically, 56 feet off the ground and 30 feet above the track bed of the High Line. The building is hoisted up not for its own sake but because there is something of significance underneath. When the High Line is completed, the area around the Standard will be known as the Gansevoort Woodland (Gansevoort Street is nearby). In spring there will be a profusion of redbud and birch trees on the promenade. A building that hovers over a copse planted on an old train viaduct, accessible to the public, is something new under the sun.
The interior of the lobby.“If you had to look at this project from an urban-planning perspective,” says Balazs, “it gets more modern, in terms of building type and décor, the higher you get. The ground floor relates to early in the last century, the time of the High Line. The hotel floors, in the tower, are midcentury—I was looking at Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, and Arne Jacobsen, who had designed an amazing hotel in Stockholm in the 50s.” (Balazs collaborated on the interiors with the Hollywood set designer Shawn Hausman and the New York firm of Roman and Williams.) On the top floor, which is a double-height, glass-enclosed space, a supper club and lounge are decked out in homage to Warren Platner, a protégé of Saarinen’s. An iconic interior designer of the 1960s and 70s, Platner designed the original Windows on the World restaurant, in the north tower of the World Trade Center. The views from the Standard, though 80 stories lower than those from Windows on the World, are comparably spectacular. The Empire State Building takes center stage to the north, with Midtown Manhattan as a backdrop. If you look south, it seems as if the hotel cantilevers over the Hudson River, as the shore of Manhattan takes a sharp turn eastward. In the distance: the Statue of Liberty.
Matt Tyrnauer is a Vanity Fair special correspondent.
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