Yogi Berra once said of a successful restaurant: “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”. You could say that of the High Line park in New York City: on some days you can’t move. When it opened in 2009 they expected 300,000 visitors per year; in 2016 they got 8 million.
When you walk on it now, you are as likely to be looking into the windows of multi-million dollar condos as you are to be looking over the rooftops of Chelsea or out to the Hudson River, and the redevelopment keeps on coming; the latest is a new office building by Studio Gang, an extremely talented firm that once again has designed a building that is a bundle of contradictions.
There is a lot to like here about the consideration and respect it shows to its neighbour, the High Line. Just as the towers of pre-1960 New York got their wedding Cake tops to allow light into the streets below, the “Solar Carve” tower is chamfered and cut away to allow sunlight to reach the High Line. This is a nice gesture. Studio Gang writes:
Sculpted by the angles of the sun, the Solar Carve Tower explores how shaping a building in response to solar access and other site-specific criteria can expand its architectural potential.
This is a wonderful thing; so few architects pay attention to this issue. At most they will do shadow drawings required by the city. It is also pulled back from the High Line, creating a new open space on the roof of its podium base (which would be nice if it was connected to the High Line, but one cannot tell if it is). It is clear from the alternative massing drawings that it could have been a hell of a lot worse. But showing these kinds of drawings, often presented by developers, is standard practice to break down opposition.
Studio Gang also says:
Located between Manhattan’s High Line park and the Hudson River, Solar Carve takes its unique form from the geometric relationships between the building’s allowable envelope and the sun’s path, as well as the viewshed between the park and the Hudson. In addition to producing a faceted, gem-like facade, this integrated response allows the building to benefit the important public green space of the High Line—privileging light, fresh air, and river views to the public park—while also becoming a new iconic silhouette on the New York skyline.
My big question is that “Viewshed.” Unlike the Standard Hotel next door, the Solar Curve is not perpendicular to the High Line but is slightly off parallel. There are still views of the river, but they are constricted. And that word "privileging" like they are doing everyone a big favor. Studio Gang and the developers never show a site plan looking straight down,
But look what is going to be parked smack in front of this building: The new Thomas Heatherwick designed park on stilts. It is controversial and questionable but it is under construction, and one would have expected that if you were going to have a viewshed, it would include a view of this. Instead, they are blocking the view almost completely.
I know that the view is blocked now by some junky old stuff, seen here on google street view, and this project is actually opening things up a bit since it does not come right up to the High Line like the existing does. It improves the viewshed. But would it have killed them to have built it on stilts so that people could see through it at High Line level? Is there a point where there is just too much development, too many big high walls that it is no fun anymore?
At some point the only thing anyone is going to see of New York from the High Line are little peeps down the cross streets, like this drawing from the variance application shows, nothing but a slice of a view through that little gap between the Standard and the new building. Then Yogi Berra will be right again: nobody goes there anymore.