A Feeling of Nature

plantingsrailroadtracksTomHighLineNYC10April2016
“All my work is related to trying to recreate spontaneous feeling of plants in nature. The idea is not to copy nature, but to give a feeling of nature.”  — Piet Oudolf

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When in New York, I love to visit the High Line, the 1.5-mile-long (or so) linear park in a former raised freight railroad bed in Chelsea, whose plantings consultant was Piet Oudolf. He was “given a narrative by the architects to illustrate a series of moods, capturing open woodland, prairie and meadow.”
railroadtrackswalkwaypeopleplantingsHighLineNYC10April2016
Oudolf has been called “the “living embodiment of the New Perennials’ landscape movement.” He’s known for his painterly approach to landscape, with year-round structure taking precedence over colour or any other element — as Charles Waldheim, director of the landscape architecture program at the University of Toronto, puts it: “He’s gotten away from the soft pornography of the flower” — and with a reliance on painting techniques such as blurring edges, repetition of themes, planting in a matrix, framing views, layering plants. As described by Jared Green in the American Society of Landscape Architects’ blog in May 2010, “the New Perennials philosophy, rooted in a reverence for ‘wild nature,’ is realized through plant designs which feature ‘architectural plants chosen for their form and structure rather than their colour.'” You can see that in the High Line plantings, particularly in winter and early spring.
EmpireStateBuildingthroughtreebudsHighLineNYC10April2016 grassessunlightHighLineNYC10April2016 plantingsinrailroadtracksHighLineNYC10April2016 HighLineNYC10April2016
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Thomas Rainer (who calls himself a “horticultural futurist”) wrote in his blog about horticultural idols in Nov. 2011, noting a favourite comment by Oudolf, as he was looking out over his perennial meadow: “‘You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes — nature, or the longing for nature.’ Oudolf’s goal is not merely to please the eye, but to reconnect our primal selves back to a natural world that we barely remember.”

That’s some pretty instinctual stuff in the middle of one of the most cultivated, complex, analytical, mediated cities in the world.

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“Evergreens add depth to the garden, or the scenery of the garden, but you don’t need too many. In winter you don’t expect a garden to be green. It’s about scale and balance. Evergreens have a place, but other things play a role, like texture and structure.” — Piet Oudolf

hollywalkwayHighLineNYC10April2016

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“[Bulbs are] the sign of the new year. They are never in the way because they disappear in summer and they flower at a time where there is not much else flowering. They are very stress-tolerant and are easy and beautiful at the same time. This is the time of year you wait for things to happen, and even one or two plants flowering excites you.” — Piet Oudolf

yellowbulbsrailroadtracksHighLineNYC10April2016 redtulipsrocksHighLineNYC10April2016

dog tooth violet aka trout lily (Erythronium pagoda) against heuchera foliage
dog tooth violet aka trout lily (Erythronium pagoda) against heuchera foliage

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The redbuds and serviceberry were blooming, along with perennials and ground covers:

redbud against brick wall
redbud against brick wall
serviceberry (Amelanchier)
serviceberry (Amelanchier)
brunnera (bug gloss)
brunnera (bug gloss)
corydalis
corydalis
vetch
vetch
pachysandra (ground cover)
pachysandra (ground cover)

And the oakleaf hydrangea was in bud:

HydrangeaQuercifoliaOakLeafHydrangeashrubHighLineNYC10April2016

The mourning doves were quite happy roosting among such beauty and protection:

mourningdoverestingHighLineNYC10April2016

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It’s worth quoting at length from the project narrative provides by the landscape designers and architects (see sources, below), because I think they have masterfully realised their vision:

“Inspired by the melancholic, ‘found’ beauty of the High Line, where nature has reclaimed a once-vital piece of urban infrastructure, the design aims to refit this industrial conveyance into a postindustrial instrument of leisure. By changing the rules of engagement between plant life and pedestrians, our strategy of ‘agri-tecture’ combines organic and building materials into a blend of changing proportions that accommodates the wild, the cultivated, the intimate, and the social. In stark contrast to the speed of Hudson River Park, the singular linear experience of the new High Line landscape is marked by slowness, distraction and an otherworldliness that preserves the strange, wild character of the High Line, yet doesn’t underestimate its intended use and popularity as a new public space.”

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Walking the High Line is a leisurely experience: people stroll, take in the views, sit on the many benches (and in season, the lawn); and the place feels otherworldly, of a different time and place, while within view of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, busy offices and busier gyms abutting the park, the unending buzz of traffic not far below. You can’t imagine people jogging or running the High Line. It’s not of that world.

Street level:

viewup10thAvenueHighLineNYC10April2016

High Line:

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And there is something melancholic, poignant, a bit sad with an overlay of dreamy, about walking the path of once-bustling freight trains, a reminder of an industrial world that’s perhaps passing away, slowly. For all of its dirtiness, air and water pollution, noise, physical danger — not to mention everything necessary to butchering and meat packing, which is historically what was done in this district — the original High Line was a safety innovation when built in the 1930s, as part of the West Side Improvement Project, and trains came and went until 1980, after which is was “left unused for 25 years and was considered an eyesore in disrepair, a blight to the neighborhood. … During that time a thin layer of soil formed and an opportunistic landscape of early successional species began to grow ….”
Quality Veal Corp. and Weichsel Beef (view from High Line)
Quality Veal Corp. and Weichsel Beef (view from High Line)

It reminds me of the description in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map & The Territory of the artist Jed Martin’s visit to Ruhrgebeit, Germany, then an industrial tourism destination:

“[T]he whole region, with its blast furnaces, slag heaps, abandoned railway tracks where freight wagons rusted, its lines of identical and neat and tidy terraced houses … was like a conservatory of the first Industrial Age in Europe. Jed had been impressed at the time by the menacing density of the forests that, after scarcely a century of inactivity, surrounded the factories. … These industrial colossi, where once was concentrated the bulk of German productive capacity, were now rusted, half-collapsed, and plants colonized the former workshops, creeping between ruins that they gradually covered with impenetrable jungle.”

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What shall we say? That the High Line is a sanitized, planned, controlled version of this? That we prefer a lovely landscaped promenade to rusted, twisted, tetanus-laden buildings decomposing, suffocated by relentless vines? Which is truer, more real? Indeed, which is more beautiful?

Certainly the High Line as it is now provides the “post-industrial instrument of leisure” envisioned by the planners, and instead of attempting to hide the industrial infrastructure, it absorbs and reimagines the past as an essential element of the present walkway and the plantings, a reminder of what was here not so long ago.
metalcirclesinrailroadtrackssculptureartHighLineNYC10April2016
grasseswalkwayHighLineNYC10April2016 plantingsrailroadtrackspeopleHighLineNYC10April2016

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So in a way it’s like a painting with some bits of memento mori front and center: As we promenade, we may consider life, death, the passing of time, we may find ourselves longing for not only “a natural world that we barely remember” but a historic past that speaks to us through our feet as we walk it, in the air as we breathe it, in the barely audible echoes of mournful train horns. Oudolf has said, “I like to connect people with the processes of their own lives. What it takes humans a lifetime to experience, a plant will experience in its own yearly life cycle. In that sense, gardening is a microcosm of life.” So there are the natural seasons, and the cycle of life and death for all mortals (flora and fauna), of which the plantings remind us; and there is also the life of our culture, which we can perhaps sense as we pass along where ghosts passed not so long ago.
BlindIdealismisReactionaryScaryDeadlysignpeoplewalkwayHighLineNYC10April2016
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ropedofflawnbrickbuildingHighLineNYC10April2016 walkwaypeopletreesHighLineNYC10April2016

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Sources

A plantsman’s vision: Piet Oudolf by Dan Pearson, The Guardian, 7 April 2013.

Required Reading: How to Recreate Piet Oudolf’s Painterly Landscapes, by Michelle Slatalla, 18 March 2013, in Gardenista blog.

Q&A: Piet Oudolf on Designing a Winter Garden In the Garden by Sara Barrett, The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2011.

Piet Oudolf: Leader of the New Perennials by Jared Green, 11 May 2010, in The Dirt, blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

very detailed project statement, project narrative, and plan/design images by the architects for The High Line: Section 1, with James Corner, Field Operations (project lead, landscape designer) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro architects. Section 1 is a half-mile from Gansevoort Street to West 20th Street (the lower end of the current High Line).

A Landscape in Winter, Dying Heroically, by Sally McGrane, The New York Times, 31 Jan 2008.

 

 

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