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The High Line and claustrophobic design

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Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009

At Design Observer, Michael Bierut mentioned the High Line—an old elevated railway track in New York City that’s been turned into an awkward, real-estate-value enhancing gated-park space—as an example of “when design gets in the way.” The case he presents for that struck me as a bit incoherent—the High Line is so well-designed that it has become too popular for its own good, while the ad hoc utilitarian set-up in Times Square (recently closed to automotive traffic) works just as well to please people. Should the High Line have been made less appealing so it wouldn’t become overcrowded? Should it have been renovated on the cheap since people might have used it anyway?


I want to agree that design has indeed gotten in the way, because when I visited it last Friday before I left for the shore it made me very uneasy, but I’m confused. I think his point is that design can be more spontaneous and require less bureaucracy. My point would be that designy-ness itself, whether the product of a well-meaning bureaucracy or a marketing firm, is suffocating; its fastidiousness seems to close off user interaction even when it has seen fit to try to engineer it in advance with various heavy-handed interventions. At the High Line everything seemed so thought out in advance that I could only conclude that I was not invited to do any thinking for myself while I was there. It feels less like a park than a useless piece of installation art meant to impress us with its ingenuity. I half expected to see people walking along applauding. I felt corralled into performing the piece’s cleverness by traversing it, but I didn’t want to perform (unlike the guys conspicuously doing yoga in the middle of the narrow platform). I just wanted a refuge from what is at street level, which is designy-ness harnessed to marketing purposes. Up on the High Line, there’s just a more concentrated form of that deisigny-ness, elevated to civic duty, vindicating all the shop windows down below. 


The friend who accompanied me to the High Line thought its design was a little oppressive also—she pointed to the lack of seats in the shade, and the lack of assembly spaces. Its design—by necessity I guess, given the constraints—streamlines away the possibility that it might serve as a public place of protest. It’s a park for an orderly, obedient people content to walk in single file and stay within the prescribed boundaries. She noted also the fact it can be locked up to bar undesirables, and the way it seemed to mock the death of manufacturing in the city. In terms of what the city produces, manufactured goods have been supplanted by the dissemination of design ideas—a transition the High Line commemorates with no consolation for the losers. Once the rails moved actual goods and anchored working-class jobs; now they are purposely overgrown, archaicized, dressed up to make the condos for the wealthy built all around the tracks more aesthetically pleasing. But it seems doomed to feel dated (it’s very much of the eco-conscious zeitgeist—like a Method detergent bottle), and after its vogue fades, it will probably become this weird, depopulated albatross we must continue to maintain, a Christo exhibit that never goes away.

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