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How Old N.Y.C. History Inspired Two Of Its Newest Parks

For the landscape architects at Nelson Byrd Woltz, history is a tool to create visceral public spaces.

How Old N.Y.C. History Inspired Two Of Its Newest Parks
[Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz]

Creativity springs from constraint, which can make architecture a special kind of hell. There are so many choices to be made—about materials, form, location—that it’s hard to create a building that seems both original and perfect for the problem at hand. That challenge is often even greater in landscape architecture, says Jeffrey Longhenry, a senior associate at the firm Nelson Byrd Woltz. Using plants, street furniture, and hardscaping to create a place that people will love without words involves literally millions of tiny decisions. How can you make sure those decisions fit into a coherent whole?

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Nelson Byrd Woltz has an deceptively simple strategy: letting history guide its work. The team calls it collaborative design. When they set out to create a design, they begin with exhaustive research into a site’s history: how animals might have used it before humans arrived, and how humans altered it over the course of hundreds of years. They use the literal outlines of that history to shape their designs. At this week’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, Longhenry and his colleague Serena Nelson showed how that approach yielded two works at vastly different scales, one for a two-acre park in Brooklyn, and the other for the massive and massively expensive redevelopment of Hudson Yards, on the west side of Manhattan.

[Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz]
The smaller park, called the Naval Cemetery Landscape, occupies a field that, in the 19th-century, was the negative space around a Navy shipyard. It was used as a potter’s field. In old diagrams of the site, Longhenry’s team found the meandering stream that used to feed the surrounding marshes. They turned the echo of that stream into the defining gesture of the park. Tracing its former banks, they created an elevated boardwalk. So while the pathway looks like an expressive gesture dreamed up by a newly-minted architect, it actually tells the story of what the place once was. It also serves a purpose: the wandering path encourages people to mosey and look around because there is no “quickest” route through it. The plantings themselves are meant to attract birds and bees year round, so that there’s always something too look at.

A Forgotten Moment In New York’s Rise To Power

The Hudson Yards work also uncovered a forgotten piece of the past. For decades, the site was a parking lot for trains emerging from the tunnel connecting Manhattan from New Jersey. The new development was meant to cover-over that eyesore, with a ring of new towers surrounding a park. When Nelson Byrd Woltz delved into the history, the designers realized that the site was nothing less than a turning point in New York City’s history.

The digging of the Hudson Tunnel brought train traffic directly to the island of Manhattan for the first time in its history, and those trains brought commerce with them: shipments of raw materials into the booming factories of downtown New York, and finished goods on their way out to markets all across the country. Hudson Yards thus marked a fulcrum that transformed New York from a port town into one of the most important nodes in America’s rail economy.

[RENDERING: FORBES MASSIE/HEATHERWICK STUDIO]
The tunnel itself represented a massive engineering feat. It began with crews digging from New Jersey and New York. The plan was to meet in the middle. But to make sure those crews were in fact on a course to meet each other, engineers erected two huge sight towers at either end of the tunnel, so that they could peer out across the river and mark their relative locations and progress. With that bit of history in hand, Nelson Byrd Woltz wanted to mark the site’s importance with a grand gesture—an art object that would quietly serve as a totem to modern New York.

Months later, the famed designer Thomas Heatherwick was commissioned to design that totem; his design of a giant spiraling staircase will likely become one of the most Instagrammed places in New York. But few visitors will likely realize how important that place was to making the city around them. Longhenry doesn’t think that’s a problem. The point of doing all that research is to find a form lent by history—a guardrail whose very shape can create solutions. “It’s not important that people be able to read the literal story,” he says. “It’s about making something that people feel.”

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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