Tag Archives: Hudson River

Troubled Bridge Over Water

Every trip up to the Hudson Valley for the last three years, we sped past the sign at 65 mph, never slowing. The sign for Walkway over the Hudson became a marker or sorts – a landmark, but also, a point of contention between one who wanted to stop and one who didn’t. It was looking as if that sign would be as close as I would ever come to experiencing the actual site. The sign was small, smaller than the tension in the car that  was palpable.

One of us has a problem with heights and would not be a party to a stroll over a 212-foot-high “gangplank” suspended over a wide and deep (50-60 feet) river – a defunct railroad bridge, now a pedestrian path, which began its conversion in 2008 and was completed in 2009.

At last, my opportunity presented itself with the visit of a non-height-averse longtime friend this past week. Yippee! A chance to soar in the Taconic region of the Hudson River and to follow the elusive sign.

Let me see: I have walked the High Line, which is not really high. I have climbed three mountains in the past year. All these encounters have provided placeness in the way that they create a sense of place in their settings, enhancing the experience accordingly. There is a give and take between the venue and the view. Sadly, I hesitate to say that I did not find placeness at the Walkway. The Walkway, despite offering pleasant views of the Hudson that are not usually available except in a car or train, doesn’t seem involved with its site; rather it seems like a platform for viewing a site. Yes, it is high. Yes, it allows one to look up- and downstream from the center of a large body of water. Yes, it is a wonderful connection between the east and west banks for two-legged, four-legged and two-wheeled pedestrians.

I guess the reservation I have about it is that it has no intrinsic beauty in and of itself to add to the experience. It is a wide sidewalk with thick and high railings – functional and plain – in contrast to the river, not in harmony with it; very distinctly separating the human-made and the nature. At this point in time, it is a big bare plaza; hard and cold and not a little bland and monotonous. Not having seen the original, I would guess that the old railroad bridge with tracks and creosote-soaked ties and opportunistic weeds and grasses poking through the cracks had way more character and placeness. Although this is a pedestrian byway, it resembles more so a highway.

I don’t want to denigrate the Walkway, because I think it is a noble effort, especially since I think that we need more such efforts made for pedestrians. But there is something missing, some connection and integration. I have the feeling that an engineer, not an architect, designed the look and feel of it – heavy and practical, like Soviet-era buildings and U.S. interstates.

The bottom line, though, is that there are very few enjoyable ways to cross the Hudson River on foot, and this one bridge is dedicated to that purpose. I have to give bonus points for that. Until Walkway opened, the options were: the George Washington Bridge, where you can be overwhelmed by speeding traffic right beside you – one would have to be on Valium to get through this trauma; the Bear Mountain Bridge, which is cute and smaller scale, but you get to walk or ride on the shoulder of the road with big expansion-joint gaps; the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, the longest pedestrian span across but its floor is textured metal and can be slippery; the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, high and on the narrow side, and you get to be right in amongst the traffic with no divider; and the Rip van Winkle and the Dunn Memorial bridges, both of which have pedestrian walkways much like the George Washington Bridge’s lovely nerve-racking offering.

I am grateful for the existence of this one-and-only pedestrian bridge. I am hopeful, though, that things will improve in an aesthetic way for the Walkway. It has potential, it has good bones. What it should have is a sense of place, arslocii.

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A Tale of Two Gardens

In our attempts to understand and explain the ins and outs of arslocii, we fell into a perfectly clear example during one weekend in June. It was one of those annual events in which people open their gardens to gawkers like us, for a small sum. This kind of thing echoes the class-based tradition of visiting large estates and stately homes in the United Kingdom, snooping while contributing to the upkeep of the digs of a long line of dukes and duchesses now on the skids. It isn’t quite the same here in the States, having no royalty, but there is a palpable sense of have-nots paying for the privilege of sniffing at the haves.

One garden in particular smelled of new money – an out-of-place McMansion sitting on a ski-slope-like bank on the west side of the Hudson River. The view, we admit, was breathtaking, but on closer examination, it was all wrong and not even attractive enough for the money ill-spent. What had been done was a wholesale removal of a swath of forested growth, as wide as the property’s borders and all the way down from the hilltop manse to the water’s edge. We understand the desire to capture a view, but this was more like stuffing and mounting it. The fact is, there were opportunities aplenty to play peek-a-boo with the river, to tease and suggest by selectively removing or pruning trees. But, no, the owners (and that’s what they were – not guardian-dwellers, not loving cohabitants with the land, but simply owners) decided to just drop their drawers, so to speak, to make their vista a widescreen experience. So, now, rather than a naturalistic attempt at enticing with glimpses, there is a broad lawn tumbling down to the river (the thought of cutting the grass without ending up in the water is frightening, not to mention the erosion this causes), and it ends up resembling those channels cut into mountaintops to erect power lines, or a vertically challenging 16th hole on a golf course. Aside from the scalping, dotted about the steep slope are little islands of plantings, so out of scale and incidental-looking that you almost don’t notice them. They look more like footholds for descending/ascending the river bank than considered gardens. Well, we wouldn’t want any competition with the view, right? There is no sense of place in this scenario, since there is nothing interacting with the water view. Instead there is the shock, a feeling as if a flasher has his trench coat parted — and we all know how disappointing that can be. So, yes, these folks are rich enough to denude the land but they really have given nothing back to it, let alone done something in partnership with it.

In contrast, there was another garden on this touring circuit with a less-than-ideal setting, but which was made into something special. A cluster of farm-industrial buildings of a strange Tudor design were situated right up against railroad tracks. We were told that this had been a cold-storage apple repository convenient to shipping – the land once part of a vast apple orchard production farm. To quote the owner and creator of the new incarnation of usage (as a costume factory) and gardens, “I am now eight years on from the weedy field of rubble I started out with. Sometimes I feel my intentions are starting to show, sometimes not … It’s at all times a workshop, a long dialogue with ‘Place,’ rather than the ‘design-and-install’ approach. Emphasis is of foliage, texture and contrast. Sculpture and plants are used in a theatrical context.” One of the strengths of this endeavor is the subduing of a large unwieldy space by creating rooms and transitions between them, each unique, each embellished with sculpture – the natural elements interplaying with the fabricated. In other words, there is a give with the take, a mutuality and not a dominance. And there is the wonderment of the garden not taking itself oh so seriously. It is a one-off site, and most people would not find the potential for beauty and magic in such a place. Enter the costume designer with a sense of style and whimsy to make it “sew” and you have a cohesive respite, a blending of fantasy and reality, a labor of creativity and craft with respect and a resulting air of joy. Placeness can be found here.

And also shadows. Placeness, as we’ve shown in previous arslocii installments – and what is, in fact, at the very center of the arslocii definition – is much to do with duality and counterpoint. On our website (and you’ll pardon our quoting ourselves) we, in trying to wrap our minds around the arslocii concept, talk about “a special pairing of the manmade with nature, or sometimes even manmade with manmade; the effect being a symbiosis in which neither one stands out or alone, nor would be as meaningful, beautiful or inevitable without the other. It’s an interdependence of aesthetics that goes beyond, thankfully, human dominance over nature or setting, because that has never had much grace.” The pairings and contrapuntalisms – big/small, hard/soft, open/contained, inside/outside, close/distant – doled out in the proper amounts and with just the right tilt of the head are what create placeness, and what, in turn, can mix that placeness DNA with that of art. Add to that list another pair: light/dark. It is here where the two gardens, the subjects of this piece, show their true colors. In the first, there is no accessible shade or sheltered spot – it is all sun-bleached and, though lengthy, without depth. It is an overexposed photo – everything is lighted, and lighted the same way. And, thus, there are no revelations, no discovery – though green, and with a river, it is as much a desert as the Gobi.

But the second garden – now, there, they understood that to see the light you need to have dark, and that the dark is only appealing (or nonthreatening) when one can see light. In this garden, one walks almost immediately from a light-drenched parking lot to the inviting shade offered by covered pathways and pergolas and way stations, then out again into an unprotected field adorned with small-ish sculptures … and then back again into the dappled shade of a woods – there to run into a straw man, a scarecrow, a figure that could be sinister but is rendered merely special by its location (there is no field of crops for it to keep birds from), by its lighting (only heavily filtered light, as opposed to the unremitting sun-soaked existence of most scarecrows) and by its backdrop: more light, and perhaps safety, just beyond. Back and forth, in and out, right here and up ahead.

And then, just farther along one of the winding paths, an allee of colorful parasols that comment wonderfully on the duality: in the most direct sun, they cast tiny, mushroomy pools of shade along the trail, creating a dimensionality out of very little – not just periodic protuberances to dot a landscape, as in the first garden, but ethereal definers that provide senses: sense of location, sense of style, sense of humor, sense of intelligence … sense of place and placeness. Sense and sensual, but not (like the first garden) overly sensible. Artful, playful, resonant, basic, primitive, natural … arslocii.

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I Walk the Line

For some of us, there is nothing better than looking at the world from a bird’s-eye view, a perspective that hovers above the earth-boundedness that we are born to endure. The preferred height varies with personal taste, but I find that anywhere between ten and thirty feet in the air is a happy place – like being in a tree, only not at the top. There is a feeling of elation, of being removed from the action below but still involved in witnessing it. Maybe it just reflects a desire for distance from societal traditions or norms, staying out of and above it all. Maybe it is the god complex in us.

In terms of height and distance, there is no place that could use such a sense of separation more than New York City. Enter the High Line, a remarkable effort combining infrastructure preservation, green space and landscape architecture to create a public space for strolling, watching and relaxing without encountering a single automobile. The brainchild of two inspired residents of the west Chelsea neighborhood it transects, this abandoned elevated freight-rail structure built in the 1930s became overgrown with reassertive nature, and the instigators and other local residents attached themselves to it as much-needed and -desired park land, weeds and all. After forming a “Friends of” group in 1999, politicking, maneuvering and fundraising, their dream of a magnificent public park was realized about ten years later. The success of its presence has revitalized the neighborhood that the High Line weaves through; a jewel of an elevated greenway that any section of Manhattan would covet, its original length (10th to 20th Streets) is now, in fact, in the process of being extended all the way to 34th Street.

The magnificence of its structure is a given, since even 1930s institutional styling is considered and decorative in a riveted-steel aesthetic – something done well even just for delivering products and goods to the upper floor (2nd and 3rd story) loading docks of factory buildings and warehouses. One of the best things about the High Line is how it zigzags into, through and under buildings, causing a stitching together of the rail line with the local architecture and creating tunnels and interesting spaces in the pierced structures. One, in particular, feels like an old rail station with tinted glass panes all green and yellow and more than a story high on the building’s interior side: a screen between the train and its dock. Another remarkable thing is the number of unique views available to the casual stroller from this perch: the Hudson River, the streets below, the sky so close you might think you are in Montana, up-close building facades, views down onto rooftops exposing all their mechanicals, lovely penthouses above, funky makeshift roof decks, water towers, skylights – it’s all there … well, it’s New York. One of the best sensations, and one not caused by passing traffic, is breezes – breezes off the Hudson, something that is rarely felt in the canyons of the city.

The promenade is a textural place made up of a variety of hard surfaces (terrazzo planks, wood, steel grating, stainless steel, corten steel, glass, gravel, some of the old original rail tracks left in place, metal-wire chain link, perforated metal and sections of railings that resemble train tracks on the vertical) plus a mix of soft but hardy meadow plants and grasses that will grow in with the same wildness that the uninvited ones had done. In its newly finished state, the promenade is a little too perfectly designed, almost like an outdoor mall (but without the shops, thankfully, and they are working on a water feature) but the feeling is that it will grow together in a way that a mall never would, especially with the planks’ fingerlings that merge and intermingle with the planted areas.

The walkways move in and out, funneling and narrowing and then widening to form plazas. There are benches galore, and in some areas there are wide two-person chaises (a few move on rail tracks) that are probably always occupied. At one spot there is stadium seating that faces four large picture windows looking out over 10th Avenue in an inviting theater of the absurd showing you what it is you have left below. This is a boardwalk reconsidered and reconfigured and built with self-sustainability in mind. Its newness and destination-ness (and tourist-ness) is something that will eventually morph into a real part of daily living.

The multiple layers of place taking place here are challenging. There is the place of the structure itself, one that was intentionally built not to overpower the street but rather to cut through the center of the blocks themselves, including buildings – in hindsight, a miraculous and magical solution that works well to this day. And those cuts create places, underbelly places that you would expect to find in a city. In its repurposed design, new physical places are created, as well as the unique viewable places discovered at this happy elevation on a flat island in-filled with mostly monolithic structures. The idea of this project has a placeness, in creating an elevated park in a densely built urban site. It is its own world, new land found and reclaimed within an impossibly already staked-out territory – that in itself has a remarkable placeness. But the real placeness will occur when nature asserts itself, and the hard manmade surfaces aren’t the most significant or overpowering part of the equation – when a balance is reached and some wildness returns. Until then, it would be wonderful if the High Line continued for the entire length of the island. Or even on into other states. And maybe we should see it as a preview of what can be done with all the horrible interstates and their clover leafs when the oil shortage puts an end to the car madness.

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