Volume 76, Number 53 | May 30 - June 5, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Ric Scofidio talking about the High Line while standing in front of a screen with projections of the park project last Thursday at the IAC Building on W. 18th St.

Talk in cutting-edge building on cutting-edge park

By Albert Amateau

Ric Scofidio and Liz Diller, the unconventional founders of the Scofidio Diller + Renfro team transforming the High Line — a 1.5-mile elevated railroad — into a park, spoke last week to a rapt audience gathered in a building designed by another unconventional architect.

The venue for the May 24 Friends of the High Line program was the imposing ground-floor space of the Frank Gehry-designed, angular, glass-enclosed Interactive Corp (IAC) building on W. 18th St. and the West Side Highway, which was completed earlier this year a scant block west of the elevated railroad.

“I was concerned about what it would be like to talk from this stage — or platform — in front of this incredible screen. I found it quite enjoyable,” Scofidio said in response to a question at the end of the program.

The luminous wall that serves as a presentation screen stretches more than 50 feet so that the same image can be shown side by side almost directly in front of every one in an audience seated on chairs no more that 10 rows deep.

The High Line forum was one of the first public events in the building that serves as headquarters for Interactive Corp., which comprises about 60 interactive brands, including Ticketmaster, Citysearch, Evite, Match.com and RealEstate.com.

“It’s actually a pretty good building,” said Diller, who said she passes it frequently on the West Side Highway.

The forum audience got a detailed look at the Scofidio Diller partners’ glass intensive design for the recently completed Boston Museum of Art, which cantilevers over the water of Boston Harbor. The partners also showed the development of their design for the reconstruction and enlargement of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, currently under construction, which also has a prominent cantilever.

But they also presented some projects and installations not usually associated with architects — “to show you the perversity of our thinking,” Diller said.

They showed a glass ashtray that looked like it had a chimney and a weird dress made with strange material. Then there was their Whitney Museum exhibition of men’s shirts folded and ironed in bizarre configurations.

For an exposition in Switzerland in 2002, they devised a structure of pipes above the surface of a lake with 35,000 nozzles that created an amazing mist.

“Their buildings department wanted us to install a sprinkler system to conform to regulations and we had to show them that this was the world’s largest sprinkler system,” Diller said.

The partners are interested in “breaking down the notion that nature and nurture are opposite,” Diller said. “For us, the space is not the main concern, it’s what happens inside if it.” It was an observation especially apt for the High Line project.

“What is amazing about the High Line is being able to see the city in incredibly different ways from 30 feet in the air,” Scofidio said. He recalled the public competition in 2003 that elicited far-out suggestions, including a mile-long swimming pool.

The design team, which also includes Field Operations, the landscape firm headed by James Corner; the Dutch garden designer Piet Ouldorff; and Olafur Eliasson, a designer in Berlin, strongly feels that the High Line Park is a companion to the Hudson River Park to the west, Scofidio said. The High Line is conceived as a slow park, strictly for pedestrians, with Hudson River Park a fast park that accommodates bicycles and skates.

The challenge was to keep the viaduct’s wild look — which evolved as weeds and grasses covered it since the last boxcar of frozen turkeys rolled down the rails in 1980 — and at the same time allow people to enjoy a unique experience.

The solution was a series of concrete planks that can be added or removed at various locations to allow people to walk among planted areas. The boundary between planks and planted areas would never be hard edged and benches would grow out of planks that slope up to seating level. At places where people tend to gather, planks could be added.

Most access locations are to have stairs and ramps, while a few would include elevators. All access would be public; any access from a private development adjacent to the High Line is required to end at a public access point.

Construction of the first segment of High Line Park between Gansevoort and 20th Sts. is on schedule for a 2008 public opening, said Robert Hammond, co-founder of Friends of the High Line. The second phase, between 20th and 30th Sts., is expected to open in 2009.

But one-third of the line — between 29th and 34th Sts., where the line loops around the rail yards between 10th and 12th Aves. — is still threatened, Hammond acknowledged.

“The M.T.A. originally wanted to tear that part down,” Hammond said. “But they decided to allow developers to come in with proposals [to develop on platforms over the yards] that would tear it down and proposals that would keep it as it is,” Hammond said.

“We chose [Scofidio Diller + Renfro] because they like crazy ideas and are really able to solve problems and turn crazy ideas into economic realities,” said Hammond.

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