James Corner is one of the premiere theorists and practitioners of landscape architecture, a field that emphasizes the design of outdoor and public spaces to achieve specific environmental, socio-behavioral, and aesthetic outcomes. The principal designer at James Corner Field Operations, a New York-based landscape architecture and urban design firm, Corner focuses on landscape urbanism, an amalgamation of a wide range of disciplines including landscape architecture, ecology, and urban design. Here, he discusses the creative process behind New York's now-iconic elevated park, The High Line, whose second section opened in June.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS about landscape architecture is the amount of attention you have to pay to the found conditions of any project. The famous 18th century British landscape architect Lancelot Brown coined the term "capability" in landscape architecture: He was always looking at what the capacity of a site was for relative modification and creative transformation. An effective design is always an original response, so much that a project isn't really about a design, or a style, or a look; it's about a unique, highly customized reaction to found conditions. A painter has just a canvas and a regular architect has just a site, and in many cases those sites aren't very complex. With landscape architecture, you're in a specific, unique environment. There's weather. There are seasons. There's soil ecology and chemistry. There are a whole slew of factors that mean, as a designer of a living space, you not only have to amplify existing conditions, but be creative and respond to what you find. You don't just fly in as a superstar designer and do your own thing. A lot of attention, a lot of learning has to happen when you start a new project in a new place, sensitizing yourself to what you find, so that the final product is something that grows out of a site.
Landscape architects often have a design signature; their work looks a certain way. I think my work is always unique because it's always influenced and informed by the site we're working on. My Fresh Kills Park project in Staten Island demanded an original response, and the High Line was a wonderful found object that required a very sensitive and original design concept. It's not a design that would transfer sensibly anywhere else.
With the High Line, we had this extraordinary artifact that in some ways was an ugly duckling, something with potential. At the turn of the century, it was derelict; the concrete and steel and tracks were obviously in disrepair, the rails rusted, the wood cracked. Most people at the time thought it should be torn down. But where some people saw dereliction, others saw inspiration. It was in the landscape running along those broken tracks. The photographs of Joel Sternfeld (fine-art color photography and publisher of Walking the High Line(2002), an anthology focusing on the railway) had a remarkable influence in allowing people to view this thing as something with potential rather than something to be skeptical of. Running for a mile and a half through the west side of Manhattan, there's a remarkable dialogue between nature and industry--or rather, post-industry--suspended 30 feet in the air.
"A Railroad Artifact, 30th Street, May 2000" Photo by Joel Sternfeld, from Walking the High Line (2002)
There were a few general design strategies we adapted in approaching the High Line. The first was to exercise restraint as designers, to not feel like you we had build a lot of stuff. You can simply let the structure reveal itself--or you can reveal the structure.
We focused a lot on how the paving and furnishing was designed. It's a singular, integrated system that's little like a concrete carpet running the entire length of the High Line. By opening the paving, we allow the plants to bleed through, almost as if the plants were colonizing the paved areas. There's a sort of blending or bleeding or suturing between the hard paving, the surface for people to stroll on, and the planting, the effects of planting taking advantage of micro-climates and local situations to flourish.
Initial blueprints for High Line thickets. Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations.
The completed thickets. Photograph by Paul Katcher/Flickr, courtesy of James Corner Field Operations.
The whole design of the paving is quite customized and unique. It's designed as a single, flexible surface, where each of the units is replicable across the entire structure. It's just like putting a plank down, and then another after it, much like how a railroad engineer would design a length of track. It's pragmatic and systematic while remaining quite flexible. Instead of a single path guiding people in a straight line, the nature of the paving allowed us to create something that bends and meander, and we get to bring people down the High Line in a meandering way.
This sequence of movement is designed -- choreographed, really -- to illustrate different panoramas in an ambulatory way. Its not about static shots, its about how moving through the city in an ambulant way allows interesting vistas and panoramas to unfold.
Planking schematics and designs for Section 1 of the High Line. Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations
A completed section of the High Line. Photograph by Iwan Baan, courtesy of James Corner Field Operations
The paving has tapered pieces that dive down into the planting beds and open up cracks. You get the illusion of this dialogue between hard inorganic surfaces and an organic, living landscapes beneath. The paving has open joints where rainwater leeches through the planting beds and is collected below. One of the real challenge of the High Line was being able to build a real landscape--something with shallow depth that's windy, hot and dry in the summer, susceptible to significant frost and cold in the winter. The High Line experiences extreme environments with only a bed of very shallow soil. Preserving and retaining water is crucial to keeping the entire ecosystem alive. In a sense, the entire structure was engineered to be self-sustaining, but as the Sternfeld photos show, the derelict railway was alive long before we arrived.
An early model of the High Line. Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations.
The paving, the furnishings, the railing, the lighting, and the planting...those elements remain consistent for 20 blocks on the High Line, all through Section 1. That consistency is important: it creates the effect of slowly strolling in a highly distinctive and original landscape. But then, in certain locations, we have punctuations in places that are designed to be social spaces for people to hang out. It's a singular pathway landscape, but there are a series of places that are much more intense and more unique and designed specifically for specific situations. At the square site up 10th Avenue, we created a large seating venue with a stage and window looking out onto the street. Or the sundeck on 14th Street--that's where the High Line takes a bend--you get great views southwest across the river. That's were we put the chaise lounges; we were aiming for a very dramatic stage setting. It's these punctual places--the 10th Avenue square, the giant sun lawn in Section 2, and the flyover steel catwalk that slices across 18th Street--it's really these episode places that become a stage set for social life to play out.
Pedestrians take in the city lights. Photograph by Iwan Baan, courtesy of James Corner Field Operations.
So why do people go up there? They stroll through the gardens, take in the views and vistas, but they also go up because there are other people up there. It's part of the spectacle of being among other people you don't know in the context of the city. The High Line as it's designed works because of people's desire to bring their friends and family up, to move with them in a somewhat dramatic, theatrical, episodic way, and be able to create stage sets where people can linger. These are very traditional landscape architectural tropes: journeys around the garden, journeys through a landscape. In many ways, the High Line is remarkably traditional, but it's also so much more intense because of its very linear landscape. The paths are designed to force people to people slow down, to stroll, to meander, so they're immersed in a certain rail-bed landscape of remarkable textures and colors and unusual forms. The High Line was designed as a living system. If it wasn't for people, you could have just left the High Line as it was. It's a garden in the sky, so very charming and romantic in so many ways.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.
In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram's electric-shock studies showed that people will obey even the most abhorrent of orders. But recently, researchers have begun to question his conclusions—and offer some of their own.
In 1961, Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram placed an advertisement in the New Haven Register. “We will pay you $4 for one hour of your time,” it read, asking for “500 New Haven men to help us complete a scientific study of memory and learning.”
Only part of that was true. Over the next two years, hundreds of people showed up at Milgram’s lab for a learning and memory study that quickly turned into something else entirely. Under the watch of the experimenter, the volunteer—dubbed “the teacher”—would read out strings of words to his partner, “the learner,” who was hooked up to an electric-shock machine in the other room. Each time the learner made a mistake in repeating the words, the teacher was to deliver a shock of increasing intensity, starting at 15 volts (labeled “slight shock” on the machine) and going all the way up to 450 volts (“Danger: severe shock”). Some people, horrified at what they were being asked to do, stopped the experiment early, defying their supervisor’s urging to go on; others continued up to 450 volts, even as the learner pled for mercy, yelled a warning about his heart condition—and then fell alarmingly silent. In the most well-known variation of the experiment, a full 65 percent of people went all the way.
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Women in their 20s are told they're too young to settle down. Then, seemingly overnight, they start hearing they're spinsters. What gives?
Heterosexual women today, in certain milieus, find themselves placed into one of two categories: too young to settle down, and too old to find a man. There is a window of opportunity to get married, but it is ephemeral almost to the point of non-existence. It falls at a different age according to region, or the idiosyncratic biases of one's circle, but hovers around 27. "Too young" refers not to teen marriage, but to any commitment entered into by a grown woman deemed still a child by those around her.
Here's how it works: A young woman hears from friends and family that she needs to focus on her career or education, not some guy. She is warned of certain dangers: unsolicited male attention; unintended pregnancy, as if intended pregnancy were also a thing; and the desire hardwired into all straight men to turn their girlfriends into 1950s housewives. To entertain the possibility of it being difficult to find a husband, to even utter the expression "find a husband," is to regress to another era. And this advice is incredibly appealing, a rejection of the quaint notion that female heterosexuality is the desire not for men, but for a white picket fence.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
The drug modafinil was recently found to enhance cognition in healthy people. Should you take it to get a raise?
If you could take a pill that will make you better at your job, with few or no negative consequences, would you do it?
In a meta-analysis recently published in European Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers from the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School concluded that a drug called modafinil, which is typically used to treat sleep disorders, is a cognitive enhancer. Essentially, it can help normal people think better.
Out of all cognitive processes, modafinil was found to improve decision-making and planning the most in the 24 studies the authors reviewed. Some of the studies also showed gains in flexible thinking, combining information, or coping with novelty. The drug didn’t seem to influence creativity either way.