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.
In a dreary European city, a man who goes by the name “Mikro” spends his days and nights targeting Islamic State supporters on Twitter.
In August 2014, a Twitter account affiliated with Anonymous, the hacker-crusader collective, declared “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS: “Welcome to Operation Ice #ISIS, where #Anonymous will do it’s [sic] part in combating #ISIS’s influence in social media and shut them down.”
In July, I traveled to a gloomy European capital city to meet one of the “cyber warriors” behind this operation. Online, he goes by the pseudonym Mikro. He is vigilant, bordering on paranoid, about hiding his actual identity, on account of all the death threats he has received. But a few months after I initiated a relationship with him on Twitter, Mikro allowed me to visit him in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and two Rottweilers. He works alone from his chaotic living room, using an old, battered computer—not the state-of-the-art setup I had envisaged. On an average day, he told me, he spends up to 16 hours fixed to his sofa. He starts around noon, just after he wakes up, and works late into the night and early morning.
It leaves people bed-bound and drives some to suicide, but there's little research money devoted to the disease. Now, change is coming, thanks to the patients themselves.
This past July, Brian Vastag, a former science reporter, placed an op-ed with his former employer, the Washington Post. It was an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a man Vastag had formerly used as a source on his beat.
“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses,” Vastag wrote. “At 43, my productive life may well be over.”
There was no cure for his disease, known by some as chronic fatigue syndrome, Vastag wrote, and little NIH funding available to search for one. Would Collins step up and change that?
“As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make,” he wrote. “Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.
An influential journalist who supports the presidential candidate offers an unusually naked defense of her ends-justify-the-means approach to public life.
An influential progressive writer published a blunt assessment of Hillary Clinton this week, declaring her unusually willing to transgress against civic and legal standards.
“From her adventures in cattle trading to chairing a policymaking committee in her husband's White House to running for Senate in a state she’d never lived in to her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results to her email servers,” Matthew Yglesias declared at Vox.com, “Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas.”
He goes on to flesh out those examples and to offer still more:
There was no winnable Senate race for her to enter in Illinois or Arkansas in 2000, so she ran in New York instead. Barack Obama forbade her from employing Sidney Blumenthal at the State Department, so she employed him at her family's foundation instead. Sandy Berger faced criminal penalties for destroying classified documents at the National Archives, but that didn't stop Clinton from informally employing him as an adviser on sensitive Middle East peace negotiations.
She decides what she wants to do, in other words, and then she sets about finding a way to do it...
A radical experiment at Zappos may herald the emergence of a new, more democratic kind of organization.
Deeply strange reports have been emerging from the Las Vegas headquarters of Zappos, until recently the world’s happiest shoe store. This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution that spells out a radical new system of self-governance. Holacracy, it’s called, and it makes all previous moves toward “employee empowerment” look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch. Freed from direct supervision, employees are expected to join various impermanent democratic assemblies called “circles” (headed, but not run, by a “lead link”), in which they will essentially propose their own job descriptions, ratify the “roles” of others, and decide what projects the group should undertake.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
All-day breakfast undermines the true pleasure of the iconic sandwich: anticipating and then missing out on it.
The greatest luxury is the one we cannot have—or at least, the one we cannot have very often. This is the definition of luxury, really, and not just expensive, unreachable luxuries, but also cheaper, smaller ones. Thanksgiving turkey and dressing, a decadence limited to one day a year. And also, breakfast—real breakfast, with grains and eggs and meat and starch. Even at a place like McDonald’s where, as of this week, a selection of the struggling fast food figurehead’s breakfast menu, including the venerable Egg McMuffin, isavailable all day.
Let me say something heretical: The Egg McMuffin is not that great, actually. Warm but slightly wet and gooey, sloppily constructed, oozing with quasi-cheese, the slap of Canadian bacon failing to yield to incisors. But what is great is the idea of an egg McMuffin. It’s an improbable domestication of Eggs Benedict, condensing that civil dish of lazy brunches into the harried hand of the commuter or the road-tripper.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
What will happen to digital collections of books, movies, and music when the tech giants fall?
When you purchase a movie from Amazon Instant Video, you’re not buying it, exactly. It’s more like renting indefinitely.
This distinction matters if your notion of “buying” is that you pay for something once and then you get to keep that thing for as long as you want. Increasingly, in the world of digital goods, a purchasing transaction isn’t that simple.
There are two key differences between buying media in a physical format versus a digital one. First, there’s the technical aspect: Maintaining long-term access to a file requires a hard copy of it—that means, for example, downloading a film, not just streaming from a third party’s server. The second distinction is a bit more complicated, and it has to do with how the law has shaped digital rights in the past 15 years. It helps to think about the experience of a person giving up CDs and using iTunes for music purchases instead.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.