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.
His paranoid style paved the road for Trumpism. Now he fears what’s been unleashed.
Glenn Beck looks like the dad in a Disney movie. He’s earnest, geeky, pink, and slightly bulbous. His idea of salty language is bullcrap.
The atmosphere at Beck’s Mercury Studios, outside Dallas, is similarly soothing, provided you ignore the references to genocide and civilizational collapse. In October, when most commentators considered a Donald Trump presidency a remote possibility, I followed audience members onto the set of The Glenn Beck Program, which airs on Beck’s website, theblaze.com. On the way, we passed through a life-size replica of the Oval Office as it might look if inhabited by a President Beck, complete with a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a large Norman Rockwell print of a Boy Scout.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt sued the federal government to prevent rules about air and water pollution from taking effect.
Throughout the long campaign, and in the long month that has followed, President-elect Donald Trump sounded some odd notes about the environment.
He rejected the scientific fact of climate change, calling it a hoax or a fraud. He repeatedly announced his intent to repeal all of the Obama administration’s environmental regulations. He lamented, wrongly, that you couldn’t use hairspray anymore because it damaged the ozone layer.
And then, out of nowhere, he met with Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for educating the public about the dangers of climate change.
While the broad strokes of Trump’s policies were never in doubt, there was often enough bizarreness to wonder what he would do with the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As journalists push back against hoaxes and conspiracies, media skeptics are using charges of “fake news” against professionals.
For a term that is suddenly everywhere, “fake news” is fairly slippery.
Is “fake news” a reference to government propaganda designed to look like independent journalism? Or is it any old made-up bullshit that people share as real on the internet? Is “fake news” the appropriate label for a hoax meant to make a larger point? Does a falsehood only become “fake news” when it shows up on a platform like Facebook as legitimate news? What about conspiracy theorists who genuinely believe the outrageous lies they’re sharing? Or satire intended to entertain? And is it still “fake news” if we’re talking about a real news organization that unintentionally gets it wrong? (Also, what constitutes a real news organization anymore?)
Trinidad has the highest rate of Islamic State recruitment in the Western hemisphere. How did this happen?
This summer, the so-called Islamic State published issue 15 of its online magazine Dabiq. In what has become a standard feature, it ran an interview with an ISIS foreign fighter. “When I was around twenty years old I would come to accept the religion of truth, Islam,” said Abu Sa’d at-Trinidadi, recalling how he had turned away from the Christian faith he was born into.
At-Trinidadi, as his nom de guerre suggests, is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), a country more readily associated with calypso and carnival than the “caliphate.” Asked if he had a message for “the Muslims of Trinidad,” he condemned his co-religionists at home for remaining in “a place where you have no honor and are forced to live in humiliation, subjugated by the disbelievers.” More chillingly, he urged Muslims in T&T to wage jihad against their fellow citizens: “Terrify the disbelievers in their own homes and make their streets run with their blood.”
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Studies show that for most types of cognitively demanding tasks, anything but quiet hurts performance.
Like most modern “knowledge” workers, I spend my days in an open office. That means I also spend my days amid ringing phones, the inquisitive tones of co-workers conducting interviews, and—because we work in a somewhat old, infamous building—the pounding and drilling of seemingly endless renovations.
Even so, the #content must still be wrung from my distracted brain. And so, I join the characters of trend pieces everywhere in wearing headphones almost all day, every day. And what better to listen to with headphones than music? By now, I’ve worked my way through all the “Focus” playlists on Spotify—most of which sound like they were meant for a very old planetarium—and I’ve looped back around to a genre I like to call “soft, synthy pop songs whose lyrics don’t make much sense:” Think Miike Snow rather than Michael Jackson.
A stray observation helped one researcher to uncover the strange connection between the seashells and lobsters of his childhood.
Born in the Bahamas to a family of lobster fishermen, Nicholas Higgs spent much of his childhood diving in Caribbean waters, working on boats, and collecting shells on the beach. That connection to the sea stayed with him. He moved to the UK and became a marine biologist. He studied whales and marine worms. And on his wedding day, he asked his parents to bring some shells from the Bahamas to decorate the dining tables. Those shells, which symbolized his past, would also define his future.
At the wedding, his former boss picked one up and identified it as a lucinid clam—a group that feeds in a strange way. While most clams filter food from the surrounding water, lucinids get almost all their nourishment from bacteria that live in their gills. And the bacteria create their own food—just like plants, but with one critical difference. Plants make nutrients by harnessing the sun’s energy, in a process called photosynthesis. But the clam bacteria get their energy by processing minerals in their surroundings. That’s chemosynthesis—making nutrients with chemical power instead of solar power.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.