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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
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.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Dealing with misinformation, feeling powerless, and slowly getting better together
I thought the article would validate my husband’s experience. That’s why I emailed him the link to the decade-old New York magazine article about his alma mater, the American Boychoir School for vocal prodigies, where alumni from as late as the 1990s estimate that one in five boys were molested. Boys like Travis.
“It used to feel like an isolated incident that affected just me," Trav said.
It was the end of my workday on an October afternoon; I had just set my keys on the kitchen table. My coat was still buttoned.
“Now I know I spent nearly three years of my childhood at a boarding school not just with random pedophiles, but in a culture that allowed it.”
As his wife, how do I respond? That he survived? That he’s brave? That he’s a hero for letting me talk about it? That I will stand beside him with a personal mission and public vow that nobody will ever hurt him, physically or emotionally, again, the way they did during his 30 months as a choirboy from 1988 to 1990?.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”