West8 landscape architects sculpt New York experience

Lush hills frame the view on New York harbour.

NEW YORK – Governors Island is an 87-ha island located a 7-minute ferry ride away from Manhattan. The decision was taken in 2006 to turn the island – which was once a military base – into an iconic destination for New Yorkers and visitors alike. Acclaimed Dutch landscape architects West8 won an international design competition proposing to transform the derelict archipelago into a park, and not just a park but a landscape that will turn a visit into an experience thanks to: The Hills. The sensation is fourfold: Grassy Hill is a 8-m-high gentle, grassy slope overlooking the island’s new and historic landscapes and the Manhattan skyline; Slide Hill, at 11-m-high, is the home of four slides, including the longest slide in New York City; Discovery Hill, also 12-m-high, features a site-specific sculpture – Cabin – by the internationally recognised British artist Rachel Whiteread and first major permanent public commission in the US; and Outlook Hill, which can be reached by universally accessible paths. Here, 21 m above the island, visitors are afforded unforgettable views of New York harbour, the Statue of Liberty and the skylines of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Jersey City.

Experiences are important, so I was assured a few weeks ago when jumping from the Python Bridge in Amsterdam, a 10-m-high landmark built by West8 in 2001. Approached from afar the bridge appears smoothly curved and shiny red on the horizon like an intergalactic stairway, no straight line disturbs its flow. With its unconventional design, the Python Bridge is a symbol of an Amsterdam that exists beyond the flower market and canal ring. Instead of historic charm the bridge has experiential value – due to its height it has become a preferred spot to conquer fears and dive into the water.

Heights also play a role on New York’s Governors Island. West8’s co-founder Adriaan Geuze has introduced a sculpted topography in the form of The Hills to the island which was flat like a Dutch pancake before. The artificial elevations are constructed of recycled demolition debris, general landfill and lightweight pumice, stabilised with geotechnical reinforcement and finally covered with 41,000 new shrubs, 860 trees and multiple grassy lawns. The Hills, as a feature, creates a certain suspense by providing ‘conceal and reveal’ vistas, which ‘maximises the sense of anticipation, pulling a visitor through the park or signalling a place to sit and stay just a bit longer. The topography defines the very character of the area,’ explains Geuze.

Governors Island in 1950: flat like a pancake. 

The personal experience of an environment is crucial for Geuze as it inscribes the object that is the landscape with subjective meaning. Geuze’s work is comparable to Debordian psychogeography which is defined as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Usually referring to the person who wanders through urban settings, studies and experiences them with their senses, the act is preceded and reversed by Adriaan Geuze. He sensually examines the environment before adding a layer that will inevitably shape the experience of the next user. When Geuze won the competition to design Toronto Central Waterfront, the designer requested to be taken to the lake and taught how to canoe. It is a matter of perspective – more precisely of changing the perspective. The waterfront might be thought of as a place to look out on the water, but it is of course also a place to be looked at from the water. In New York, Geuze has formed The Hills in such a way that the Statue of Liberty appears dramatically between two elevations. It is the only place in the New York harbour area from where the statue’s face can be seen, clearly adding a new perspective to the cityscape.

And the same is true for the Python Bridge, back in Amsterdam. It adds a new perspective. Standing on top of it, it seems higher than before. My friend Herbert has already jumped in silently (‘It’s now or never’) when I am still trying to balance my legs over the hand railing without falling victim to a premature fall. I jump as soon as I sit straight. It is by no means an elegant jump and it hurts. But, as Herbert euphorically declares, ‘It’s an experience. The memory will last longer than the bruises.’

The Hills on Governors Island will officially open to the public on 19 July 2016 and is anticipated to provide a whole host of experiences in the form of art, recreation and spectacular New York harbour views – and maybe even bruises.

Photos Schenck / West8



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