When you stand in the middle of Little Island, the new parklet levitating off the coast of Chelsea, it looks bigger and farther out than it is. You approach the shore, where a bunch of Alice in Wonderland-These poisonous concrete mushrooms spring from the Hudson River. Friendly staff members waving to you on the catwalk if you have booked a free and timed ticket or it’s before noon or after 8pm. Once there, you are in a case that has been designed down to the smallest cheesecloth. Those 2.4 acres of Babylonian lavishness cost $ 260 million to build and it will take millions more per year to maintain. This expense is borne by media mogul Barry Diller, a fact that has baffled those who think of rich and raptor as synonyms. What is amazing is not that a billionaire ordered this handmade Eden to his liking and in a place of his choice, but that he had to do it for the benefit of the rest of us. It’s true that plutocratic town planning isn’t a way to build a city, and I half-expected the result here would be a cheesy mini-Disneyland hinting at concepts like nature, Public, and to park without a clear understanding of what they mean. Instead, Little Island is a spellbinding, totally New Yorker place.
Most New Yorkers know London based mage Thomas Heatherwick for the brilliant, monumental and sometimes maddening ship at Hudson Yards. This ill-conceived creation was designed without any thought for disabled visitors; now it is governed by rules designed to prevent more suicides. (No loners allowed, signage urging against self-harm, no more guards on the alert, and a $ 10 entry fee to cover costs.) Along the High Line, a signed Heatherwick condo features picture windows like bulging eyes, build a disturbing entomoid look.
But on Little Island, Heatherwick’s imagination has somehow found its moorings. That says a lot about the man who foots the bill, Barry Diller, who mixed generosity with vigilance. It speaks even better of the collaboration between Heatherwick Studio and longtime New York landscape architect Signe Nielsen. In a day of exploring the city, you might pass a dozen Nielsen projects; 25 years ago, she developed the master plan for the Hudson River Park, and she knows which trees and shrubs will withstand the wind, salt spray and dog urine. When Little Island feels like a weird and wonderful creature that has landed just offshore, it’s Heatherwick. When you get the impression that she is closely linked to the city, it’s Nielsen.
In a sense, the island is one more feature of the Hudson River Park, which is part of the leisure archipelago stretched along the western flank of Manhattan. Look south and you’ll see Gansevoort Pier cleared for a new beach, north and you’ll hit the wall at Pier 57, which has Google and a rooftop park in its future. (City Winery is already here.) The Hudson River Greenway draws a line, inviting visitors on wheels or in padded sneakers to speed up. The piers offer a map of destinations: playgrounds, dog trails, ball fields, sunbathing lawns, tables nestled among the flowers. The island, however, has a different pace. You start in an open plaza served by food trucks, furnished with cafe tables and lined with lawns perfect for lounging when not busy resting. A sloping path winds along hills and valleys, turning back, separating stairs and stopping on rocks and benches to savor the ever-changing vistas. Like all worthwhile climbs, this one has a top and a reward: a panoramic view that stretches from Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building and beyond.
The trails are long, winding and gentle, but they are crisscrossed with stairs and climbing shortcuts, like a serene sort of falls and ladders. This gives visitors options and prevents a route from feeling like a one-way walk. Sometimes you almost feel lost in the tiny land cut off from the nearby shore. Retaining walls are made of sheet piles, a system of folded steel panels that interlock to form quick and dirty barriers. Nothing less refined. Their virtue, however, is that they are barely any thickness, and in a landscape as well designed as this, every inch not devoted to the wall adds up to many more plants. Surprises are impossible to spoil. You arrive on the amphitheater (“the Amph, ”in Little Island slang), hidden in a depression behind a ridge, as one might do on a high mountain lake. Even the bathrooms are a surprise, nestled under a mound and shining like a treasure buried in their own cave.
One of the wonders of the island is an ever-changing sense of depth. Up close, it’s a cornucopia of tactile details: succulents lined with rusty steel battlements; vibraphones suitable for children; rustic rock faces; wooden stairs so weathered gray that they allude to a previous incarnation; bleachers carved from black locust blocks. The signage is cut through standing metal columns, like old incisions that will never fade. Everything asks to be touched.
All of these design decisions add to a rare specificity, only one here that is absent from so many contemporary places. And those close-up details lead a conversation with the middle ground. The weathered steel rods that enclose the edge of the island are spaced enough apart that even an underweight toddler cannot wiggle between them. This allows parents to relax, look up, and record the visual rhyme between rusty poles and old wooden stilts in the water below. Echoes also work from a distance, although not all of them are intentional. Near the top of the hill I came across a cluster of white Bells of Canterbury standing like towers. Behind them, the World Trade Center and the Financial District towered high, as in a clumsy imitation of the floral skyline.
A secret garden is usually walled. This one is in the open and the city swirls around it, offering unfamiliar sights of familiar places. The Whitney, heaped up and sculpted like a milky cliff; the Standard Hotel, thin and not at all slab when viewed from the side; Bjarke Ingels’ pair of winding towers, still under construction near the High Line – all of those sharply angled, faceted structures rise above the gentle mounds of the island and suddenly appear fresh, made festive by the premier blossoms plan and mature trees.
More than a series of pretty photos, the island is a total immersion experience, which is why the photographs don’t do it justice. People tend to keep their eyes on the ground when climbing and lift them up when descending, so Nielsen has planned for both. She planted fragrant perennials near the trails to offer visitors something more interesting than their feet to look at (and smell) and cleared the vegetation around the edges of the island to reveal the skyline and the river. Hudson. “Japanese gardens have the notion of a borrowed landscape,” she says. “You don’t own it or control it, but it becomes part of your gaze. And I thought there were times when the landscape had to pull back to highlight that. “
For the most part, the support structure, so striking from the shore, stays out of sight when you’re at it. At one point, however, the path descends to where the large concrete goblets on their narrow stems form a gallery of pointed arches. The solid mass above and the thinness below – the sheer improbability of all this little world balancing above the water – brings out the audacity of the artifice. 18th-century English landscapers feasted on miniature pavilions amid groves and meadows. Instead of a madness in a garden, Little Island is a garden in a madness.