Liz Diller on the High Line’s surprising success
The architect and co-author of our High Line book describes the park’s conception and its subsequent popularity
Liz Diller never intended to be an architect. “I wanted to make feature films,” explains one of the founding partners of the New York City practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro. While she may not have entered the dream factory of Hollywood, the designer and co-author, with James Corner, of our forthcoming book on the High Line, has gained a reputation for being one of the most imaginative professionals working within the built environment.
She and her partner Ricardo Scofidio, with whom Diller established the firm in 1979, broke down the traditional client-architect relationship by working on self-generated projects that addressed how public spaces were conceived and structured. “The early work had to do with found sites, sometimes <!--[if gte mso 10]>
<![endif]--> guerrilla projects, temporary stolen sites in the city,” she recalls. “At some point we started to get commissions for more architectural projects, but we never stopped exploring cultural conventions, and we still continue our independent art and performance projects today."
Diller, also a Professor of Architecture at Princeton University, first began to consider the potential of the High Line, a disused mile-and- a-half of elevated freight railway that once serviced the West Side of Manhattan, while teaching at the University.
“We would ask students to imagine how it could be re-purposed, as an academic exercise,” she explains. “But we never imagined that it would actually ever be saved and adapted for a new use.”
Diller and her fellow architects were not exactly pessimists, yet, as she recalls, during the 1980s, “The mode of the day was, if an institution or an urban structure was no longer useful, you just tore it down and built anew. Conservation was a relatively new idea." When she finally set foot on the elevated railway, a little over ten years ago, as part of a redevelopment team that also boasted heavyweights such as James Corner Field Operations and the Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf, she found this vestige of the industrial city could already serve a new purpose.
“You could walk for a mile and a half uninterrupted by traffic lights. It was overgrown with weeds and strange flowers from seeds that had somehow been blown onto the surface,” she recalls. “It was full of potential. You could see New York in an entirely different way. You could see details that were never meant for the public eye. You could see smoke stacks and people's laundry on fire escapes and you could see windows into alleyways, mechanical lifts taking cars into the air. It was so full of wonder that we thought we have to get the public up here without destroying it.”
The public, in those early conceptions of the park, meant 300,000 visitors a year - “and that was a high estimate,” Diller says - rather than the six million who visited last year. Some of the park's success, in Diller's view is that it offers respite in an increasingly frenetic post-industrial city.
“In New York, because we are so productive, if we're not in our offices we're in the gym burning calories, or in between, on our devices,” says Diller. “The High Line provides a space where there's actually very little to do except walk and sit. You can't throw a ball; you can't ride a bike; you can't really run very easily.”
Now, over a decade on from first surveying the site, Diller feels the new book, a first-hand, behind-the-scenes account of the creative inspiration behind the transformative park, co-authored with fellow creators at Diller Scofidio + Renfro and James Corner Field Operations, offers an apt point to look back.
“Everyone has made a book on the High Line except its designers,” she laughs. “This has given us an opportunity for reflection, to look at what we did successfully and what we produced inadvertently. For us, it has been very important to look back into the archives and catalog the sources of inspiration.”
Nevertheless, Diller and co's work is not wholly complete. They are still working on small sections of the park. “We’re working on the Spur at 30th Street, on the 18th Street Plaza, as well as some other sites,” she explains. “In the minds of the public the High Line is finished, but these projects continue.” And, years on from that fateful survey, this innovative park remains in safe hands. To learn more about the High Line from the people who made it order your copy of their new book here.
Also, if you really love the park, consider giving it a little help. Each year, Friends of the High Line provides 98 percent of the funds needed to operate, maintain, program and run the High Line— and they can only do so with the generous support of people like you. Go here to join Friends of the High Line.