Glass meets … landscape virtuoso James Corner

Winning without Losing – Landscape virtuoso James Corner on how reusing and readapting our public spaces can be powerful tools for democracy, authenticity and wellbeing

ON the 9th floor of 475 10th Avenue, New York, a small team of about 50 designers work on several, big urban design and landscape architecture projects. They call themselves James Corner Field Operations. Under the leadership of their founder – Mr Corner himself – they have cemented themselves as a powerhouse design firm committed to creating vibrant and dynamic public spaces which are inherently bound to people and nature. Field Operations is mostly known in the design world because it’s given landscape architecture an unprecedented urgency, relevancy and timeliness. In fact, there is no bigger name in landscape architecture than James Corner.

James Corner photographed in New York City for Glass by Ben RosenzweigJames Corner photographed in New York City for Glass by Ben Rosenzweig

Although the firm has been around since 1998 – always operating under a mandate of crafting ecologically smart and culturally significant works of lasting distinction – they were perhaps most notably thrust into the spotlight when they won the commission to lead the design of Manhattan’s High Line, a 23-block-long disused elevated railway on the city’s West Side. Before it became the High Line as we know it today, the city of New York deliberated what to do with the abandoned structure, inviting design firms from all over the world to propose alternatives. Field Operations opted for an unexpected and seemingly simple, yet powerfully regenerative and ecologically responsible solution: they made it a natural, green ribbon for citizens and tourists alike.

Since then, the High Line has arguably become Manhattan’s most important (and controversial) contribution to the city in terms of public space and attracts over five million visitors annually. James Corner’s projects are catalysts for urban change, breathing life into spaces that are flat-lining, and his ability to reuse and readapt them is setting a model for bold, sustainable solutions for our everyday urban spaces. Glass met with Corner to discuss the importance of spatial generosity, the democratic aspect of public spaces, his relationship with nature, the illnesses most metropolises face today and his ideas on how these can be cured.

In western culture we’re often of the ‘out with the old, in with the new’ mentality. Your NYC High Line is a powerful example of urban reuse of spaces that might have previously been considered derelict. Could you tell me a little bit about the site’s condition when you were commissioned to do the project?
The High Line itself was in a state of abandonment and dereliction. It was also in a section of the city with signs of abandonment and there wasn’t much going on in terms of new development or growth. There were a few edgy nightclubs and some small art galleries, but it was a fairly forlorn part of the city.

The High Line itself was viewed by many people as being a dark, dangerous and derelict structure of no value. There was a large neighbourhood movement to simply remove it, so that’s how the whole thing began – when two young residents, Robert Hammond and Joshua David formed a grassroots group called the Friends of the High Line in an effort to try to preserve this structure and do something creative with it.

A strech of the derelict High Lane in May 200, before it was regenerated by Jame Corner's Field Operations studioA stretch of the derelict High Lane in May 2000, before it was regenerated by Jame Corner’s Field Operations studio

It is, of course, important to create new spaces in cities, but it’s also important to reuse and readapt others. As a landscape architect, when do you opt for a complete redesign and when do you vouch for reusing what you’ve got?
Sometimes you have places with features that most people don’t see the value of – such was the case with the High Line. The scepticism surrounding what the public thought the High Line could ever be was unbelievable. In most people’s eyes it was a smelly, toxic blight. There are other projects we’ve had where we’ve had to work on waterfronts or piers that, again, appeared to be derelict, falling into the water. And yet, sometimes these perceived liabilities can be turned into new assets. The value of that is in their sense of authenticity, because you are using something that has a history and you are literally morphing it – transforming it – into something new. You’re giving it new life again.

You’re right, there are situations that don’t necessarily warrant reuse and adaptation. Sometimes it just makes more sense to actually remove or erase, and start again doing something new. In the case of Seattle’s waterfront, for example, there’s presently an elevated viaduct that cuts across the waterfront, carrying two decks of vehicular traffic. This is definitely perceived by many people as a blight: it literally severs the city from the waterfront, it’s noisy and it’s got a dark underbelly.

Now they are rerouting the traffic into a tunnel underneath Seattle, and that viaduct is getting removed. You could say, why not retain it, preserve it, adapt it and reuse it in some way? But in the case of Seattle, that just doesn’t make sense. There are seismic and structural issues, but there’s also the fact that we can actually create a much better public space by removing it and opening the whole waterfront up to the sky. So there are instances where these perceived abandoned post-industrial liabilities can be reimagined and turned into unique and special assets, and there are also situations where it doesn’t make sense and it’s more correct to simply remove them and start again.

The High Line gathered a lot of interest from many different firms, and a lot of them proposed buildings on the site. Was there a eureka moment during the design of the High Line where you came up with your winning idea, or were you convinced from the beginning that the overground tracks should remain an open, green space?
Being a landscape architect, you train to pay a lot of attention to what you find in a particular place before you start working. Especially when you’re working with a place that has certain authenticity – like Fresh Kills Landfill [an area three times the size of Central Park which, under the guidance of Field Operations, is being transformed from a landfill site into a park and wetland], which has a certain charm and aura of its own – I always wonder, what do you lose through design?

The High Line, for instance, had a sort of melancholic, dreamy, otherworldly character to it, so it was worth asking, “What if you come here with a typical designer mentality? What would you erase and what would you lose?” Sometimes design can just be too heavy-handed. It can try too hard to assert itself in such a way that you actually end up erasing the original sense of place that characterised that very location.

The High Line, for me, was so palpably powerful in terms of its scale and size, and in terms of the way it just cuts through the city, through buildings, across streets. It had an autonomous character. Also, nature was impressively beginning to colonise this structure already. This is a structure of steel and concrete, yet we were seeing vines, grasses, flowers and small shrubs growing, whose seeds had just been blown into the site by the wind. The fact that they began taking over was very magical, surprising and delightful, so the question was, how do we design something where we can get more people up here, creating a new public place without losing any of this magic?

A Wildflower Field looking north toward West 29th Street, where the High Line begins a long, gentle curve towards the Hundson RiverA Wildflower Field looking north toward West 29th Street, where the High Line begins a long,
gentle curve towards the Hundson River

The work you do is very much about people and enhancing their lives. How would you say that the word “generosity” relates to landscape architecture?
There is a sort of general view that landscape architecture is simply about beautification or scenic improvement – about making places look better (he chuckles). You know, that’s part of it. How places look and how they feel is quite fundamental, but more than that, it is the creation of settings for everyday life, settings that help to dramatise and liven everyday life. These spaces should instigate particular types of sociability. By creating a setting that is generous and inviting, you’re establishing the right sentiment for people to come in and feel that they are welcome there. Only then can they begin to take part in the activities of the space.

How does your work inform your particular relationship with nature?
Because landscapes are inevitably outdoors, and they are always in a particular geography, they each have very different climates and temperatures. It’s all of these ingredients that create a very unique locale. We have to remember that these are also living places. They’re bound into ecological processes and into time: they grow; they die; different species come and go; other communities evolve. They change depending on the time of day and the seasons of the year, especially in places where you get extremely cold winters and extremely hot summers – such as New York. It can be a very challenging environment, so understanding ecological systems and their interactive evolutionary characters is quite fundamental.

In the case of the High Line, we knew that it would be bound into time and that the kinds of plants we planted would grow and begin to take up space. They would begin to compete with each other and outnumber other species, so it’s really designed as a beautiful and very diverse garden. But it’s also understood to be a very dynamic garden that’ll continually change; part of the floral composition, the blooms, the different textures and colours change almost weekly! It’s also very different annually. The High Line feels different today than it did even four years ago, simply because of the scale of growth and the natural modifications that have taken place.

Washington Grasslands, an aerial view of the High Line over Little West 12th StreetWashington Grasslands, an aerial view of the High Line over Little West 12th Street

What features did you design in the High Line to be sustainable?
One of the most successful aspects is how we retain storm water so that when it rains or snows, all the water is collected below the paving. The water is then used to irrigate the planting beds, so it’s a very responsible strategy with regard to water management and avoids all that rainfall just being lost to the city drainage system. In some ways you could also say that just the preservation of the High Line itself has some ecological intelligence. Not only will there be carbon reduction because of the greenery, but also reusing the structure adaptively means that we avoided demolishing it and having it hoisted off somewhere else.

You’ve got the High Line in NYC and the Under Line in Miami. In the Under Line you’re seeking to create a park that connects different communities and neighbourhoods with a strategy encouraging people to ‘get out of their cars to walk, bike and take mass transit’. I find it interesting that you’re attempting to give citizens a better quality of life, not just by making beautiful green spaces, but also by promoting a more active lifestyle. How important is this in your work?
The High Line, the Seattle Central Waterfront and the Under Line in Miami are all linear in shape. There’s something connective about them because they’re pathways that inevitably link things together. In the case of the Under Line, it’s a 17-mile-long transit corridor with an elevated structure that has a light rail on it. Our project is the site below. We were trying to think about how to create new pathways for people to stroll, jog and ride bicycles, as well as to connect the Under Line into adjacent neighbourhoods and landmarks.

There’s a large effort to improve people’s mobility in the city, which is why bike paths are so important. Also, health and fitness are probably one of the biggest drivers of public space and city parks today. We need to provide spaces where people can get out and enjoy the sun, the weather and the company of others, but we also need to provide spaces for people to go out and exercise – whether it’s strolling, jogging, rollerblading, cycling or running marathons. People are looking to live in cities and they’re looking for opportunities to remain healthy and improve their quality of life.

Aerial view of the regenerated High Lane running through Manhattan, New York looking south towards the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centre siteAerial view of the regenerated High Lane running through Manhattan,
New York looking south towards the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centre site

You’ve worked across different continents and cultures. What are some of the main design ambitions and considerations between designing public spaces in western culture versus eastern culture?
I think the way the Chinese relate to open space, for instance, is very different from people in the West. How people in the Middle East relate to public space is very different from us in the West. So there are significant cultural and political differences in terms of how they use, see and value open space.

How would you say that the Chinese relate to open space?
I think there is a notion that landscape and nature is something that is outside the city, and so you leave the city to visit nature, perhaps for a long weekend or something. The tradition of parks and gardens – even though there is some part of that in China – is not as richly appreciated as it is in the West. One of the challenges is how to create public spaces, parks, waterfront gardens and squares which resonate with Chinese lifestyles and customs.

Corner aims to bring communities together through his work. The future approach to Brickell Station in Miami will be a gathering space for residentsCorner aims to bring communities together through his work. The future approach to Brickell Station in
Miami will be a gathering space for residents

Field Operations was commissioned to develop the masterplan for China’s Qianhai Water City, a new sustainable city on reclaimed land and described as “hyper-dense”. Do you see this approach as being a successful ecological model to follow in cities that will come?
I’m a big proponent and supporter of cities, and a big supporter of density and compactness in cities, particularly because of the mathematics of population growth around the planet. There are incredible demands, stresses and challenges to continue providing clean air, clean water, adequate food and agricultural land, as well as energy and decent economic conditions for an equitable society.

When you think about it, cities are the only models that makes sense. We can’t afford to be sprawling and commuting long distances, and consuming arable agricultural land, creating conditions that are deleterious for water, flood-control, water-retention and biodiversity. When it comes to density and compactness, it is fundamental we have the right mix of amenities to ensure that cities are attractive, function well and have a whole host of desirable uses.

Qianhai – which is a city that has been built very, very quickly to try to accommodate the population growth and the rapid urbanisation that is happening in China – is envisioned as a city for over two million people. It’s designed as a series of fairly compact blocks to promote walkability, as opposed to having to drive everywhere. The city has a great transit circle that ties together all the different neighbourhoods. It has distinctive districts and parks and waterfronts. We’ve designed a system that allows all the water that has filtered through the city to be channelled back into the parks. The parks then help retain, filter and improve the water quality before returning it to the bay.

The master plan for Qianhai Water City, Field Project's latest commission, a new sustainable, 'hyper-dense' city on reclaimed land in ChinaThe master plan for Qianhai Water City, Field Project’s latest commission, a new
sustainable, “hyper-dense” city on reclaimed land in China

Living in a newly built sustainable city is all well and good. But what should designers, planners and politicians be working on to help solve the problems in non-sustainable existing cities such as metropolises like New York, London, Shanghai and Tokyo?
I think the key component of cities is very clearly related to mobility, transit and connectivity. The cities that function best have really great transit and transportation systems, ranging from sidewalks for walking to dedicated bicycles lanes; from efficient and clean subways to systems like rail lines that can get you efficiently out to airports and ports. A second component is the creation of a mix and diversity of uses.

The best parts of cities aren’t those that are monolithic, where you have block after block of office buildings; the best parts have a mix of retail, food, living, work and entertainment so that you’re always in a diverse and texturally interesting urban fabric. Thirdly, we need to acknowledge the importance of having generous quantities of public open space. These spaces encourage people to get out, to socialise. It’s public spaces that support the democratisation of free speech and are vehicles for public life in the city to be visible, allowing it to play out.

by Regner Ramos