The Highline and Social Voyeurism or Something That I Thought When I Went to New York Recently Part 1 

There is something pleasantly unsettling about the Highline and it is not just the richness of the plantings in an urban context; prairie dropseed; spiked gayfeather; wild quinine; yeah whatever. It is the inversion of the usual egocentric co-ordinates of the city. Particularly in New York the rich generally look down on the poor whether that is from their penthouse or from their helicopters.  On the Highline that has been inverted. On one level the Highline has provided a new attractive, hip development driver to the Chelsea district but in another way it gives something back.

I don’t believe that architecture can eradicate inequalities that are created by wider social structures and so the Highline for me is not a grand gesture about social divisions– those are meaningless – it is however a  cheeky inversion in the relationship between rich and poor. As Richard J Williams noted in his book the Anxious City when writing about redvelopment in Manchester the original logic of modernism’s use of glass and steel was to create open-ness; a sense of democracy. Those outside can see inside and therefore see that no monkey business can be going on. Williams suggests wisely however has been inverted in our age to become a game of display; those outside can see what is going on inside… and envy it.

It is generally however rather hard to see into the upper-reaches of new highrise developments even if have they have glass curtain walls. Except on the Highline. Where one can peer into the renovations of the Meatpacking district and into the homes of those with more cash than us. Of course this can have a sexual overtone. It has become a part of New York lore than the Standard Hotel is a hotspot for spotting naked shenanigans (although this being New York there is probably a commercial imperative to such naughtiness.) Given the advertising imperative of Standard Hotel stripping, one can see that the whole process of gentrification is actually what the highline is actually providing a view of – an upmarket boutique hotel being just a part of this. It is going to be a very different place when the development that is taking place along it, has finished.

New York building sites are ruthlessly efficient, dynamic spaces – especially used to the the go-slow-and-stop pace of Montreal and when the building is generally completed it will be less dynamic, fascinating space I fear. It will always have that superbly detailed, loving tended combination of plantings and industrial materials and moments of theatre like the atrium suspended over 10th Avenue. However, urban change is currently very much part of the Highline’s spectacle; the social vertigo prompted by being able to watch the rich move in but then tut-tut at their choice of wallpaper.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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