Little Island is on the verge of ‘leaving Manhattan behind’, says Heatherwick


Little Island’s elevated topography was designed to create a sense of escape from Manhattan, according to designer Thomas Heatherwick in this interview with Dezeen.

Designed in partnership with global engineering firm Arup and landscape architects MNLA, Little Island sits on 132 concrete columns above the Hudson River, near New York’s Meatpacking District. It was opened to the public last week.

Thomas Heatherwick designed Little Island. Photo courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Heatherwick was originally asked to design a pavilion for a traditional flat jetty, but her studio pitched the idea of ​​a wavy island away from the mainland.

By building a park over the Hudson, accessible only by walkway-style bridges, Heatherwick hopes visitors can experience “the feeling of truly leaving Manhattan.”

“[It’s] somewhere that would give some kind of emotional permission to come back to New York from somewhere other than New York, ”he told Dezeen.

Little Island and the ghost piers
Little Island is located on the Hudson River near New York’s Meatpacking District

Originally called Pier 55, the park sits near the remains of Pier 54. The historic structure, where Titanic survivors landed in 1912, is now reduced to clusters of wooden piles rising out of the water.

Little Island’s design was informed by “ghost piers” like this one, according to Heatherwick.

“Normally there is a cover on them,” he says. “The reason the old batteries are interesting is that they lifted the cover and that exposes those batteries.”

Little Island’s Concrete Column Forest pays homage to these structures by making its underlay a feature, Heatherwick said.

“We let the piles we need become the containers for soil and plant material,” he explained. “It was our version of minimalism, so as not to add another ingredient, we’re just focusing on that ingredient.”

Little Island’s design was changed after Hurricane Sandy

According to Heatherwick, Little Island was originally intended to be built closer to the water.

However, the design was changed after Heatherwick and his team presented the first models of the structure on the day in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, engulfing parts of the city in a deadly storm surge.

“As we went out for the presentation, the wind was increasing, the rain was increasing,” Heatherwick recalls. “That night, the floods really broke out and caused further damage to Pier 54, where the project was originally scheduled to go.

“He gave an additional mandate to reinforce any new structure built in an extremely solid manner and lift it a little further from the water level to ensure that its chances of being inundated are considerably reduced,” he said. he adds.

Thomas heatherwick
The park rests on 132 concrete columns

Little Island was lifted about 13 feet (four meters) higher above the waterline in response, Heatherwick believes. The design team embraced this change, he said, exaggerating the elevation to capitalize on the sense of separation from the continent.

“Who wants to be in a bigger part of Manhattan when you can go somewhere else instead?” He asked.

“By lifting the stacks to create a three-dimensional topography, we can create very different types of plantation landscapes. You get more like an alpine escarpment in the higher part, where the wind is greatest, but then you get protected areas different shading areas. “

Safety considerations necessitated the use of concrete for the main structure, according to Heatherwick, who said the Hudson River Trust stipulated it for both user safety and the marine environment.

“The forces of the Hudson River are massive there,” he explained. “The [existing] the wooden ones are absolutely beautiful. But this is not an option. “

Little Island concrete piles in New York
Little Island’s new concrete columns rise from the water alongside the wooden piles of old Pier 54

Each of the concrete piles is driven deep into the river bed. The six-meter-wide planters at the top of each stake are formed from precast concrete sections that were fabricated off-site and barged to the site. Each is filled with soil to contain the hundreds of species of plants and trees that make up the park.

The concrete piles are all at different heights, exaggerating the visibility of the engineering that has entered the structure and creating an undulating topography for the park.

“By creating an effective bowl by lifting all those corners, it sort of acts like a social condenser,” said Heatherwick, who explained that the idea came from his visits to the hill towns of Italy, where the promenade and people watching are key social components. Activities.

“People love to see and be seen,” he said.

Little Island's course and performance halls seen from above
Little Island is accessible via two bridges

Little Island has been nearly a decade in the making. At one point, it was unclear whether the project would ever be built.

Construction was halted in 2017 when opponents obtained a court ruling against it. But the city’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, stepped in personally and the project unfolded under the new Little Island banner.

“He got stuck in New York politics,” Heatherwick says.

“The loss to the city would have been very great, I think, not to go ahead with something like this.”

Little Island's concrete planters are filled with trees
Little Island features a hilly topography

The $ 260 million project was largely privately funded by businessman Barry Diller, who has a personal fortune estimated at $ 3.7 billion, and his fashion designer wife through their Diller-Von Furstenburg Family Foundation.

The foundation will pay for the maintenance of the structure for the next 20 years.

Cities have “lost their cool” to create a new public space

Public private spaces are controversial. But without them, argued Heatherwick, architects today have little opportunity to design for the public domain.

“The cities themselves have lost the confidence to create projects,” said the designer. “Governments and councils don’t command it. It’s like they’ve lost their trust. They’ve lost their cool.”

“So it’s up to private organizations to create the public space that we use, which is kind of funny in reverse.”

Little Island is the latest in a line of public domain projects that Heatherwick has designed for private clients, including the Vessel Viewpoint in New York and the Coal Drops Yard in London.

Such projects allow architects and designers to advocate for public amenities, argued Heatherwick.

“Otherwise, we’re just creating dead art galleries all over the place. How many art galleries can you have?” He asked.

“I mean, it would be easy for a studio like ours to do a lot of private houses for the wealthy. And that doesn’t interest me. So I much prefer doing things in the public domain. And yes, it is. controversial, when it’s private space. “

Little Island Amphitheater in New York
Tickets for shows at the park will be subsidized, Heatherwick said

Visitors must book timed tickets to access Little Island, but they are free. And Heatherwick was keen to point out that there will be affordable tickets for plays and performances presented in performance spaces in the park.

“There is a deep commitment not to limit ourselves to the Manhattan elites,” he said. “The subsidized tickets are for people in Harlem and the Bronx and all the boroughs around.”

Vessel, Heatherwick’s 16-story observation deck in the middle of Hudson Yards, came under fire when it emerged that all photos taken at the site are believed to be owned by the company that operates it. Architecture critic Alan G Brake has dubbed it “urban costume jewelry” in “a billionaire’s imagination”.

With Little Island’s bumpy journey coming to an end, Heatherwick might well have been prepared for more criticism. But so far, the creator said, Little Island has been “very, very, very positively received.”

“Maybe the problem is, I should never go to my own projects again,” he joked, referring to the fact that he hasn’t been able to see Little Island in person yet.

Due to the pandemic, Heatherwick has not been able to travel to New York City since January 2020, when the island’s very first trees were planted.

“I want to reserve my judgment until I can see it,” he said. “I haven’t been there for so long. It’s enticing.”

The photograph is by Timothy Schenck.

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