Episode 5 - Landscapes as Art - The High line in New York

Updated: Oct 11, 2019


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Hello everyone, welcome to Arty Anglais, the podcast where we talk about everything Arty to help you learn English naturally.

Hello everyone and welcome back for our fifth episode of Arty Anglais. If this is your first time listening, welcome, I'm Tara, Australian Art and English teacher who lives in Montpellier in France. The Arty Anglais podcast is especially for those people who are learning English and who might have an interest in Art and creativity. I'm a big believer in the power of listening to things for pleasure to help you improve your comprehension. I'm a passionate teacher who loves Art too. So I make this podcast for the people who I think might enjoy listening to all things arty. I have some great podcast topics coming up including talking to a few artists so if you haven't already, make sure you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

I'm feeling pleased this week because I finally received my Titre de Sejour Visa. I no longer have to feel worried that the French Government are going to send me back to Australia! When I went to the desk at the Prefecture (the place you get your Visa in France), the lady was so impressed by my passport that she decided to show her colleague! I thought she was laughing at my picture because it's horrible! But as it turns out, she was impressed by the jumping kangaroo on the inside of my passport. Then it made me stop and look more closely at the artwork on the Aussie passport. It's rather beautiful. On the front page, there is the Australian coat of arms. It's an Emu and a Kangaroo holding a shield. Some people say the Kangaroo and the Emu were chosen because they cannot walk backwards. On the main page of the passport, there is a watermark of a kangaroo. The cool thing is when you move it back and forth, the kangaroo jumps! (You see my video on Instagram) .

(02:37) On the rest of the pages, there are images of Aussie native animals (e.g. Koala, Kookaburra & Platypus) and plants. On the last page is a beautiful example of an embossed Aboriginal Artwork. When you run your finger over it, you can feel the image. That reminds me, I've started writing an episode about Aboriginal artwork in Australia which I'll share will you later. So, thanks to the ladies at the Montpellier prefecture, I was reminded of how innovative the Australian passport is. Now, my friend has challenged me to learn how to explain all of this to my French friends in French! But now I'm also curious to know how other passports look. So, tell me about your passport? What artwork is on yours? How would you design it differently if you were the artist?

(03:43) The weather in Montpellier has been beautiful. Every day last week I went for a walk or a run along the river. It has been a good excuse to listen to French every day. As you might know, I'm trying to learn French. I'm finally starting to notice a difference in my comprehension. The improvement in my understanding is most definitely because each day I try to listen to or watch something in French. It is having a positive impact on how I feel about my learning. So if you're like me and learning a language (English I assume) believe me, listening every day helps. In the beginning, I couldn't think that I would (I'd) ever understand anything. But, little by little I'm realising I can understand more and more. I started listening to a new podcast this week called Quoi de Meuf, which is mostly two women talking about exciting pop culture topics in French. Although they talk a little faster than I'm used to, I was surprised to realise I could understand some things. I also started to make my French learning much more relevant to my interests. For example, I started watching the European TV channel ARTE. This week I watched an episode about female street artists that I found pretty interesting. I'll share what I learnt with you in a future podcast episode. But today, I'm going to talk to you about how a Landscape or a garden can be Art. More specifically, I'm going to talk about an urban park I visited in New York in 2015 called The High Line.

(05:39) I remember when I visited The High Line in 2015 that you could take a walking tour to learn about the High Line's history, design, unique horticulture and the public art program. I did my walking tour using the iPhone app, and I took a lot of photos of the beautiful flowers and the views to the rest of the city. I went to The High Line in summer the second time I visited, and I saw so many people doing tai chi, and some people had a stereo sitting on the floor while they were dancing and singing. It created a fun atmosphere. In many ways, The High Line is like a performance stage. When it's full of people, it's like a performance of life, and the gardens with trees and shrubs provide a beautiful backdrop to all the things that happen on The High Line. Most of all, it's nice to be able to sit above the passing traffic and feel safe away from the 'hustle and bustle' of the street below.

(06:53) The High line is a significant public park in New York. It's essential for many reasons. It is first and foremost a park, with green space, areas for children to play, public art, tai chi classes, runners or joggers, people walking, dancing and singing; and many places to sit and watch the world go by. In New York apparently, there is a saying in the city, "You gotta have a park!". The High Line has quickly become one of New York's most beloved green spaces and a must-see for visitors. It's a tribute to the past and a great example of how that past can be preserved and revitalised, meaning it was brought back to life after almost being demolished. I'll talk about that a little bit later. The High Line is one of the public parks that I believe is an excellent example of a garden or a landscape that can be in itself a piece of art but is also is a place that displays examples of contemporary art. There are more than 30 public art projects commissioned by the friends of the High line each year. So it's a meaningful way to connect the community to modern examples of art. By the way, have you ever visited this park? If you're going to New York, I highly recommend 'paying The High Line a visit'. You would use this idiom 'paying a visit' to describe when you might go to see something or someone. You might say 'I'm going to 'pay that person a visit'.

(08:37) Today, I want to talk about three things. A little about the history of The High Line. Why I think landscapes are art (and sometimes an art form we take for granted) and the importance of the High Line as a park which connects the community to public art. I want to talk also about my experiences visiting the park. If you've never seen The High Line to understand better what I am talking about, have a look at some of the pictures of the High Line in today's episode notes before we start. Okay, let's find out more.

(09:23) Firstly, let's talk a little bit about the history of The High line, what it is and who the people behind the organisation called 'Friends of the High line are because I think this is important to paint a picture of why The High Line is such a significant place in the city of New York.

The History of the High Line

After looking at the pictures, can you believe that The High Line was once destined for demolition? Luckily, the community rallied together to repurpose it instead, creating the park that can be enjoyed today.

During the middle of the 1800s, railroad tracks ran along 10th and 11th Avenue in Manhattan. They delivered coal, dairy products and beef to processors and distributors on the West Side of New York. Men rode on horseback in front of the trains and waved flags to warn people about the approaching trains. You can see this in pictures in today's episode notes. However, the corridor was hazardous, and by 1910, there had been 548 deaths and 1,574 injuries estimated over the years. Because of this, the avenue became known as Death Avenue.

Death Avenue 1910, by George Grantham Bain. Library of Congress

(10:53) So, the solution was to elevate the tracks! You can see the old pictures of the elevated tracks in the episode notes. In some parts of the railway, the tunnel even runs through buildings.

So, then by 1933, the first train was running on the High Line viaduct, which ran from St. John’s Park to Spring Street. However, by the 1950s there had been a dramatic increase in interstate trucking, which meant that freight trains were no longer required. So, by 1978, the High Line saw only two carloads of cargo per week. Two years later the High Line’s owner, had to disconnect it from the national rail system. Afterwards, the unused line fell into disrepair, but its riveted steel structure remained in pretty good condition. However, it sat unused for many, many years.

(11:58) In the meantime, something unusual was happening in Paris in the 1980s. In 1988 the 'Promenade Plantée' also known as 'La Coulée Verte', was created in Paris. It was the first green space of this kind. It is a pathway of 4.5kms with quite a lot of plants, a walking path and a bicycle path. Part of it was built on a former railway (just like The High Line) which had been unused since 1969. I visited this park many years ago, and I ran the entire length of it. It's all true what they say about this park. It's a beautiful little hidden park which acts as a refuge for many of the nearby residents. The gardens and the landscapes on it and surrounding it change as you walk or run along with it.

This pedestrian path runs most of the time above or under the street level through the 12th arrondissement of Paris. It starts behind the Opéra Bastille. It ends at the entrance of the Bois de Vincennes. There are several accesses which are built along the path so you can either walk the entire trail or just parts of it.

(13:22) So, after visiting both The Promenade Plantée and The High Line in 2015, I knew that there was no doubt that the designers of the High Line in New York must have drawn their inspiration from The Promenade Plantée.

A Second life

(13:38) So, in 1999, inspired by the Promenade Plantée, Paris, residents who lived close to the High Line began to advocate for the city to preserve and repurpose the High Line as an urban park. Many people believed that The High Line was an ugly eyesore including the Mayor Giuliani who signed a demolition order). But at the same time, many people had no idea that a thriving garden of wild plants was secretly taking over the structure.

On The High Line website, they describe what happened next.

Inspired by the beauty of this hidden landscape, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservation foundation, to advocate for its preservation and reuse as a public space. Friends of the High Line remains the sole group responsible for maintenance and operation of the High Line today.

(14:39) To incite exchange about the High Line, when its probable change into an urban park was not yet guaranteed, Friends of the High Line facilitated an "ideas competition," getting 720 entries from more than 36 nations for ways the space could be turned into a park. At the time, few individuals had known about the High Line; the competition helped to drive awareness and excitement around the park. Between 2004 - 2006 a special zoning area for The High Line was proposed and was strongly supported by the Mayor and City Council. The area was rezoned into The West Chelsea Special District meaning it could now be used as a public park. Landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations; design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro; and planting designer Piet Oudolf were selected as the team to design the High Line.

(16:00) Work started on the project in 2006 and the first phase opened in 2009. So, if you can recall, that means it took 10 years to get the project finally realised. It just goes to show, that making something of this scale a reality takes the energy of passionate people, political support, persistence, time, money and the skills of an expert team. The third and final phase was completed in 2014, with a short section above 10th Avenue and 30th Street that opened just recently in April 2019. I was lucky enough to visit this interesting park in recent years. Once in 2015 in winter and then again in 2016 in summer but I'd love to go back again next year. I'm crossing my fingers this becomes a reality!

The High Line Gardens

(17:12) The High Line's planting design is inspired by this self-seeded landscape that grew wild for 25 years after the trains stopped running. You can still see a section of the preserved landscape at the start of The High Line park. It is preserved in one of the 15 different planting zones on the elevated park. This section of the park is perhaps the most important to see as its more or less what saved the park from demolition! What a great achievement (especially for something, some people would call weeds.) It's true, when I saw this section of the park, I thought it wasn't the most beautiful. However, it's the most significant and contributes to the remarkable story of the park.

According to Piet Oudolf, who designed the gardens, he believes:

“My biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it, but to recreate the emotion.”  

And that is precisely what he did at The High Line. He drew inspiration from these existing plants. In my own experience, when you wander through the gardens, you can see so many different grasses, shrubs, and trees that were chosen for their ability to grow in harsh conditions. They also provide ever-changing textures and colours in all four seasons. The beautiful changing, colourful gardens are one of the many ways the High Line is a great public park and in my opinion a piece of public Art in New York City.

(18:58) The park is worth going to see in the different seasons as it changes so dramatically. I love following the Instagram images in Autumn as there as so many beautiful deciduous trees changing colours. In spring, it's full of interesting mixes of flowers. It's also fascinating when you go in winter especially when it snows. When I went to New York in 2015 it was winter and freezing! I froze my bum off but I was pretty happy to be there, and there was still some autumn leaves left on the trees, so it didn't matter. Oh yes, freeze your bum off is quite a funny expression that I seem to use a lot, especially when it's bloody cold! (really cold)

(19:54) In summer it's bustling with people trying to escape the hot sun! I remember when I returned in July 2016, New York was having record temperatures and unbearable humidity, and people were laying under the trees. I feel so strongly about urban landscapes being vital places for relaxation and refuge (which means a place to get away from the city and the harsh weather) and a place that reminds us of the beauty of nature. Often I think landscapes are the invisible art we take for granted. They play such an important role, yet they can sometimes be undervalued. It's only when they are missing from a city or when the weather becomes unbearable that we realise we couldn't live without them. In order for us humans to be drawn to them, they need to be both beautiful and address our needs.

(20:57) The thing that's most amazing about The High Line is it has a powerful, underlying message. If it were not for the tireless work of the Friends of the High Line, then we might not have the fantastic park that is there today. The Friends of The High Line are an essential piece of the puzzle in the story. This noun phrase 'piece of the puzzle' helps to explain that The Friends of the High Line organisation was a vital part of saving the park.

We now have a precedent landscape that many Landscape architects and designers look to for inspiration today.

The High Line as Art

(21:43) Now I want to talk a little about why The High Line is itself a piece of art. Garden is designed and in itself is a beautiful piece of art that changes with the seasons. Designed urban landscapes are very often that places where the designer has to consider so many things - science, nature, ecology and on top of all of that, how to make these parks enjoyable for people and pleasant to look at and walk around.

It’s not about it just making a landscape look great; it’s about creating spaces for everyone and future generations in mind. With this approach, we are inclusive in our designs, both with humans and with nature. Landscapes can exist both outside and inside buildings. Landscape architects (or landscape designers) must devise (design) a landscape that creates a journey and experience for the people who go there. But often the beauty of a project is in something as simple as the changing colours of the leaves, the contrasting textures, the patterns of the plants, a group of native trees all planted to encourage wildlife to co-exist with us, humans.

(23:16) I read an article recently by John Goldwyn about how landscape architecture is neither art or science. He said:

Landscape architecture (or landscape design) is neither art nor science, but art and science; it fuses environmental design with biology and cultural ecology. Landscape architecture aims to do more than to produce places for safe, healthful, and pleasant use... Landscape architecture lies at the intersection of personal and collective experiences of nature.

Art on The High Line

(24:01) As well as being a piece of art in itself, High Line Art is also committed to expanding the role of contemporary art in public spaces. Artworks on and around the High Line are commissioned which sparks dialogue (and sometimes debate) that is an essential element of city life. You can see many of the examples of artwork on The High Line website.

There are too many to talk about in one podcast, but I'm going to talk about two that I found interesting when I was there. I'm also going to talk about one that is currently on display (that I haven't seen yet). Funnily enough, these artworks are no longer there as the artworks are temporary. If only I could go every year to see all the great examples. I may have to plan another trip next year.

The Friends of the High line say:

"In all of our projects we seek to entwine (wrap together) the threads of artistic endeavour – both man-made and in natural – as a way of shaping our city.

The sentiment they describe there is evident when you see the railway tracks which have been incorporated into the gardens. They stay there permanently.

The railway tracks were also evident in this first piece of artwork I wanted to share, which was by Matt Johnson called swan. This sculpture was created from the artist's sketches and was bent from an original rail track from the New York City High Line. Swan was one of my favourite artworks when I was there. I enjoyed it for the simplicity and the connection to the history of the park.

These tracks provide subtle reminders of the railroad's past. The Rail Track Walks are "a new way to express and interact with the historic rail tracks."

As a side note, this artwork reminds me of my favourite idiom: bent out of shape, which can mean turning something out of its natural form (literally) or it can also mean when you make someone angry. For example, you could say to someone a bit upset about something 'there is no need to get so bent out of shape!"

Smart Tree by Nari Ward

(26:36) The second artwork I wanted to share was called Smart Tree by Nari Ward which was and artwork displayed between 2016 - 2017. This artwork was inspired by a building adjacent to the High Line that had been transformed into an indoor parking lot. It's a car made from refinished strips of car tires sitting on top of concrete blocks with an apple tree growing out of the roof. Nari Ward explains that it was a reconfiguration of a memory from his childhood. He had returned to his father's home in Jamaica after fifteen years away and found an abandoned car in the front yard sprouting a lime tree. The Artwork was there (on the High Line) to remind passersby of the High Line's history as a major transportation artery in Manhattan. Interestingly, the headlights of the car were powered by solar panels on top of the vehicle.

(27:46) The final artwork is something I haven't seen, but I think it is an important part of the story at The High Line. I learned about it on The High Line website. The exhibition - En Plein Air, is inspired by the city surrounding The High Line. It's an exploration of the tradition of outdoor painting. The title refers to the 19th-century practice of en Plein air painting (meaning painting outdoors in French. During this time, painting outdoors was associated with the Impressionist movement, which emphasised capturing nature and capturing how the Industrial Revolution was shaping and changing the world.

Some of the artists challenge the distinctions between natural and artificial. The High Line is a suitable site for challenging the perceptions of painting outdoors, because of the physical features of the park which contrast with the surrounding scenery of the billboards, building facades and walls, and variety of advertisements.

(29:07) So that's all from me today. Thank you again for listening all the way to end and following on. If you have any suggestions for future podcast topics, I'd love to hear from you. You can send me an email to info@artyanglais.com What are your plans for the next few weeks or the weekend? Next weekend in Montpellier it's the FISE which is an Extreme International Sports Event. There will be lots of events for skateboarding, BMX bikes, mountain biking, Wakeboarding, Rollerblading and parkour. All the courses are set up along the Rives du Lez. There is also a temporary art exhibition, so I'm looking forward to going and 'checking it out' at the weekend. It will be the second time I've been so it will be cool to see it again. Anyway thanks again for listening and I hope you will join me for my next podcast episode. As we say in Australia, I'll catch ya later.

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Hi, I'm Tara. An Australian English Teacher in Montpellier. You can get in touch with me by email info@artyanglais.com

Discussion questions

Why are parks important in the city?

Is it important that a park looks good? Why/Why not?

Do you agree that a park can be art? In what ways can a garden be art?

What features of a park could be considered art?

Describe some things that you believe make a park a form of art?

Is there a park in your city that you often use to escape the city?