Read This: Gardens of the High Line and The High Line, two books about NYC’s most influential public park

Exploring the High Line in October 2014 remains a highlight of my garden travels, and I’d love to go see it again. Until then, reading about it keeps the fire burning, gives insight into the origins and design of this unique public garden/nature walk/civic space, and offers the advantage of seeing the garden in all its seasonal variety. Here are two books about the High Line I’ve recently read and recommend.

Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes
by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke (2017, Timber Press)

If you want to luxuriously examine the plants and garden spaces of the High Line in all their changeable, seasonal glory, Gardens of the High Line is the book for you. The majority of its pages are filled with beautiful, expansive photos of the garden’s flora, from the lowliest sedges to the tallest gray birches growing in what is essentially a 1-1/2-mile-long green roof. Starting at the park’s south entrance and working its way northward, the book explores the 13 garden spaces that make up the High Line experience, lingering on the magical Gansevoort Woodland, Washington Grasslands, and Chelsea Grasslands.

Late autumn and winter scenes — blazing, then bleached foliage and blackened seedheads topped with caps of snow — are sprinkled amid the expected green and lush spring and summer scenes. For those of us in faraway cities who may visit only once or twice, the generosity of garden coverage is a delight. Text is minimal, mostly photo captions, although a brief introduction for each garden space helpfully explores the overall design and how visitors interact with the garden.

The only disappointment was a relatively lengthy essay at the beginning called “Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes,” which I was keen to learn about. It traces the history of garden design up to the cultivated-wild style popularized by Piet Oudolf; the evolution of industry, leading to the High Line’s disuse and eventual transformation; and how grasses and North American prairie plants came to be seen as garden worthy rather than as weeds. All of this should be fascinating stuff for garden-design geeks like me, but it bogs down in sluggish phrasing:

“With the clarity of hindsight, the gardens of the High Line are an elegant solution to an obvious opportunity that remained obscured until an unprecedented awareness of social, economic, industrial and biological trends came into focus.”

Whew. Happily, Gardens of the High Line is primarily visual and will prove fascinating to anyone curious about — or looking for a memento of — this singular, unforgettable garden and cultural landmark. Get ready to spend hours poring over garden views and then making travel plans for NYC.

The High Line: Foreseen/Unforeseen
by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro (2015, Phaidon Press)

Where Gardens of the High Line lingers on the plants and garden spaces built on the old rail line, The High Line: Foreseen/Unforeseen shows how the landscape architecture came to fruition, transforming a derelict elevated rail line into a civic space designed for people, while preserving the sense of nature reclaiming the city. The weeds that colonized the abandoned rail line inspired and galvanized the activists who worked to save the High Line, and who so improbably succeeded. The design team felt it was critical to honor those weeds and their melancholy beauty with their design, which proved to be revolutionary.

The High Line contains illuminating and thoughtful interviews with the 5 principal architects and landscape architects who designed the structure’s conversion and its look and function; with Piet Oudolf, who designed the plantings; with the engineers who implemented the design; with the lighting designer; and with the graphic designer of the High Line’s logo. All bring their unique perspectives to bear on what the High Line represents and what it brings to the city. Never dull, their discussions are insightful and inspiring about the power of good design, and if you have any interest in landscape architecture, garden design, or city planning — not to mention the experience of visiting the High Line itself — you’ll be fascinated by this book.

A meaty and oversized hardback, The High Line is incredibly detailed and must have been an expensive book to produce. Probably a hundred design specs are reproduced, and dozens of pages are split and open up like shutters to provide closeup looks at design details, as you can see in the examples below.

Together The High Line and Gardens of the High Line offer the in-depth information and comprehensive images of the park and its gardens that its fans and design lovers everywhere will enjoy.

Disclosure: Timber Press sent me a copy of Gardens of the High Line for review. Phaidon’s The High Line was given to me as a gift. I reviewed both at my own discretion and without any compensation. This post, as with everything at Digging, is my own personal opinion.

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2 Responses

  1. ks says:

    I visited the Highline in 2013, and dream of returning. I recently acquired Gardens of the Highline and it has a place of honor in my winter reading stockpile.I hope to get to it before gardening season kicks in–but there are so many books in that pile !

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