Landscape designer Piet Oudolf, 74, best known for his transformation of an abandoned New York railroad into the High Line linear park, says that discovering the definition of beauty has become a life-long endeavour. “I try to find beauty in things that on first sight are not beautiful.” Garden design is an ephemeral art, not commonly classified as fine. But a recent documentary — Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf — argues that the Dutch designer transcends the genre.
“He doesn’t claim to be an artist,” says director Thomas Piper, “but others recognise that quality in him.” One person who does is Iwan Wirth, president and co-founder of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery, who commissioned Oudolf to create a garden from the meadow surrounding the gallery’s outpost in Somerset. Thousands of herbaceous perennial varieties were used in the informal 1.5 acre garden, Oudolf Field, and the Dutch designer’s drawings were hung in the launch exhibition. “Oudolf is always open: that’s what makes him an artist,” says Wirth.
“Contemporary art is about people who step over a line.” Oudolf’s practice has gained a cult following through a movement called the New Perennial. The principle is to use perennials, with an emphasis on diaphanous grasses, in tight, undulating plantings as they would appear in the wild. Many are self-seeding, so not only will a garden appear at its best all year round, but for many years.
Designed in collaboration with James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf, The High Line is a 1.5–mile long public park built on an abandoned elevated railroad stretching from the Meatpacking District to the Hudson Rail Yards in Manhattan.
Inspired by the melancholic, unruly beauty of this postindustrial ruin, where nature has reclaimed a once vital piece of urban infrastructure, the new park interprets its inheritance. It translates the biodiversity that took root after it fell into ruin in a string of site–specific urban micro-climates along the stretch of railway that include sunny, shady, wet, dry, windy, and sheltered spaces.
Through a strategy of agri–tecture—part agriculture, part architecture—the High Line surface is digitized into discrete units of paving and planting which are assembled along the 1.5 miles into a variety of gradients from 100% paving to 100% soft, richly vegetated biotopes. The paving system consists of individual pre–cast concrete planks with open joints to encourage emergent growth like wild grass through cracks in the sidewalk. The long paving units have tapered ends that comb into planting beds creating a textured, “pathless” landscape where the public can meander in unscripted ways. The design addresses a multitude of civic issues: reclamation of unclaimed public space, adaptive reuse of outmoded infrastructure, and preservation as a strategy for sustainability. The park accommodates the wild, the cultivated, the intimate, and the social.
The High Line opened to the public in sections, starting in 2009, with phased openings in 2011, 2014, and 2019. From New York City’s investment of $115 million USD, the High Line has stimulated over $5 billion USD in urban development and created 12,000 new jobs. Initially imagined as a singular, idiosyncratic, local solution, last year the High Line drew 8 million visitors and has “gone viral” as a global development model: over one hundred cities worldwide have been inspired to transform their obsolete urban infrastructure into public parks.