June 29, 2021
The New Heatherwick Object
Last week I rode a CitiBike from southernmost South Slope, Brooklyn to the newest attraction on the Hudson River waterfront, that Thomas Heatherwick conceived/ Barry Diller funded spectacle. And I found Little Island to be the most perfect symbol imaginable of our present moment. If anyone asked me what our relationship with the natural world is like in the third decade of the 21st century, I’d send them straight to this two-and-a-half acre, $260 million dollar habitat.
One of my favorite topics is “engineered nature.” I’m endlessly fascinated by places that look and feel like they’ve existed for eons, but have instead been willed into place by human desire and needs. Favorite examples include recent works like the hills of Governors Island, shaped by the landscape design firm West 8 and countless engineers, and older places like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Both involved epic amounts of earth moving and the conscious curation of trees and other flora. But you could, possibly, mistake either for environments that were largely formed by natural processes.
You’d never make that mistake with Little Island. It is pure stagecraft, proudly artificial. And while it is very much a product of this very moment, it takes some of its cues from the past. One of Little Island’s most conspicuous attributes is a technique that Heatherwick borrowed from Olmsted (or maybe from Disney’s Imagineers). The 19th century’s landscape master often exaggerated the size and remoteness of his urban parks by creating pathways that meander just enough so can never quite see around bend. The effect makes a thoroughly urban place, like Central Park, feel genuinely pastoral. On Little Island, the paths and stairways run in tight curves so that you never quite know where you’re going. You can never see all of Little Island, or even very much of it, at once.
And meandering is not exactly an option. Fences and fixtures are layered tightly and send a clear signal to visitors that they are not to even consider crossing the designated boundaries. The landscape, variegated and potentially lush, is likewise regulated by railings, metal edges, and Corten steel barricades. So Little Island works like a Habitrail for humans, a carefully crafted environment to channel our energies and curb our worst instincts.
I’ve compared that other Heatherwick object, the Hudson Yards Vessel, to a hamster wheel because it’s designed for perpetual motion rather than relaxation and contemplation. Little Island, to it’s credit, does have places to rest. Notably its amphitheater, when not being used for a performance, is available for people who want a relatively quiet place to hang out. And there’s a large outdoor cafe. Plus lots of benches in pseudo-organic shapes; I can imagine the meeting where some designer used the phrase “driftwood inspired.” And some of those benches are positioned to offer Hudson River views. (There are generous restrooms, too, tucked away inside a faux-cavern.) All good.
But how do I feel about the place? Honestly, I’m not sure. Back when the High Line first opened, it seemed uncomfortably over-designed to me. It doesn’t look that way anymore. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s also that design of public places has, over the course of a decade, gotten more prescriptive. So, over time, I may also acclimate to Little Island. But my first impression is that this is the ultimate example of Anthropocene chic. It’s a symptom of our deeply troubled relationship with the natural world. My second impression is that it signals that our relationship with the man made world is also pretty volatile, that we’re increasingly estranged from ordinary, unstreaming, unscripted, unprogrammed, unoptimized life. With this new object, Heatherwick has bottled the zeitgeist, and the unsettled emotions Little Island evokes closely track my feelings about the world right now.