Parkinson’s disease has made it hard for me to walk more than a few feet at a time. That’s tough luck for an architecture critic. But sometimes, my husband, Chuck, pushes me in a wheelchair.
I knew visiting Little Island, the new park in the Hudson River, would be a challenge, but Chuck agreed to push. The paths are relatively smooth, and the inclines are (I am told) ADA-compliant. Still, by the time we got to the “top”—the park’s highest and westernmost point—Chuck was huffing and puffing. Chuck can run miles, bike up the side of a mountain, or play full-court basketball with teenagers without breaking a sweat. So the huffing and puffing says something about Little Island.
I’m not an American with Disabilities Act absolutist. Essential facilities, like the subway system, should be fully accessible. The state of New York City transit, vis-a-vis the disabled, is a calamity and a disgrace. That needs to change, and quickly. But if someone wants to build a park with, say, five overlooks, four of which are accessible and one of which isn’t, I won’t be filing a lawsuit. For things that are whimsical, like Little Island, there ought to be a bit of leeway.
As for the park itself: I’ve had mixed feelings since I first saw renderings in 2015. I don’t think Barry Diller, who bankrolled the project with his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, should control the design of what is meant to be a public park. And I think Thomas Heatherwick’s idea, which was, essentially, to “plant” the park in giant flowerpots, was interesting. But not every interesting idea has to be built. (Case in point: Heatherwick also designed the Vessel in Hudson Yards, which is just re-opening after several suicides.) And it certainly didn’t need to be built in this location, bordering an affluent neighborhood that already has the Hudson River Park and the High Line as parallel greenways. It should have been built in a park-deprived neighborhood, perhaps in another borough.
Aesthetically, I can take it or leave it. Most of Little Island is too chaotic for my taste. The flowerpots (or champagne glasses or tulips or high-heel shoes) that support the park establish an architectural theme, but the theme doesn’t generally extend above the pavement. It would have been difficult to give the benches and the lamp posts and the fences and the bathrooms and the amphitheater seating and 100 other necessary elements a shared aesthetic (though I know Heatherwick would have been glad to try). But as built, it is something of a hodgepodge. Some parts are Jetsons, and some parts are Flintstones, and some are just plain New York 2021.
My real concern is that the park will require millions of dollars a year to maintain. It’s like the High Line, in that its gardeners will need tweezers and combs, not shears and rakes, to keep it looking good. (There are an incredible 35 species of trees, 65 species of shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, vines, and perennials in the acre or so of Little Island that’s planted.) And presumably the trees will need to be replaced every few years because, just like houseplants that outgrow their little pots, the Little Island trees will outgrow their big pots. And we wouldn’t want to see roots breaking through the concrete.
Diller has pledged $120 million to maintain Little Island for 20 years, after which the Hudson River Park Trust, which receives public funding, will assume that expense. I have no idea why the city agreed to the deal. Given the fragility of anything built on water, maintenance costs could soar right around the time the Trust starts paying.
So here’s my proposal: The city should close the park in 20 years. It was Diller’s fantasy, but he can’t fund the fantasy forever. So let’s enjoy it until 2041, and then return those few acres to nature.
It’s true that, as an environmentalist, I hate to think of wasting all the energy that went into constructing Little Island. (Among possible building materials, concrete is particularly carbon-intensive.) It would be best to reuse the 2.4 acres Diller and Heatherwick created, for some other purpose. I haven’t come up with one.
But would demolition be so bad? Not every building is eternal. In 2002, I visited Diller + Scofidio’s Blur, a pavilion on a lake in Switzerland made of scaffolding and 31,400 high-pressure nozzles. Water shooting out of the nozzles created a football-field-size cloud over the lake that visitors could walk through. When the Swiss Expo ended that fall, the Blur was dismantled and the architects showed no interest in re-installing it somewhere else. Didn’t they want more people to see it, I asked them. But they had already moved on. “It was,” Scofidio told me, “an experiment, not a monument.”
Perhaps that’s also true of Little Island.
A version of this essay first appeared on Facebook.