Little Island is a new public park that shelters three new performance venues on the Hudson River. Designed as a haven for people and wildlife, it is a green oasis, held above the water by sculptural planters, and located just a short walk across a gangplank from Manhattan’s Lower West Side.
Heatherwick Studio was initially invited by philanthropist Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust to create a pavilion for a new pier off the south-west of Manhattan. Instead of designing a decorative object to sit in the Hudson River Park, the design team saw an opportunity to rethink what a pier could be. The starting point was not the structure, but the experience for visitors: the excitement of being over the water, the feeling of leaving the city behind and being immersed in greenery – inspired by Central Park, where it’s possible to forget that you are in the midst of the most densely populated city in the United States.
Piers were traditionally flat to allow boats to dock, but did they have to be? In contrast to the flat streets of Manhattan, the design team wanted to create a new topography for the city, which could rise up to shape a variety of spaces. The first iteration was a curled leaf form floating on the water, its veins rising like ribs at the edges to shelter the space from the wind. The idea of raising the park on its foundations came from the existing wooden piles in the water, remnants of the many piers that used to extend from the shoreline of Manhattan. Beneath the visible tips of the wood, the piles have become an important habitat for marine life and are a protected breeding ground for fish.
Heatherwick Studio envisaged the pier as a complete experience;a single, cohesive object, rather than unrelated elements stuck together.New piles would be necessary to support any type of pier. Instead ofsticks holding up a deck, the piles become the deck – they extend into planters that join together to create the park’s surface. The height of the piles varies to create the park’s contours: the corner of the pier is lifted to allow sunlight to reach the marine habitat, and the edge falls to define hills, viewpoints and to carve out a natural amphitheatre for performances. In this way, the pier and its supporting structure are one.
The planters, or ‘pots’ are filled with more than a hundred different species of indigenous trees and plants, which encourage biodiversity and are able to thrive in New York’s climate – each corner of the island represents a different microclimate. To determine the pots’ form, the design team looked to nature, and the mosaic of ice that forms around the wooden piles when the river freezes. The studio reinterpreted this in a tessellated pattern that appears organic, but uses repeated elements that could be standardised for fabrication. Care was taken to vary the angle and repetition of pots at the perimeter, where they were most visible. To give the structural concrete a smooth, tactile quality, Heatherwick Studio worked closely with a local fabricator. The precast components were transported by boats and assembled on site, minimising disruption to the city.
Thomas Heatherwick, Founder of Heatherwick Studio said:
“The project began when we were asked to conceive of a sculptural structure to go on a design for a newly enlarged piece of the Hudson River Park promenade. The project was interesting, but we saw the opportunity to create a more engaging experience for New Yorkers and to build on the city’s heritage of inventing exciting new public spaces. Instead, we had the idea to make an entirely new type of pier as a lush rectangular garden island, connected to the land with generous gang-planks as bridges, aligned to the street grid of New York.
As well as making multiple spaces for different activities and performances, this new public space could also take advantage of the water to create a more meaningful threshold that allows visitors to feel they’re having a break from the hecticness of the city.
Typically pier structures are always flat, but we saw this as an unmissable opportunity to lift the surface to create a topography that would make a more dynamic social experience for visitors and give great sightlines for performing spaces and lookout points over the river and back towards the city. Also, typically, piers are composed of structural piles that go down into the river bed with slabs that cover them to make a surface. However, we were inspired by these piles and the civil engineering required to build structures that are able to withstand extreme river conditions. Could we make these the heroes of our project, rather than hiding them?
The vision that’s been built is based on taking these piles and turning their tops into dramatic planters that fuse together to make a richly-planted undulating landscape.
Our intention has been to make an exciting space that is free for everybody to come to, that treats the river as part of nature as well as plants and even each other.”
Project Name: Little Island Location: New York, New York Completion date: May 2021 Area: 11,000 sqm Designed by Heatherwick Studio Design Director: Thomas Heatherwick Group Leader: Mat Cash Project Leader: Paul Westwood, Neil Hubbard Technical Design Leader: Nick Ling Project team: Sofia Amodio, Simona Auteri, Mark Burrows, Jorge Xavier Méndez- Cáceres, John Cruwys, Antoine van Erp, Alex Flood, Michal Gryko, Ben Holmes, Ben Jacobs, Francis McCloskey, Stepan Martinovsky, Simon Ng, Wojtek Nowak, Giovanni Parodi, Enrique Pujana, Akari Takebayashi, Ondrej Tichý, Ahira Sanjeet, Charles Wu, Meera Yadave Making team: Jordan Bailiff, Einar Blixhavn, Darragh Casey, Hayley Henry, Hannah Parker,Luke Plumbley, Jeff Powers Client: Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) & Pier 55 Project Fund (P55P) Main Contractor: Hunter Roberts Construction Group Structural Engineer: Arup Landscape Design: MNLA Executive Architects: Standard Architects Mechanical Engineering: Arup Marine Engineers: MRCE Cost Consultant: Gardiner & Theobald