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'Floating Park' Little Island Opens in NYC

Friday, June 4, 2021

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Closing in on the month of May, Little Island officially opened to the public. Located on New York City's Hudson River, the $260 million “floating” park was funded by billionaire media mogul Barry Diller.

A partnership was first established by Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust in 2013 with a vision to uniquely repair and rehabilitate Pier 54, which had previously been damaged by Hurricane Sandy. For his vision of creating an immersive experience that combines both nature and art, Diller called upon British designer Thomas Heatherwick.

“What was in my mind was to build something for the people of New York and for anyone who visits—a space that on first sight was dazzling, and upon use made people happy,” said Diller.

The U.K.-based studio worked alongside global engineering firm Arup and New York-based landscape architects MNLA, led by Signe Nielsen, to complete the 2.4-acre public space.

Designing the Park

Drawing from the remaining wood piles from Pier 54, Heatherwick contemplated new designs when planning out the project.

“My studio and I became interested in the remains of the old piers on the west side of Manhattan, where their top surfaces had long gone, leaving only hundreds of ancient structural wooden piles sticking out of the river.”

With that idea in mind, MNLA’s landscape designs were also took on a natural approach, giving the flow to the park like that of a leave floating on water. MNLA wanted the space to be both visually surprising and inspiring for New York City and its vistors.

Comprised of 132 mushroom-shaped concrete columns, the concrete structures were placed at different levels to create an undulating platform.

Little Island, Michael Grimm

Closing in on the month of May, Little Island officially opened to the public. Located on New York City's Hudson River, the $260 million “floating” park was funded by billionaire media mogul Barry Diller.

“Typically, piers are composed of structural piles that go down into the riverbed with slabs that cover them to make a surface,” said Heatherwick. “However, we were inspired by these piles and the civil engineering required to build structures that are able to withstand extreme river conditions.”

Construction started in 2016 but was halted a year later after legal lobbying from local campaign groups. The project restarted three years later in 2019 under the new moniker of Little Island.

According to reports, the precast concrete elements were fabricated upstate using 39 different formwork shapes and were later transported to the construction site via barge. By constructing the columns this way, a cast-in-place concrete slab further connected all the existing elements. Each pile can support up to 350 tons and for placement, have been driven deep into the rock 61 meters (about 200 feet) beneath the water.

For the landscape situated atop the platform, MNLA chose 400 species of plants and 100 types of trees. The firm was noted to have planted the variety in a strategic tactic which would stop the wind from blowing against people as they stroll the area.

Stretching 2.4 acres in total, the park is comprised of 540 meters of pathways, multiple viewpoints, and performance spaces, including an amphitheater that frames the water behind the stage and is large enough to house 700 audience members. Another central space within the park is reported to have a capacity of 3,500 people, in addition to a more intimate 200-person spoken-word stage.

Backstage facilities for performance venues are built under the pier and can be accessed via one of the two bridges which lead to the floating park. Other features of the Little Island include steps made of New York native hardwood, black locust, other natural wood benches and piles of boulders.

The project took eight years for Heatherwick to realize and is now accessible to the public through the use of free timed tickets.

Other Heatherwick Designs

Last year, the Heatherwick studio announced plans for another floating park, this time slated to be constructed in San Francisco’s South Beach neighborhood.

Located at the southern end of the Central Embarcadero Piers Historic District, and what has been dubbed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the Bermuda Triangle of waterfront development,” Heatherwick Studio plans to give the deteriorating 108-year-old piers a major upgrade.

According to reports, a fire ripped through the old cargo wharf in 1986, destroying its historic pier sheds. Since the incident, Piers 30-32 have remained mostly empty, except for a dated parking lot and abandoned buildings in beyond repair condition. In 2014, it was predicted that the piers would likely collapse within a decade unless the Embarcadero site received an $87 million investment to repair and retrofit the 13-acre site. Two years later, the site was listed as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Earlier this year, however, the Port of San Francisco released a Request for Proposals to enter into exclusive negotiations to develop and operate Piers 30-32 and Seawall Lot 330. In total, the offering included approximately 13 acres of developable space on the piers, and 2.3 acres of space on the lot. The RFP’s objectives included the rehabilitation of a vibrant, financially feasible, mixed-use program, in addition to incorporating a variety of use types to activate the waterfront. Proposals were due by June 26.

In coming up with its design for the proposal, Heatherwick created a team of 20, going by the name EPX2, to develop what they call, “The Cove.” The redevelopment is slated to be constructed of concrete piles built above sea level, as to avoid predicted rising sea levels and unpredictable earthquakes or floods.

Functioning as an ecological park, the “resilient pier platform” will feature a five-acre public park at its center with a net-zero energy workplace campus consisting of two buildings flanked at its sides in a horseshoe-shaped design. Together, the two solar shingle-clad buildings comprise 550,000 gross square feet and contain 26 modules of various size. The glazed units will be low rise and appear to float on the water with their flat appearance. The design of the modules is reportedly inspired by the region’s original pier sheds.

The green area of the park is described to feature a rolling softscape of native terpene-laden trees and dune grasses, a carbon-sinking, floating wetlands, an oval boardwalk, onwards to a promontory, a bridge beyond, overlooking the bay.

While reports indicate that Heatherwick’s proposal does not include a plan for the adjacent 2.3 acres located at Seawall Lot 330, the proposal is only preliminary and is expected to be adapted. If approved, the team aims to complete the mixed-use redevelopment by 2026.

Heatherwick is also responsible for the design of New York City’s $25 billion Hudson Yards, which opened in March 2019, featuring its most iconic architectural feature, The Vessel.

“Vessel is one of the most complex pieces of steelwork ever made,” Heatherwick said in a statement. “Over the next few months we’ll focus on installing the final details of the structure, as its paving, balustrades, lighting and cladding come together to complete this different kind of public space.”

The piece was made in Italy by steel fabricator Cimolai and was shipped over in 75 pieces. The framework includes “raw welded and painted steel contrasts with its polished copper-colored steel underside that reflects the surrounding city,” the studio says.


Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Color + Design; Color + Design; Commercial / Architectural; Completed projects; Design; Design - Commercial; NA; North America; Project Management; Public spaces

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