Fred A. Bernstein

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Pierwise, One Person's Wreck Is Another's Art

Saving two rusting piers in the Hudson River

Published in The New York Times, September 4, 2003


For years, artists and architects drawn to elegant decrepitude have fought to keep the High Line -- Manhattan's abandoned elevated railroad -- from being demolished. Now that the line appears to have been saved, some of those artists and architects are focusing on another relic of the city's industrial past.

Two rusted metal piers, directly west of Lincoln Center, have been dazzling audiences with a forlorn pas de deux. One, at 63rd Street, has listed and twisted into a riot of acute and obtuse angles. The other, at 62nd Street, has melted into a sinuous mass that the landscape architect Thomas Balsley compares to spaghetti.

''I'm quite enamored of the spaghetti pier,'' said Mr. Balsley, the designer of Riverside Park South, which runs along the Hudson River below the Trump Place apartment complex in the 60's. The next phase of park construction will include a raised overlook, and ''it would be great to be able to look at the pier from that elevation -- it's an amazing sight,'' Mr. Balsley said.

The New York City commissioner of parks and recreation, Adrian Benepe, is also a fan of the piers, which he described as ''accidental artworks.'' In a recent telephone interview, he said that the piers were ''as good as anything created by artists in the last few decades'' and added that the city would not demolish them while he was in office.

A few days later Mr. Benepe called back, and sounding almost contrite, said it would be ''extremely difficult'' to keep the piers once the next phase of park construction started.

That is bad news to some local residents. Since the arrival of Trump Place, ''everything looks so new here,'' said Bernard Weissman, a retired businessman who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. Mr. Weissman, who will turn 80 later this month, added, ''We need a reminder of what it was like 80 years ago.''

To architects, the piers are continuing experiments in structural deformation. Though shaped by the random action of the elements, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the free-form buildings known as blobs, whose designers rely on computers.

''What we see in the piers is something strikingly akin to the 'accidental,' 'random,' 'arbitrary' quality that is so sought after in these projects,'' Gavin Macrae-Gibson, a Manhattan architect, wrote in an e-mail message.

He described the collapsing structures, which show the effects of water, wind, ice and a fire, as ''sequences of deformation.''

''Such sequences,'' he said, ''are fashionable among architects, who often claim that they were 'generated' by nonhuman means. In this case, the nonhuman intervention happens to be authentic.''

In fact, two critically praised recent waterfront developments -- Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama International Port Terminal in Japan, and UN Studio's Ponte Parodi project for Genoa, Italy -- resemble high-tech versions of the Hudson River piers.

''If you think of the piers not as collapsing but as emerging, you can gain insight into the origin of some of the twisted and contorted projects,'' said Toshiko Mori, chairwoman of the architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. ''

Artists point to the delicacy of the melted metal. ''I think they're better than those heavy steel behemoths that you see in sculpture parks,'' said Nicholas Kahn, a painter, sculptor and photographer. And ''there's the poignancy of ruins,'' he added, ''man's folly in believing he is a permanent feature on this planet.''

Mr. Balsley recalled that in the park's early planning stages, more than a decade ago, ''the subject of the piers came up at a lot of community meetings.''

The city favored demolishing the piers, he said. Officials were afraid that their progressive decay would interfere with navigation or become ''an attractive nuisance'' to thrill-seeking youths. Now a chain-link fence keeps adventurers away.

But ''a lot's happened in 10 years,'' he continued, adding: ''People have started feeling all warm and fuzzy about the piers. I think you'd get a lot more votes to save them.''

Mr. Balsley also noted the success of artists and architects who have twisted metal into stirring compositions, particularly over the last decade. The armature of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, for instance, is a close visual cousin of the ''melting'' piers.

Robert Hammond, a founder of Friends of the High Line, an advocacy organization that has fought to save the railroad, said that if the piers were left to collapse into the Hudson, they could be ''a very beautiful temporary artwork.''

''It's New York's 'Spiral Jetty,' '' he said, referring to an earthwork by Robert Smithson.

At the same time, the work of Friends of the High Line has drawn attention to the value of preserving reminders of the city's mercantile past. (No similar organization, however, is lobbying for the piers.)

But unlike the High Line, which is likely to become what urban designers call a linear park, the piers will never be useful again. Saving them is simply a matter of aesthetics. And ''who's going to listen to a bunch of artists?'' Mr. Kahn asked.

It is also unlikely that the piers could be preserved in their current condition. ''They'd be impossible to stabilize,'' Mr. Balsley said. Saving them would simply mean allowing them to collapse at their own pace.

Mr. Benepe said the piers were to be demolished during the next phase of park construction, which, he said, ''is going out for bid.'' Their status could change, he explained, but not easily. The State Department of Environmental Protection and at least three federal agencies favor the demolition, he said.

Moreover, the decision to destroy the piers followed a uniform land-use review procedure, or Ulurp, a lengthy evaluation by the City Planning Department. Its final report is ''a legally binding document,'' Mr. Benepe said.

Saving the piers, he added, ''would require a new Ulurp, which is not a minor thing.''

In this case, he said, preservation is ''a romantic notion that may not be practical.''