This Little Island is intended to Leave Manhattan Behind By Thomas Heatherwick

The elevated topography of Little Island, according to designer Thomas Heatherwick, was intended to create a sense of escape from Manhattan.

Little Island, designed in collaboration with global engineering firm Arup and landscape architects MNLA, is supported by 132 concrete columns in the Hudson River near New York City’s Meatpacking District. It was open to the public last week.


Heatherwick had been asked to design a pavilion for a traditional flat jetty, but in his studio, he had the idea for an undulating island off the mainland.

Heatherwick hopes to feel “the sense of leaving Manhattan behind” when she builds a park across the Hudson that will only be accessible via gangplank-like bridges.


“It’s a kind of emotional permission from somewhere other than New York to look back at New York,” he explained.

Little Island and the ghost piers

Originally known as Pier 55, the park now sits next to Pier 54. The historical structure, where Titanic passengers landed in 1912, is now reduced to protruding wooden pile clusters.


According to Heatherwick, “ghost piers” like these influenced the design of Little Island.

“It’s usually a lid over them,” he explained. “The lid has been lifted away, exposing these piles, which is an interesting reason for the old piers.”

Heatherwick claims that the Little Island forest of concrete columns pays homage to these structures by producing a feature from its undergirding.

“We let the piles of earth and plant materials that we need be the containers,” he said. “It was our minimalist version; we didn’t just concentrate on one ingredient while omitting another.”

After Hurricane Sandy, The Design Of Little Island Was Changed.

According to Heatherwick, Little Island was supposed to be built closer to the water. Heatherwick’s formal name is Heatherwicke.

However, it changed the design after Heatherwick and his team first designed it in 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, swelled parts of the city in a mortal wave of storms.

Heatherwick recalled that “as we went out for the presentation, the wind grew stronger and the rain began to fall.”

The flooding began that night and caused additional damage to Pier 54, where the project was originally planned.”

“It gave a further mandate to strengthen any new structure that was extremely robust and raise it so far above water level that it would greatly reduce its chances of flooding,” he explained.

Thomas Heatherwick

The park rests on 132 concrete columns

Heatherwick estimates that Little Island was raised about 13 feet (four metres) above sea level. According to him, the design team adopted this change and exaggerated the increase to capitalise on the sense of separation from the mainland.

“Who do you want to be in Manhattan’s larger part if you go to another location?” he insisted.

“Lifting the piles to create a 3-dimensional topography allows us to create a wide range of plantation landscapes. The highest part, where the wind is strongest, resembles alpine cliffs, but there are protected areas and various areas of shading.”

According to Heatherwick, security considerations necessitated the use of concrete for the main structure, which stated that the Hudson River Trust stipulated both user safety and the marine environment.

“The forces of the Hudson River are enormous,” he said. “The existing wooden ones are absolutely magnificent. They are, however, not an option.”

Concrete piles of Little Island in New York

Each of the concrete piles is deeply embedded in the riverbed. The six-meter-wide plants at the top of each pile are made of precast concrete sections that were manufactured off-site and transported to the plant by barge. A park’s hundreds of plants and trees are all filled with soil.

The concrete piles of varying heights exaggerated the visible structure of the engineering and the park’s undulating topography.

Heatherwick said the idea came from visits to hill towns in Italy, where walking and people-watching are the most important social activities: “By making the most effective bowl by lifting all those corners, it acts like a social condenser,” she said.

Pathways and performance venues of Little Island seen from above

Little Island has been around for nearly a decade. It was sometimes a matter of luck whether the project was completed.

The construction of the building was halted in 2017 after opponents won a court decision against it. However, City Councilor Andrew Cuomo personally intervened, and the project took place under the new Little Island banner.

“It’s been stuck in New York politics,” Heatherwick says.

“I believe the loss for the town would have been enormous if something like that had not been carried forward.”

Concrete planters of Little Island are filled with trees

The $260 million project was largely funded by private man Barry Diller, who had an estimated 3.7 billion dollars in personal fortune through their Family Foundation of Diller-Von-Furstenburg, and his fashion designer’s wife.

The Foundation will look after the structure for the next 20 years.

Cities Have “Lost Their Nerve” In Order To Construct New Public Spaces.

Privately owned public spaces are divisive. However, heatherwick argued that without them, architects have no chance of designing public spaces.

“To create projects, cities have lost trust,” the designer explained. “Governments and councils do not commission it. They appear to have lost faith. You’ve lost your trepidation.”

“The public space we are using, in a strange upside-down way, is thus in the hands of private organisations.”

Privately owned public spaces are divisive. However, heatherwick argued that without them, architects have no chance of designing public spaces.

“To create projects, cities have lost trust,” the designer explained. “Governments and councils do not commission it. They appear to have lost faith. You’ve lost your trepidation.”

“The public space we are using, in a strange upside-down way, is thus in the hands of private organisations.”

Heatherwick is the latest in a series of private projects for private clients, including New York’s Vessel’s Point of View and London’s New York Coal Drops Yard.

According to Heatherwick, such projects allow architects and designers to promote public services.

“Otherwise, we just make galleries of dead art all over the place. How many art galleries do you have?” He asked for it.

“I mean, a studio like ours could easily produce a large number of private homes for wealthy people. And I’m not bothered by it. So I’d rather do objects in the public sphere. And, yes, it is controversial when it comes to privately owned space.”

Amphitheatre at Little Island in New York

Visitors must book timed tickets to get to Little Island, but they are free. Heatherwick was also quick to point out that the park’s playground and shows will be reasonably priced.

“There’s a strong commitment, not just to let it be Manhattan elites,” he said. “Subsidized tickets are for people in Harlem, the Bronx, and other areas.”

Heatherwick’s 16-story viewing platform in the heart of Hudson Yards caught fire when it became clear that any photos on the premises were owned by the company that owned the site. Alan G Brake, a critic, described it as “urban costume gems” in “a billionaire’s fantasy.”

Heatherwick may have been prepared for more criticism after Little Island’s rocky road to completion. Little Island, on the other hand, according to the designer, “was received very, very, very well.”

“Perhaps I should never go to my own projects again,” he joked, referring to the fact that Little Island has yet to be seen in person.

As a result of the pandemic, the first trees in New York’s island park were planted in January 2020.

“Until I see that,” he said, “I want to reserve judgement for myself.” “I hadn’t been there in a long time. This is beautiful.”

Photography by Timothy Schenck.

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