“Governors Island is all about serendipity,” said Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island. In the eight years since the Trust was formed, Koch and her team have been conducting a kind of urban experiment. She set a few basic rules, but largely let the public use and inhabit—during the day at least—what previously was an unknown, abandoned island. Each summer the public encountered new exhibitions, programs, and activities on the island, and the Trust kept careful tabs on what worked and what didn’t and how the public used the space. This summer, the results of that experiment have become somewhat more solidified, with the opening of 30 acres of new parkland on the island’s southern half, designed by the Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8.
West 8 and its principal, Adriaan Geuze, have a reputation for being maverick designers who often employ cheeky or populist imagery in their landscapes. It is something of a surprise to pass through the arch of the McKim, Mead & White–designed Liggett Hall into the garden and park they have designed. A pair of low hedge gardens flank the path scattered with Fermob garden chairs in soft purple and green. Discreet water features—which are actually sophisticated splash pools—are tucked within the hedgerows. These gardens evoke aristocratic European precedents, but they’re designed for today’s recreational needs. They function as magnets for children, but the hedges are low enough to keep little tykes in full view of their parents at all times.
The design deftly joins European garden traditions with British picturesque elements, all filtered through a contemporary lens. Moving from the swirling paths of hedge gardens—which are framed by the arms of U-shaped Liggett—paths open up toward gentle mounds planted with grasses and stands of small trees. Geuze inserts a graphic element with black asphalt paths edged in wide, curved, white concrete curbs. The curbs function as low benches or walls and are another kid attractor. They also act as gentle bumpers for the paths, the widest of which are conceived of as “boulevards for bikes.” A grove of hammocks is tucked behind a turn. The paths open out to a large picnic lawn and possibly the most dramatically sited baseball diamond in the country, overlooking the harbor with the Statue of Liberty directly behind it. Though well placed, the object-ness of the diamond is a bit discordant with the rest of the park.
The overall spatial effect is fluid and dynamic, and as you move through the gentle topography it is clear that Geuze has carefully directed plantings and circulation to highlight views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, as well as the skyline of Lower Manhattan. It’s a thrilling addition to New York’s growing list of world-class parks.
All of this is a preview of next year’s coming attraction, the pair of giant manmade hills at the southern end of the island. Having been to the top of one of the as-yet un-landscaped mounds, they offer perspective-shifting views of New York Harbor. The island will continue to evolve as the final phase of the park opens, the historic buildings begin to be permanently programmed, and two major development sites are designated for use. Geuze and Koch have set the stage for Governors Island to become a treasured—and they hope self-sustaining—playground for New Yorkers young and old.