Standing near the top of Outlook Hill, Leslie Koch, president of The Trust for Governors Island, explained the reason for commissioning four huge earth mounds on an island in the middle of New York Harbor. “Most New Yorkers don’t experience that fancy view [of the skyline]. You don’t get to see the city on high from the city that created views.” The Hills, part of a $220 million renovation of Governors Island, do create new ways of viewing the city and its surroundings.
Landscape architecture firm West 8 was selected in 2007 to produce a master plan for Governors Island that included redesigns of the entire former military facility. Construction of the Hills began in 2013. Design was preceded by extensive on-site observation: the design team, led by Adriaan Geuze and Jamie Maslyn, spent hundreds of hours observing how visitors used the space. Maslyn noted that, for example, adults were using the swing sets intended for children. Discovery and play, consequently, are two themes that predominate in the realized design.
To get to the site, visitors pass through a 40 acre welcome area. The space is meant for slow-paced leisure: reading, napping in hammocks, meandering through flower beds. The topography here creates a threshold for the rest of the site.
Approached from the welcome area, the four hills rise smoothly from the level base of the island. Bright white concrete edging, to Geuze, “paints the topography more dramatically” and differentiates between fast and slow spaces. There is no main, or suggested, path to approach the hills. The paths fork in equally appealing directions, affording glimpses of the Statue of Liberty, lower Manhattan, or the Verrazano, depending on which way one turns. The hills obscure and reveal these sites gently, manipulating the horizon dramatically while accommodating a range of programs. Ranging in height from 25 to 70 feet, the names of the hills—Outlook, Slide, Discovery, and Grassy—correspond with their most salient feature. “Each of the hills,” Koch noted, “embodies one of the attributes New Yorkers love about the island.”
A zigzag path takes visitors up to the apex of Outlook Hill, 70 feet above ground. The vantage point afforded by the new topography allows visitors to see, standing still, the East and Hudson Rivers, Buttermilk Channel, New York Harbor, and the mouth of the Atlantic. The design team was intent upon creating a way for people of all ages and abilities to experience this view. All of the paved paths are at a maximum 4.5 percent slope: ADA compliant and wheelchair friendly. Granite blocks, harvested from the island’s 1905 sea wall, create scrambles up the hillside to engage young people (or adventurous adults). Adjacent Slide Hill (40 feet high) will feature elements of pure play: four long slides. Discovery Hill (40 feet) will host a permanent installation by sculptor Rachel Whiteread, while Grassy Hill (25 feet) will be a place to relax on a sloping lawn.
Governors Island’s exposed location makes it vulnerable to the effects of both normal and extreme weather. To prevent the hills from shifting, settlement plates were planted at the base of the hills to measure changes in elevation. Molly Bourne, principal at Mathews Nielsen, vetted plants on their ability to withstand salt spray and high winds. Sumac and oak trees (around 860), as well as 43,000 maritime shrubs, will adapt to harsh conditions on the island. Storm resiliency is an integral feature of the design. Post-Sandy, 2.2 miles of sea wall, erected in 1905, were replaced in 2014 by a more modern fortification. Some of the pieces were repurposed as infill, along with an imploded building and a parking lot on the site of the Hills. In all, 25 percent of the fill is from the island, while the rest of was delivered via barge down the Hudson.
While the Hills’ official public opening is set for 2017, the site is open for previews on September 26th and 27th. Details here.