A Floating Haven for New York City

A green oasis perched on the Hudson River, New York City, Little Island by Heatherwick Studio comes as a breath of fresh air for people and wildlife. By Aarthi Sriram

Heatherwick Studio was initially invited by philanthropist Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust to create a pavillion for a new pier off the southwest of Manhattan, New York City. Instead of designing a decorative object to sit in the Hudson River Park, the design team saw an opportunity to rethink what a pier could be. The starting point was not the structure, but the experience for visitors: the excitement of being over the water, the feeling of leaving the city behind and being immersed in greenery – inspired by Central Park, where one forgets that you are amid the most densely populated city in the United States.

Piers are traditionally flat to allow boats to dock, but do they have to be that way? In contrast to the flat streets of Manhattan, the team at Heatherwick wanted to create a new topography for the city, which could rise to shape a variety of spaces. The first iteration was a curled leaf form floating on the water, its veins rising like ribs at the edges to shelter the space from the wind. The idea of raising the park on its foundations came from the existing wooden piles in the water, remnants of the many piers that used to extend from the shoreline of Manhattan. Beneath the visible tips of the wood, these piles have become an important habitat for marine life and are a protected breeding ground for fish.


The studio envisaged the pier as a complete experience; a single, cohesive object, rather than unrelated elements stuck together. New piles would be necessary to support any type of pier. Instead of sticks holding up a deck, the piles become the deck – they extend into planters that join to create the park’s surface. The height of the piles varies to create the park’s contours: the corner of the pier is lifted to allow sunlight to reach the marine habitat, and the edge falls to define hills, viewpoints and to carve out a natural amphitheater for performances. In this way, the pier and its supporting structure are one.

The planters or ‘pots’ are filled with more than a hundred different species of indigenous trees and plants, which encourage biodiversity and can thrive in New York’s climate – each corner of the island represents a different microclimate. To determine the pots’ form, the design team looked to nature and the mosaic of ice that forms around the wooden piles when the river freezes. The studio reinterpreted this in a tessellated pattern that appears organic but uses repeated elements that could be standardised for fabrication. Care was taken to vary the angle and repetition of pots at the perimeter, where they were most visible.

To give the structural concrete a smooth, tactile quality, Heatherwick Studio worked closely with a local fabricator. The precast components were transported by boats and assembled on-site, minimising disruption to the city. To emphasise the feeling of escape, Little Island’s footprint sits in the middle of the water between piers 54 and 56. Access is via two accessible ‘gangplanks’, and oriented in a continuation of the street grid. Inside paths wind through trees and grassy seating areas to hidden, unexpected views.

Restoring the entertainment venue that was lost when Pier 54 fell into disrepair, the park integrates three performance spaces. On the furthest edge, sheltered by the hills and surrounding trees, is an acoustically-optimised 700-seat amphitheatre with natural stone seating – its stage is set against the spectacular backdrop of the sunset over the Hudson River and views of the Statue of Liberty. To the south is a more intimate, 200-seat spoken-word stage. In the centre is a flexible venue with capacity for larger-scale events – its hard paving brings to the surface the tessellated pattern of the piles.

With its unique mix of venues and parkland, Little Island is a pause in the pace of Manhattan; a place where New Yorkers and visitors can cross the river to lie under a tree, watch a performance, catch the sunset, and feel connected to the water and natural world.

Mat Cash, Partner and Group Leader at Heatherwick Studio said, “New York is well known for its incredible urban density coupled with a spirit of drive and invention that has created some fantastic public parks, from Central Park to the Highline, to the local pocket parks. At Little Island, we had an opportunity to add to this collection with an urban oasis that seeks to maximise the amenity and experience for all New Yorkers. By careful manipulation of the topography as well as routes and pathways, the park creates opportunities to take a stroll through a glade, scramble over rocky outcrops, have a picnic on a lawn, take in a performance, enjoy the views or simply sit on a bench and read a book all within just a couple of acres of newly created green space reaching out over the Hudson River”.


All Images Courtesy Heatherwick Studio.

Photography by Timothy Schenck.