The UK-born US-based practitioner shared his approach after AGM

James Corner discusses working on all scales at Jellicoe lecture

Would you like to smell like the High Line? Apparently now you can. At the end of his Jellicoe/MERL lecture at the University of Reading on Thursday, James Corner, founder of James Corner Field Operations and designer of the High Line, showed a bottle of High Line perfume. Made by Bond No. 9 this is, its website claims, ‘The World’s First Railroad Perfume. The scent of wildflowers, green grasses…and urban renewal.

Ridiculous as this hype is, it is an indication of the place that the High Line has found in the world’s consciousness and affection. James Corner reminded his audience of what an achievement this was, by demonstrating just how unloved the High Line, a former industrial railway on the ‘far west’ of Manhattan, had been. Most people wanted to pull it down, he said.

Looking for love
Now, with its deliberate mix of industrial ethic and magical planting by Piet Oudolf, it is a place for New Yorkers and visitors to promenade, to enjoy the city and, Corner reminded the audience, to look for love.  And despite being a major investment, it has paid for itself on a larger scale. ‘It cost $150 million but has resulted in $2 billion of investment,’ he said.

The relationship between landscape and development is clearly close to his heart, since he also cited the regeneration of Central Park in New York, once a terrifying no-man’s land. Now, he says, its $20 million annual maintenance is almost entirely privately funded, and the developers who previously wanted to build over it are vying for prime sites on the perimeter.

Entrepreneurial spirit
He also praised this entrepreneurial spirit at London’s Olympic Park, where the landscape-led approach has resulted in massive regeneration of a failing area. He called the masterplan ‘the most important landscape masterplan in 50 years’ before going on to detail his own involvement, designing the South Plaza after the games. It was, he said, ‘a great project until we learnt about the constraints’. Simply put, there was very little money, a great deal of asphalt that had to be retained, and a complex network of services beneath the surface. Nevertheless he has created an event-filled space that appeals to the local multi-ethnic community and has been shortlisted for this year’s LI Awards.

These projects formed the second half ofJames Corner’s talk. In the first half he discussed projects on a more massive scale. He had already talked about the fact that Geoffrey Jellicoe (appropriately) and Ian McHarg were his ‘super-heroes’. While the former appealed because of his poetic approach and love of plants and gardens, the latter was important to Corner because of his large-scale vision that was aspirational and ecological.

Corner showed work of his own on this scale, including the long-term effort to regenerate the four square miles of Freshfields, Staten Island. It is necessary, he explained, to create soil and biodiversity slowly on this former landfill site for New York, before eventually forming a diverse park.

Shenzhen masterplan
In a new city area on the western side of Shenzhen, China, that will eventually be home to two million people, Corner’s practice has created a masterplan with five neighbourhoods made up of city blocks on a human scale. Between these blocks are green ‘fingers’ which will provide areas for recreation but also for water management.

‘If we can move forward as landscape architects,’ he concluded, ‘with ambitious transformational visions on the one hand, and tactile and delicate work on the other, we will be making a real transformation.’ A transformation that James Corner is evidently making in his own work.

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