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May 12, 2009
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Governors Island Park and Public Space Master Plan: On the Drawing Board
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.24.09
Speakers: Adriaan Geuze — Principal, West 8
Sponsors: AIANY; Architectural League of New York; New York Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects; Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation

West 8, Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild, and SMWM’s proposal for Governors Island.

The West 8 Team.

Small, pastoral Governors Island might technically be part of NYC, but it feels like another world, remarked Adriaan Geuze, principal of West 8. When people visit the 172-acre island, “this sensation of leaving the town behind, taking the boat, and crossing is really amazing,” he said. “You’re totally reborn!”

The future redesign of the island aims to extend and heighten the visitors’ sense of wonder throughout their time there, Geuze said. His urban design and landscape architecture firm is part of a larger team that won a competition in December 2007 to design the island’s park and open spaces. West 8, along with Rogers Marvel Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Quennell Rothschild, and SMWM are currently working on completing the master plan, scheduled for release in early June.

As it is, the partially man-made island offers stunning views of the harbor, Lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn, but it is “even flatter than Holland,” Geuze observed. Not only does its low landscape raise fears of flooding, it also eradicates any sense of mystery. “It’s not about temptation and desire — not at all. You are standing there, you see everything…. And you walk, and you still see the same.” To remedy that, the designers used a combination of maquettes and computer modeling to sculpt the island into a hilly topography with viewlines that will make visitors “hunger to walk through the park,” he said. Two high spots on opposite ends of the park will provide sweeping 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding harbor, giving a true sense of place as an island.

The essential look and concept of the design — the “organic grid” of paths, the sculpted hills made from recycled building debris — has stayed true to the original competition entry, but Geuze’s slide-filled talk revealed how the design has been refined in the meantime. The butterfly wing-like pattern of paths has been tested and tweaked to offer better circulation. Lining the paths, seats and curbs act as “edging,” adding visual definition: “It’s the same effect as eyeliner,” Geuze joked. In an ornamental impulse, they hope to embellish lampposts and benches with designs “poetically linked to ocean and shore and wind and sea,” he said.

In addition to the island’s predominant use as a park, some of the existing buildings are gaining new tenants, and around 33 acres on the south side will be devoted to a future development zone, said Leslie Koch, president of Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. This prompted a flurry of questions from the audience. Calling the park a “fantastical place,” and expressing concern that the development could be detrimental to the overall vision, the question was asked whether urban design guidelines had been set for it. It is too early to determine exactly what sorts of buildings will fill that zone, Koch said, but public access through the area will be preserved, along with view corridors — an encouraging sign, for a park whose design is so much about celebrating its views.

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