Little Island | an immersive experience on the Hudson River

Little Island (formerly Pier 55) is a whimsical park in New York designed by MNLA in collaboration with Heatherwick Studio. A dramatic 2.4-acre public park in the Hudson River that brings together art and nature in an immersive experience. Conceived as a leaf floating in the water, the pier is a topographic marvel that celebrates views, defines landscaped spaces, and provides resilience against climate change.

Little Island is a counterpoint to highly programmed parks of recent times. A passive space not full of activities but a space that encourages people to stroll, promenade and gather. There are no “things to do” in the park; the visitor has to decide their own program and use their energy to determine what to explore. Little Island is a mediative space that allows people to have a place of serenity.

A park that was eight years in the making with five years of intensive design between MNLA, Thomas Heatherwick and stakeholders. The design evolved throughout the design phases and construction to create the landscape recently opened to the public.

“The project was an iterative “joyful ride” with a remarkable design team who workshopped and developed design ideas as a collaborative journey. The team had many ideas, and each idea was treated with respect with no one author of the design.“

Signe Nielsen – Principal at MNLA

Many of the design decisions and inclusion (or exclusion) of elements were responses to environmental constraints. Little Island is raised out of the water to be out of the flood zone and accounts for the future sea level. The pier’s shape is not a standard flat rectangle; its square corners are turned up to respond to environmental conditions, including the changing water level, the remnant pier piles and to allow sunlight to reach fish habitat.

Topography is utilized to create a landscape that envelops the visitor in a serene garden with borrowed views of the Manhattan (and New Jersey) skyline and Hudson River. There are several paths and routes through a series of gardens and spaces that allow the visitor to wander through, catching glimpses of the borrowed landscape. Visitors can remain on the paths or use the New York-sourced Black Locust steps and rocks to traverse their way through the landscape rather than take a predetermined path or route, allowing people to experience the park in their way.

The lifted corners of the pier create distinct microclimates that reveal themselves through color, texture, light, and shadow. The southwest corner was to be raised as high as possible to take advantage of the river views, with the height reaching 62ft whilst accommodating access (ADA) for all. Other areas of the park were raised and lowered to provide different experiences and enhance or mitigate views, solar orientation, shadow, and wind exposure. Studies were undertaken, and environmental testing of the design to fine-tune and evolve the forms to create a holistic design.

Little Island is a maritime botanic garden with 35 tree species selected using the MNLA ‘s knowledge and Hudson River Park Trust experience with tree species that have survived and thrived in the adjacent Hudson River Park. The planting palette of over 65 species of shrubs and 290 varieties of grasses, perennials, vines, and bulbs were selected for their colour, fragrance and attractiveness to birds and pollinators.

The planting design uses plants in a myriad of ways to soften retaining walls, create cascades of foliage, invoke drifts of color,  juxtapose foliage with weathered steel and timber, and create a seasonal landscape with changing foliage texture and color. The color design utilised the color wheel to create contrasting seasonal flowering and foliage colors. The colors transition from pastels in Spring to hot colors in Summer and more muted tones in the Fall. There is one surprise in store for visitors as they move through the landscape; some may notice that they have moved from a colorful landscape into a white garden with white wisteria, white flowering shrubs, perennials and bulbs and white bark and berries.

Summer
Fall
Winter
Spring

The planting is seen as an evolving landscape that will change over time as with shrubs, plants and perennials will be divided, moved or substituted over time due to space, park use or environmental conditions. The park has a wide variety of species and seen as an insitu plant nursery for Little Island as well as Hudson River Park.

Little Island is a new dynamic landscape that provides New Yorkers and visitors with a place to relax and unwind from the bustling nature of the big island of Manhattan. Like all recent contemporary landscape architecture projects in New York, it will be exciting and interesting to see how it evolves and changes over time. It is sure to be an ever-changing and evolving landscape through the seasons and decades to come.

Little Island

Location: Manhattan, New York, USA

Design Team: MNLA, Heatherwick Studio, Arup, Standard Architects, Fisher Marantz Stone, C&G Partners, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, Irrigation Consulting, Inc., Hunter Roberts Construction Group (Construction Manager)

Photography: Timothy Schenk

Images (Plans, Sections, Renders): MNLA

Text: Damian Holmes (Editor, WLA)