An Interview with Robert Hammond

Robert Hammond, Co-Founder of New York City's High Line, recently visited Ann Arbor to give a presentation as part of A&D's Penny Stamps Speaker Series (click to view).

A&D senior Shaili Das sat down with Hammond to find out more about his work on the innovative “park in the sky”, his creative process, and why failure isn't necessarily a bad thing.

 

Shaili Das: Let’s talk a bit about your creative background. I understand you are a painter. I was wondering, do you consider the High Line your art as well?

Robert Hammond: I was a self‑taught painter. I used to paint more when I had a regular job, and I think it was really a creative outlet. Now I paint less, partly because I think I get a lot of that creative outlet through the High Line. But I don't consider it my art, because I didn't design it. I'm involved, but really it's the work of our design team.

High Line co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond

Interesting. Because I think when people think about the High Line, they don’t think about the designers who designed it, they think about Robert Hammond and Joshua David, who created it and paved the path for it. I wonder if it could be considered art because you provided the vision for what could happen. And isn’t that what artists do?

Well, when I was a kid my mother gave me a book by Christo and Jeanne‑Claude about the Running Fence Project. Most of the book was the documentation of the process of making it happen. Christo talked about how the process was, and is, an important part of the artwork. That was definitely true for me. To me, personally, the process was almost as interesting as the outcome. And it’s why it was fulfilling for me – the process of going through it and working with all these different kind of people.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76. 
Photo: Wolfgang Volz
© 1976 Christo

It seems like design was the key driver of the project and its success. Good design equals a good experience – how much did you think about that from the start?

Yeah. Design is critical. There was a great book that I found really helpful. It was by William H. Whyte, called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. It was published in the late seventies or early eighties. It looked at small public spaces, parks and those plazas in front of buildings, and which ones work and which ones didn't work and why. Something can have a beautiful design and not be well used. So other factors have to influence the design.

One of my favorite findings is about movable chairs. So often, when you go to public parks, they have chairs that are bolted down or benches that are in this predefined pattern. This study showed how people really respond better when they can affect their environment.

The High Line has concrete benches that you can't move, but we also have movable chairs. People really love that. It gives them a sense of control over the space. We looked at having the designers design the chairs. They came up with all these different kind of chairs, but in the end we just used regular Parisian park chairs that you see all over parks all over the world. They're light, they're a simple design, and it's fascinating to see how many people use them in different configurations.

Photo © Iwan Baan, 2011

Do you think the High Line is successful because it's in New York City? Do you think other cities would be successful having something like this? It seems to feed so much off of the surrounding areas and the business ventures that have sprouted up around it…

Yeah, I mean I think each project needs to be rooted in its own community, in its own city. To me it's not interesting if someone wants to just replicate exactly the High Line somewhere else. I don't think it would work. It's probably too expensive and it's particular. That's what I think is interesting about industrial reuse – it’s that you feed off of what is existing… That's why I think landscape architects are so good at these kinds of projects because they're used to dealing with the existing and not trying to create from scratch.

I don't know if you have seen it, but there are a lot of buildings in Detroit where they’re using nature to bring the outside in. A lot of artists have proposed recreating something like the High Line here, thinking that perhaps we can get people back into the city through design…

Detroit and New York are different, but I think it's exciting. It's really energizing to see what's happening in Detroit because each city has its own advantages. New York has a lot more people and financial resources, but Detroit has a lot more space and a lot more, in some ways, assets. The assets are all of these facades and all these unused industrial spaces, which I think offer this huge opportunity. People really are starting to take advantage of that.

You said in your lecture that 3.7 million people visited the High Line just last year alone. Obviously it’s become a quite popular tourist destination. Do you see a connection to other destination-type installations such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates in Central Park?

I don't know. The most important thing for me is… well, I hope people come and tourists visit… but the most important thing is that local New Yorkers have a real sense of ownership. To me, that's really critical because, ultimately, locals validate it for tourists. When you go to a city, you really want to go where locals go, not where other tourists go. So I think that's something that's really important because that's how the High Line keeps its soul.

You’ve said you’re not sure what your next project will be. But I’m wondering, is there a core value or principle that you can share with students, that helps you when you’re deciding what to do?

Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think one of the things is the importance of just starting things. Josh and I get a lot of credit for having done this, but I think the most important thing we did was just start it and allow other people to come along to help us get it done. That's the thing that I think stops most people or a project from happening—they just never start it. So I guess that, taking it a step further, it's not being scared of failure, not seeing failure as necessarily a bad thing.

Photo: Marcin Wichary

A lot of the startups that I was involved were not successful, but they taught me how to start a business. And I used what I learned to help start the High Line.

I did sales for a while and it was hard. I was having other people call for me. I don't like being rejected, so I set this goal.

Instead of a goal for successful sales, I set a goal for rejection. I had to get so many rejections each day, and if I wasn't getting those rejections, I wasn't asking enough. It freed me from being afraid of the rejections.

I just would mark them off and once I got to a certain number I'd done my job. I think it frees you from worrying that it's all going to fail.

I can see that directly translating into studio practice.

Yeah, and that's what students are good at… I was talking to someone that was working on an Internet project and they said their goal was to just get stuff up and just keep evolving it, and not worry if it wasn’t going to work or be perfect, but just to keep trying and keep treating it almost like play, as fun, even if it didn't work.

 

Even if it's scary.

Yes, even if it’s scary.

That’s great, thanks.

 




COMMENTS

This is an outstanding work of repurposing and reclamation of urban space. It is a very important example for others to see how well a project like this can turn out. It is also simply an amazing creative work, brilliantly executed, and wonderful to experience.

Posted by John Merigian on February 21, 2012

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