Along the western side of the bustling island of Manhattan, a series of pillars emerge from the water, expanding their shape like tulips blooming to create the base of an attractive public park. A rainy afternoon may have seemed like a less-than-ideal day to pay a visit to this site. But a few drops did not overshadow its charm, and we enthusiastically decided to step inside. This Little Island, named quite literally, is like an apostrophe to the urban island it is connected to, or it may be better described as its comma, given it is almost like a pause amid New York’s hectic lifestyle.
Its beauty lies in the innovative way of creating an area that gives continuity to public space, providing a new environment in opposition to the city’s crowds. It is interesting to observe how a city like New York is evolving. On the one hand, there seems to be no more space; on the other, alternatives and innovative ways are to be found to create these organic spaces of relevance and need for its inhabitants. The High Line is another example of this evolution in the search for green spaces.
The creation of such spaces is increasingly relevant as antidotes to non-places—a term created by the anthropologist Marc Augé, which refers to all those spaces that are inhabited from anonymity and in which there is no link, for example: roads, bridges, airports, places of transit, but never of appropriation and permanence. To stay functional, big cities are made up of these non-places, so it is essential to design other types of spaces to balance the equation, such as plazas, parks, and spaces where the well-being of those who live there becomes central.
Little Island is precisely a place where New Yorkers and visitors alike can escape the frenetic pace of the city, allowing them to reconnect with the environment, nature, and their own inner harmony, on a scale that feels—as opposed to the towering skyscrapers that outline the urban skyline—human and natural.
From a distance and on the outside, it appears sculptural and attractive, made of concrete, but with organic lines and shapes, almost like a contradiction. And as we approached it, it gave us the feeling of entering a forest with petrified trunks and foliage. On the other hand, the interior creates the feeling of being in an oasis, a safe space of well-being. The carefully curated landscape gives the impression of being within an illustrated fairy tale, with brightly colored vegetation, defined contours, and huge floating mushrooms.
The small island is located on the Hudson River between the tips of Pier 54 and Pier 56 (New York’s first piers) and was designed by Heatherwick Studio in collaboration with landscape architecture firm MNLA, who conceived a surface for a new park and theater space that, like the pillars of the old piers, would emerge from the water, resulting in an innovative and exciting environment.
Each of the 132 “tulips” that make up the park’s base has a unique design. None is the same as the other, and together, they form an undulating topography ideal for winding paths and theatrical presentations. The design also generates a dynamic game of light and shadow, thanks to the overlapping concrete petals, creating an architectural spectacle where serenity and whimsy coexist.
A refreshing space and a retreat from the fury of the metropolis, Little Island is a joyful place where, even if it was raining, we felt good—surrounded by people who, like us, enjoyed the trails and the views, where it was not necessary to run for shelter from the light rain, in order to enjoy the sparkling sky.
The inhabitants of any metropolis need these kinds of spaces, and in Little Island, it is enjoyable to stroll along its paths and through the different routes and stairways. Every corner is an invitation to contemplate, depending on the angle, the views of the city and the river, or the attractive colors of the gardens’ vegetation. The richness of flora is obvious, including a wide variety of trees, grasses, vines, and flowers planted with the intention of attracting birds and pollinators, giving the park continuous beauty throughout the year and during the different seasons. Each corner of the park generates a microclimate that creates a unique palette of color and texture, and the vegetation supports local biodiversity and creates a refuge for birds and insects amid the urban landscape. The scenic design also builds the perfect backdrop for the many activities that are held in the park.
Little Island is more than a visual delight: it is an auditory and sensory experience. The park is an ideal recreational space to pass the time, walk along its different routes, run along the trails, enjoy the main plaza, The Play Ground, where there are a couple of food kiosks, or attend one of the many events that take place in its two theatrical spaces, The Glade and The Amph. Musicians, artists, poets, comedians, vocalists, and dancers have performed here, filling the park with art and culture. During the warmer seasons, free craft activities and workshops are organized here as well. There are recreational instruments and objects throughout the park, such as spinning discs with optical illusions, musical installations, and spinning chairs, among others. The park’s seating areas and quiet corners, meticulously designed, invite contemplation, reflection, and re-connection with our human side.
With our umbrellas in hand, but pausing to entertain ourselves at every turn, the pleasant stroll was a great example of the power of design to transform spaces, evoke emotions, and elevate the human experience.
Architecturally, it is a beautiful structure, the landscaping is very well done, and it remains vibrant with presentations and cultural activities. Without a doubt, spaces like Little Island are important and necessary in cities such as New York. And with this project, they achieved this in a very creative way. Besides being a space that brings together culture, tourism, and nature, it has become an innovative and beautiful landmark. It is a place of encounters, of enjoyment, and a place where, on that cloudy afternoon, we enjoyed a hot tea among the greenery and fresh air of the park.
A version of this article appears in print, in Issue 2 of Álula Magazine, with the headline: “Concrete Tulips, In the Heart of New York City, Little Island is an Oasis on the Water.” This post may contain affiliate links.