Little Island - A dynamic performance space for new york

Heatherwick Studio as Architects

Little Island is a new public park that shelters three new performance venues on the Hudson River. Designed as a haven for people and wildlife, it is a green oasis, held above the water by sculptural planters, and located just a short walk across a gangplank from Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

Heatherwick Studio was initially invited by philanthropist Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust to create a pavilion for a new pier off the south-west of Manhattan. Instead of designing a decorative object to sit in the Hudson River Park, the design team saw an opportunity to rethink what a pier could be. The starting point was not the structure, but the experience for visitors: the excitement of being over the water, the feeling of leaving the city behind and being immersed in greenery – inspired by Central Park, where it’s possible to forget that you are in the midst of the most densely populated city in the United States.

Piers were traditionally flat to allow boats to dock, but did they have to be? In contrast to the flat streets of Manhattan, the design team wanted to create a new topography for the city, which could rise up to shape a variety of spaces. The first iteration was a curled leaf form floating on the water, its veins rising like ribs at the edges to shelter the space from the wind. The idea of raising the park on its foundations came from the existing wooden piles in the water, remnants of the many piers that used to extend from the shoreline of Manhattan. Beneath the visible tips of the wood, the piles have become an important habitat for marine life and are a protected breeding ground for fish.

Heatherwick Studio envisaged the pier as a complete experience; a single, cohesive object, rather than unrelated elements stuck together. New piles would be necessary to support any type of pier. Instead of sticks holding up a deck, the piles become the deck – they extend into planters that join together to create the park’s surface. The height of the piles varies to create the park’s contours: the corner of the pier is lifted to allow sunlight to reach the marine habitat, and the edge falls to define hills, viewpoints and to carve out a natural amphitheatre for performances. In this way, the pier and its supporting structure are one.

The planters, or ‘pots’ are filled with more than a hundred different species of indigenous trees and plants, which encourage biodiversity and are able to thrive in New York’s climate – each corner of the island represents a different microclimate. To determine the pots’ form, the design team looked to nature, and the mosaic of ice that forms around the wooden piles when the river freezes. The studio reinterpreted this in a tessellated pattern that appears organic, but uses repeated elements that could be standardised for fabrication. Care was taken to vary the angle and repetition of pots at the perimeter, where they were most visible. To give the structural concrete a smooth, tactile quality, Heatherwick Studio worked closely with a local fabricator. The precast components were transported by boats and assembled on site, minimising disruption to the city.

To emphasise the feeling of escape, Little Island’s footprint sits in the middle of the water between piers 54 and 56. Access is via two accessible ‘gangplanks’, and oriented in a continuation of the street grid. Inside, paths wind through trees and grassy seating areas to hidden, unexpected views. Restoring the entertainment venue that was lost when Pier 54 fell into disrepair, the park integrates three performance spaces. On the furthest edge, sheltered by the hills and surrounding trees, is an acoustically-optimised 700-seat amphitheatre with natural stone seating – its stage is set against the spectacular backdrop of sunset over the Hudson River and views of the Statue of Liberty. To the south is a more intimate, 200-seat spoken word stage. In the centre is a flexible venue with capacity for larger scale events – its hard paving brings to the surface the tessellated pattern of the piles.

There are roughly 400 different species of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials throughout Little Island and at least 100 different species of trees through the park that are suited to the New York climate. Each corner of the island represents a different microclimate depending on the topography, sun exposure and wind patterns.

The theatre needed back-of-house spaces, but the design team didn’t want to interrupt the park with a building. The solution came through the structure: the tallest piles transfer the load to lower piles, allowing a void to be created beneath the deck. In this undercroft, the foundations are revealed and a viewing platform is created above the water, allowing a unique perspective of the pier and river, while concealing the facilities on a discreet deck. Every aspect of the experience has been considered, from the way the greenery unfolds on the approach to the view from each theatre seat. With its unique mix of venues and parkland, Little Island is a pause in the pace of Manhattan; a place where New Yorkers and visitors can cross the river to lie under a tree, watch a performance, catch the sunset and feel connected to the water and natural world.

Transforming Hudson River’s Pier 55 into a whimsical urban park and performance venue

ARUP as Engineers

Designed by the London-based Heatherwick Studio and the New York-based landscape architecture firm MNLA, Little Island is a 2.4-acre urban oasis. New Yorkers can enjoy the outdoors and take in a range of performances, including theatre, music, and dance, as well as community events, with the Hudson River as a backdrop and surrounded by 35 species of trees, 65 species of shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, vines, and perennials. Arup has been involved in the project since its inception, providing a suite of services that spans structural, civil, mechanical, electrical and public health engineering, acoustics, audio-visual and theatre consulting, daylight planning, IT and communications consulting, and fire/life safety consulting.

Arup’s integrated team has helped shape this iconic park, contributing solutions for everything from green infrastructure to venue planning and infrastructure design. The most notable aspect of our work is the benchmark structural approach Arup’s engineers devised for the project, which harnesses advanced 3D design and prefabrication techniques to achieve the project’s unique aesthetic requirements while also optimizing constructability. 

Harnessing digital: Advanced structural design
The original design concept pictured a park “floating” above the Hudson River, propped up by a complex array of piles of differing heights, all of which fused together at the top to create the park’s undulating topography. When it came time to translate this vision into a constructible design, Arup’s engineers, working alongside Heatherwick Studio, quickly determined that precast concrete was the best choice for the pots that form the park’s base, due to the challenges of constructing cast-in-place concrete over a river and the expense entailed in steel construction. 

The decision to use precast concrete for the pots was complicated by the fact that the design contained few repeating patterns—normally a prerequisite for a prefabricated system. In addition, each of the concrete pots was large enough that there were concerns that they would be prohibitively expensive to fabricate and ship to the site.  The structural team’s expertise in parametric modeling, digital fabrication and modular construction surmounted these barriers. 

Embracing advanced modeling, Arup’s structural team, together with Heatherwick Studio, were able to devise “a Cairo pentagon” pattern that rationalizes the structure’s geometry and allows for invisible repetitions in form. “We used more than a dozen different varieties of this basic pentagon. These are arranged around the perimeter in a repeating pattern along different slopes and in different directions so that they look distinctly different, but on the plan, all but a handful of the pots are the same,” says Arup project director David Farnsworth. 

To ensure that prefabrication went smoothly, the Arup team used the Heatherwick Studio pot geometry as the basis to produced the shop drawings in-house providing extraordinarily detailed specifications for the offsite fabricator. By breaking each pot into discrete pieces and coming up with an efficient connection concept, the team also ensured that the pots could be shipped more economically and assembled on site with relative ease. 

Integrated venue design: Acoustics, audio visual & theatre design
As an entertainment venue, Little Island differs radically from traditional performance spaces in one critical way. “Little Island is a park first, but it also needs the flexibility and infrastructure to support a wide range of performance art and visitor experiences” said Joe Solway, Arup’s acoustic design lead. Striking the right balance between park and performance space presented unique design challenges. 

Arup partnered with the Client’s artistic advisor team to help define their artistic goals park-wide and for each of the three performance venues, which included using the Arup SoundLab to simulate and optimize the predicted soundscape experience. Arup worked with the landscape architects MNLA to integrate the needs for audience sightlines into the landscaped contours, and embedded into the park surface a hidden and flexible infrastructure to support a wide range of events, shows and concerts, ranging from large-scale music performances to park-wide multimedia art installations. The end result is a space that can fully support amazing performance experiences without detracting from the park’s overall look and feel. 

“One giant green roof”: Green infrastructure and stormwater management
Arup’s civil engineers worked closely with MNLA and Arup’s structural team to develop an integrated stormwater management scheme that transforms Little Island into what lead civil engineer Vincent Lee describes as “one giant green roof.” Thanks to a network of green infrastructure elements artfully integrated into the park’s landscaping and plazas, virtually the entire park is a sponge for stormwater. As soon as stormwater runoff is captured by one of these surface features, it begins to filter down through the pier structure’s substrata, which is designed to treat the water before gradually releasing it back into the Hudson River.

400 different species of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials

Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects as Landscape Architects

MNLA collaborated with Heatherwick Studio to design Little Island (formerly Pier 55), 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.

The lifted corners of the pier create distinct microclimates that reveal themselves through color, texture, light, and shadow. Whether meandering along paths, stairs, or boulders scrambles, the eye is at times directed downward to the rich palette of plants or outwards to spectacular views of the city and harbor. Little Island is a maritime botanic garden with 35 species of trees, 65 species of shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, perennials, vines, and bulbs, many of which have been selected for their fragrance and attractiveness to birds and pollinators. The landscape is one of sweeping swaths of textures and seasonally calibrated color themes punctuated by magnificent trees. Intended to delight and surprise, the captivating landscape offers visitor an oasis from urban life to play, relax, imagine, learn and restore. Additional images and information can be found here.

QUICK FACTS

The idea for the pier came from the existing wooden piles and wondering how a structure could form organically from these rather than being a surface on top.

Inspiration for the form of the pots came from looking at the ice patterns that forms around the piles when the water freezes.

The precast components were made locally.

LITTLE ISLAND'S LANDSCAPE DESIGN

There are roughly 400 different species of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials throughout Little Island and at least 35 different species of trees through the park that are suited to the New York climate. Each corner of the island represents a different microclimate depending on the topography, sun exposure and wind patterns. 

Planting began in March 2020 and culminated in December 2020.

There are roughly 400 different species in the park: 35 trees, 65 shrubs, and 290 varieties of grasses, vines, and perennials.

Different planting typologies define three distinct overlooks—the Northeast, the Southwest, and the Northwest.

More than 66,000 bulbs were planted, including Camassia, Fritillaria, Chinodoxa, Muscari and Narcissus.

The four seasons are evident through flowering trees and shrubs in spring, evolving perennial displays in summer, foliage blended with softer hues of grasses in fall, and evergreens trees and shrubs in winter. 

LF (linear feet) of pathways – 1790 (a third of a mile)

Lawns offer places to relax and view people and performances with ample places to sunbathe and lounge.

Weathering steel sheet piling was selected for the retaining walls to continue the warm materials palette used throughout the pier, and their crenellated form creates opportunities to tuck in vines and make spaces for cascading shrubs and perennials. Sheet piles were fabricated by a New York company.

Seven sets of stairs with 420 steps were milled from New York-sourced Black Locust.

Three playful boulder scrambles quarried from update New York delight visitors and provide a different cadence to traverse in the landscape. 

LITTLE ISLAND'S ENGINEERING AND CONSTRUCTION

The landscape is supported by 132 precast concrete “pots,” each supported on a large precast concrete column and piles driven down to rock, as much as 200 feet below the water.

Each pile can support approximately 250-350 tons.

The pots geometry followed a repeating Cairo pentagon tiling pattern to generate seemingly irregular shapes and a layout where the columns do not lie in straight lines, but still enable repetitive use of formwork. 

39 different formwork shapes were used to create the 132 unique pots. 

Each pot is roughly 20 feet in diameter. 

Each pot is hollow and were designed to be assembled from multiple pieces (‘petals’) that could be shipped by road in order to widen the bidding pool of potential precast suppliers.

The petals were fabricated in upstate New York, assembled into complete pots at the port of Albany, and shipped by barge down the Hudson River where they were erected on to the driven precast piles.

Share or Add Little Island to your Collections
Product Spec Sheet

Throckmorton Renovation
next project

Throckmorton Renovation

Private Houses
Dallas, Texas, USA - Build completed in 2018
View Project