Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Play Ground

Illustration by Eda Akaltun.

How a Dutch landscape architect is reinventing the park.

The landscape architect Adriaan Geuze hopped onto the grass, cupping his hands to his ears. “You can hear a million insects,” he said, in his vowelly Dutch accent. “You think, Wow, you are in the jungle.” I heard crickets, birds, a passing jet. Purple and yellow wildflowers crowded the edges of the asphalt path where I was standing, which was dramatically lined with snow-white concrete. Not quite a jungle, but it was hard to believe that we were seven minutes from lower Manhattan, deposited by ferry on Governors Island.

The island has shimmered with architectural possibility since being sold back to the people of New York for a dollar, in 2003. Now, because of Geuze, when you pass from the island’s historic district through a vaulted archway in Liggett Hall, a former Army barracks designed by McKim, Mead & White, you shift more than a century in sensibility. On one side, there are gracious officers’ homes with porches. On the other, a curved, man-made landscape rolls out in front of you, like a living map. Ten years ago, the view would have looked very different: as flat as a pancake, and dotted with derelict Coast Guard buildings, including a salty Burger King. A visitor in 2016 finds four paths outlined in thick white concrete curbs that rise and fall from ground level to seating height, like a topographic doodle. Signs point to a lawn, hammocks, and what you are really here to see: the Hills, New York’s newest peaks, crowning a forty-acre park.