On July 19, the Hills, ten acres of parkland on the southern edge of Governors Island will open to the public after three years of construction, accessible by a seven-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan. In those three years of work, Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze and his firm West 8 have overseen the construction of rolling parkland, complete with climbable rock formations and metal slides on the former site of a drab military-owned parking lot and apartment complex.
On an overcast and humid morning this week, I went over on the ferry for a media preview, accompanied by a slightly rowdy group of kids and teenagers who attend a summer camp program on the northern part of the island. After landing, we were whisked off by a caravan of golf carts to the other side of island, where we were met by a jovial Geuze, who together with Leslie Koch, the president of the Trust for Governors Island (never an apostrophe, to be clear), energetically led us on a brisk tour of the four hills that make up the Hills.
Geuze described at length the park’s new topographical features, with Koch playing the part of the group leader, guiding us around winding paths that seemed to come out of nowhere and encouraging us to climb the hillside however we pleased. She talked about the strategic challenges of the construction process, while Geuze spoke passionately about the landscape, explaining that the gentle incline of the hills functions to conceal and reveal the skyline as you walk through the environment.
We all somewhat clumsily puttered around these grassy slopes and the stone scrambles, the experience as much a group nature walk as it was a chance to see the remarkable views of the horizon afforded by the new elevation.
The symbolic rustication of the site is completed by Rachel Whiteread’s Cabin (2015), a solid concrete sculpture that is perched on an outcropping of Discovery Hill. Taken from a cast of the interior of a cabin, the work reads like an appropriate fictional complement to the wooded hills, a nod to Walden, and an acknowledgement of the faux-wilderness Geuze and his team have created.
Koch talked about how the curator who commissioned the work, CCS Bard macher Tom Eccles, wanted to give Whiteread a thoughtful opportunity to respond to the space. The sparseness of the design conveys both the singular outsider history of Governors Island as well as the future of these hills as a place of retreat. Whiteread’s sculpture makes use of the spectacular views of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty in order to put the project in dialogue with the city itself. (A note to art types: a sound piece by Susan Philipsz and a group of four sculptures by Mark Handforth are also on display.)
When we finally made it over to Slide Hill, where, yes, the slides reside, Koch’s team had set up a table with bowls of Governors Island official new signature ice cream flavor, made by the Brooklyn-based Blue Marble. The journalists ate ice cream, watching as a few people happily whizzed down the metal chutes.