Heatherwick Studio’s Little Island opens in New York as a green microcosm

Rising from the Hudson River in New York, a lush rectangular garden island designed by the London-based studio serves as a refreshing urban park and public venue.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : May 25, 2021

A culmination of eight years of design, planning, development, and construction - Heatherwick Studio's Little Island, situated above New York's Hudson River - has finally opened to the public. As a 2.4-acre public park and performance venue, the development near the city’s Lower West Side is settled atop sculptural, tulip-shaped concrete pots that sprout from the water and form an undulating landscape populated by hundreds of native species of trees and plants. Envisioned as a ‘miniature green oasis’, separate from the larger island of Manhattan, the project intends to provide a serene retreat from the relentlessly bustling and hectic atmosphere of ‘The city that never sleeps’.

The Hudson River Park Trust and businessman and philanthropist Barry Diller appointed Heatherwick Studio in 2013 to build a new pier on Manhattan’s southwest riverside | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The Hudson River Park Trust and businessman and philanthropist Barry Diller appointed Heatherwick Studio in 2013 to build a new pier on Manhattan’s southwest riverside Image: Courtesy of Michael Grimm Photography

"The project began when we were asked to conceive of a sculptural structure to go on a design for a newly enlarged piece of the Hudson River Park promenade. The project was interesting, but we saw the opportunity to create a more engaging experience for New Yorkers and to build on the city’s heritage of inventing exciting new public spaces," explains the studio’s Founder and Design Director, Thomas Heatherwick.  

Located on Pier 55, Little Island is one amongst an assortment of waterfront extensions from the Lower West Side shoreline | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Located on Pier 55, Little Island is one amongst an assortment of waterfront extensions from the Lower West Side shoreline Image: Timothy Schenck

Heatherwick Studio was initially awarded the commission by philanthropist Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust after being declared the winner of a design competition held back in 2013. The project encountered many delays in an extended approval and construction process due to concerns over its budget and environmental feasibility that have since been resolved. Located on Pier 55 in the Hudson River - amongst many other artificial protrusions into its waters from the coast - the park’s isolation from the mainland further enhances the idea of it being a calming sanctuary amid a densely packed urbanscape.

Heatherwick Studio crafted a lush rectangular island linked to the mainland by gangplanks aligned to the city’s grid, reimagining the concept of a pier | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Heatherwick Studio crafted a lush rectangular island linked to the mainland by gangplanks aligned to the city’s grid, reimagining the concept of a pier Image: Timothy Schenck

Most piers are routinely flat structures that furnish docking spaces for boats. The design team questioned whether a rudimentary intervention to craft a decorative object on the waterfront extension could be the appropriate course of action. From this original query, they resolved to rethink what a pier could be, and in the process, encountered an enticing opportunity to craft a dynamic social experience for visitors. "We had the idea to make an entirely new type of pier as a lush rectangular garden island, connected to the land with generous gangplanks as bridges, aligned to the street grid of New York," elaborates Heatherwick.

Heatherwick Studio took inspiration from discarded wooden piles that had once supported earlier piers and further devised a system of tulip-shaped piers supporting an undulating landscape | STIRworld
Heatherwick Studio took inspiration from discarded wooden piles that had once supported earlier piers and further devised a system of tulip-shaped piers supporting an undulating landscape Image: Timothy Schenck

To this end, the London-based studio drew from the existing, discarded remnants of wooden piles in the Hudson River that once supported earlier projections from the shoreline. Under the river's surface, these structures have now integrated themselves into marine habitats. The design team imagined a series of 132 precast concrete ‘planters’ resembling the form of tulips that rise from the river's depths on 280 piles. Inspired by the mosaic of ice formed around the piles during winters, the structures reveal a tessellated, organic pattern that is composed of repeating prefabricated elements. They rise in varying heights to form the contours of the park's topography. One corner of the landscape is raised to allow sunlight to filter into the aquatic habitats below and to form viewpoints.

  • Layout Plan | Little Island | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Layout Plan Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • Section | Little Island | Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Section Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Serving as 'planters', the structures are laden with soil and host over 400 different species of trees and plants, with one hundred of them attuned to New York's distinct coastal climate. On entering Little Island from the gangplank access routes linked to the mainland, visitors will find stepped paths that flow through groups of trees, with each corner of the park possessing a unique microclimate and topography.

Longitudinal Section | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Longitudinal Section Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

For the landscape design, Heatherwick Studio collaborated with the New York-based firm, Mathew Nielsen Landscape Architects, whose founding principal Signe Nielsen refers the project as ‘a special place that affords New Yorkers the rare opportunity to experience a multi-sensory landscape’. "As one strolls through the park, many destinations beckon— cultural venues with continually changing offerings, sloping lawns for picnics, and seating nooks with contemplative sights,” says Nielsen.

The park features three performance venues including a 700-seater amphitheatre | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The park features three performance venues including a 700-seater amphitheater Image: Timothy Schenck

Little Island also contains three performance venues - an intimate, 200-seater spoken word stage; a flexible 3,500-capacity central space; and an acoustically optimised 700-seater amphitheatre. Featuring natural stone seating and overlooking stunning views of the sunset above the Hudson River, with the Statue of Liberty in its backdrop, the amphitheatre also has attached back-of-house spaces, concealed in a void below that additionally hosts a viewing platform. These performance spaces also serve to replace an earlier entertainment venue, which was lost when the nearby Pier 54 fell into disrepair.

The onsite assembly of the piers took place in five stages, with one corner of the park raised above the rest to permit sunlight into the water below | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The onsite assembly of the piers took place in five stages, with one corner of the park raised above the rest to permit sunlight into the water below Image: Timothy Schenck

British firm Arup served as the project's engineering consultants, generating a full fabrication 3D model to accurately recreate the park’s complex structural geometries. The process of assembly took place in five stages. Piles were first erected on-site while the precast elements were fabricated locally, transported to site by boat and then mounted atop them. The structural slab was further cast in place above the supports to tie everything together. This was followed by final finishing and landscaping.

With its mix of spaces, diverse vegetation, and breathtaking views, Little Island is a tranquil haven for the ever busy New-Yorker | Little Island by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
With its mix of spaces, diverse vegetation, and breathtaking views, Little Island is a tranquil haven for the ever busy New Yorker Image: Timothy Schenck

The development presents itself as a tranquil haven of respite for the ever-busy New Yorker, with an engaging mix of venues, a plethora of plant species, and carefully crafted viewpoints, that help visitors to escape the hassles of urban life and experience a deeper connection to nature.

Project Details

Name: Little Island
Location: New York, USA
Area: 11,000 sqm
Architect: Heatherwick Studio
Client: Hudson River Park Trust & Pier 55 Project Fund
Design Team:
Group leader: Mat Cash
Project leader: Paul Westwood, Neil Hubbard
Collaborators: Arup, Charcoal Blue, Steven Daldry, Scott Rudin, Kate Horton, Mnla, Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, Hunter Roberts Construction Group
Status: Completed, 2021

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