If the actress best known for her portrayal of a (highly despicable) fashion editor can recruit Thomas Heatherwick — he of the 2012 Olympics cauldron and London's revamped double-decker bus — to design a magical, lushly planted park-bridge over the River Thames, it seems like a natural progression that Heatherwick’s London-based design studio is now working with a (highly likeable) real-life fashion designer to erect a magical, lushly planted park-pier over the Hudson River.

The real-life fashion designer in question is wrap dress goddess and erstwhile princess Diane von Furstenberg, who, alongside husband, billionaire media mogul Barry Diller, has committed millions of dollars to the creation of Pier55, a 2.7-acre offshore urban oasis — a pseudo-island paradise of sorts complete with rolling lawns, meandering footpaths, sweeping city views and an 800-seat amphitheater — that will replace the dilapidated Pier 54 in Manhattan’s West Village.

With a price tag that’s expected to exceed $170 million, the New York power couple’s philanthropic arm, the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, will be footing a majority of the bill for Pier55 — $130 million, to be exact — making it the largest single donation to a public park project in New York City history. Diller and von Furstenberg were also the single largest private benefactors of the High Line, another infrastructure-reclaiming project located just a stone's throw from Pier 54. 

New York City will contribute $17 million to the project while the state will construct an $18-million riverfront esplanade leading to the new park.

Pier55 design

Pier55 design

Heatherwick Studio will work alongside New York-based landscape architecture firm Mathews Nielsen in creating Pier55’s design while the Hudson River Park Trust will serve as a development partner and provide additional funding for the project. Like the other open-to-the-public piers within Hudson River Park, the trust will also head up daily maintenance needs at Pier55.

P55, a newly established nonprofit organization established by Diller and von Furstenberg, will maintain control of Pier55's programming and cover its operational expenses during the duration of an initial 20-year lease. Diller, the former chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures and Fox Broadcasting and current honcho of IAC (Match.com, Tinder, Vimeo, CollegeHumor), tells The New York Times: “I have always loved public spaces. It’s entirely my fault that this has become so ambitious. We will fail in our ambition, outsized or whatever it may be, if this doesn’t feel completely like a park and completely like a performance space.”

Belgium-born von Furstenberg, who recently released a memoir titled "The Woman I Wanted to Be," is quoted as saying: "New York has always reminded me of Venice, so I am happy the time has come to properly honor its waterways. What better than a park on the city's western bank to rest, watch a sunset or a performance?"

For history buffs, Pier 54 might ring a rather grim bell as it was the pier that served, in 1915, as the final departure point for doomed luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. Formerly owned by Cunard Line, Pier 54 was also where, three years prior, the RMS Carpathia deposited survivors of the Titanic disaster. In 1918, the Carpathia, like the Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German U-boat but with significantly fewer casualties. Nowadays, it's a rusty, crumbling eyesore that's slowly sinking into the Hudson.

Early 20th century maritime disasters aside, Pier55 seems to be off to a promising start — and, thanks to Diller and von Furstenberg, an extraordinarily well-funded one. Both New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have met Heatherwick’s proposal with enthusiastic thumbs up. Says de Blasio in a press release: “The revitalization and transformation of this pier into a vibrant arts and community space will bring new energy and new visitors to our waterfront. We are deeply appreciative of the generosity of great New Yorkers like Mr. Diller and Ms. von Furstenberg, without whom this visionary project would not have been possible.”

Pier55 plans

Pier55 plans

As for Heatherwick's design, it’s a typically singular and sci-fi-tinged showstopper from the man responsible for the Seed Cathedral and East Beach Cafe. Situated about 185 feet from the shoreline of the Hudson, the undulating park, supported by a network of 300 concrete pylons, appears to float above the river surface like a quivering, plant-clad flying saucer — a quivering, plant-clad flying saucer that just happens to be piloted by two insanely rich people.

“Pier55 will be unlike any other pier in Hudson River Park," says Signe Nielsen of Mathews Nielsen. "Unexpected topography and captivating spaces will create physical, visual and cultural experiences found nowhere else in the city, much less on the waterfront. The drama and delight of the landscape will make this a magnificent destination that will define a new paradigm of public parks.”

Not surprisingly, Heatherwick Studio's concept has already sparked not one but two inevitable “Avatar” comparisons, one from The Guardian (“It is another vision that could come straight from the set of 'Avatar' — fecund flower beds erupting from mushroom-shaped columns, their canopies joining to support parkland above the water”)  and the other from Curbed NY’s Jeremiah Budin who writes: “It will feature gardens, lawns, and an 800-seat amphitheater, and looks like a set for a fantasy movie (which is to say really, really cool — obviously, if we could all live in a fantasy movie, we would).”

The pile fields of old Pier 54, along with what remains of Pier 56, will remain in place as fish habitats.

Aside from the design's verdant appeal, Diller, von Furstenberg and Co. are playing up Pier55’s performing arts aspect; the project, it would seem, is more of a grassy open-air entertainment complex than anything. In addition to the aforementioned amphitheater, Pier55 will be home to two additional performance venues for music, dance, theater, community events and other arts-related programming. Said arts programming will be free or low-cost to the public and overseen by an impressive roster of partners including Scott Rudin, the super-prolific Hollywood film and Broadway theater heavyweight whose recent producing credits include "The Book of Mormon," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Social Network." Acting as vice-chairman of P55, Rudin will be joined in leadership positions by British film and theater director Stephen Daldry ( “Billy Elliot” and “The Hours"), George Wolfe, the former longtime artistic director of New York's Public Theatre in New York, and Kate Horton, former deputy executive director of London's National Theatre. 

Pending approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the full board of the Hudson River Park Trust, construction on Pier55 will commence in 2016. (And in related news from London, Thomas Heatherwick's other river-situated urban park project, Garden Bridge, recently scored a major victory in its path towards realization.)

plans for Pier55

plans for Pier55

Via [New York Times], [Co.Design], [Designboom]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.