Little Island, USA

15th August 2022

Designed by Heatherwick Studio, Little Island rises from the Hudson River on a series of concrete ‘tulips’, giving New Yorkers a unique new public space in which to explore and unwind. Fisher Marantz Stone designed the lighting for the park, which was intended to complement both the architecture and landscape features.

Situated on New York City’s historic Pier 54, Little Island is a totally unique public space unlike any other in the city. Emerging from the Hudson River, the island sits atop 280 concrete supports, dubbed ‘tulips’, offering a literal and metaphorical escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan.

Conceived as a collaboration between media entrepreneur and philanthropist Barry Diller, and the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT), Little Island was designed by Heatherwick Studio as a public park and outdoor performance space.

Inspired by the hundreds of wooden piles that stuck out of the Hudson River as remnants of old piers that had previously existed, Heatherwick crafted the identity of the park around its structural piles. Expanding on the idea further, the architects made the design decision to extend the piles out of the water, raising up sections of the island, and fusing them together to form the topography of the park. The resulting design developed as a system of repeating piles that each form a generous planter at their top – each planter then connects in a tessellating pattern at different heights to create a single manipulated piece of landscape.

Lighting for the unique structure and parkland came from Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS), which became involved following a longstanding relationship with HRPT.

Enrique Garcia Carrera, Associate Principal at FMS, explained further: “For 15 years prior to Little Island, FMS had been involved with HRPT in creating the park system lighting masterplan and providing peer review for the lighting of each individual segment. When the time came for Little Island to engage a lighting designer, HRPT put our name forward for consideration among a selection of potential lighting consultants. After several interviews and negotiation sessions, the Little Island design committee decided that FMS was the right firm to help create Little Island’s luminous environment.”

The original lighting brief to create this “luminous environment” was to “subtly highlight the concrete supporting structure and landscape features”, while keeping the lighting instruments as inconspicuous as possible. However, Garcia Carrera continued, “it was later understood that lighting the ‘tulips’ would have unacceptable environmental ramifications, which constrained the lighting interventions we could consider. In addition to that, we were aware that lighting for safety and wayfinding would be of high importance, given that the park would be open until midnight every night, weather permitting, and would programme evening performances several times a week.”

As such, FMS developed a lighting concept that would bring a base layer of wayfinding and accent light from low heights and concealed positions, where possible, supported by lighting from taller positions whenever scale or topography required it. “We hoped to extend and further enhance the magical environment created by the architects and landscape designers during the day,” Garcia Carrera added.

“To do this, we had vigorous discussions with the client and design team about what areas and elements of the projects should be highlighted at night, which areas were necessary to light for code and/or safety, and which would be superfluous to illuminate. We then set about to research and develop the means to make the island and its components the star of its night-time environment, while the lighting instruments would be concealed from view.”

As part of its ambition to conceal fixtures, FMS designed a bespoke, slender light pole with multiple fixture heads that provide path illumination and highlight the tops of trees, in instances where existing light poles were not sufficiently inconspicuous to satisfy the vision of the design team. 

Alongside this, FMS looked to pay tribute to the heritage of the site – Little Island is on the site of the former Pier 54, which received the surviving passengers of the Titanic. “The Hudson River Park esplanade in front of Little Island is home to the only remaining structure of Pier 54, its historic façade arch, which was also illuminated by FMS as a beacon to announce the entry point to Little Island,” Garcia Carrera added.

Despite the striking architectural gesture of the supporting tulips, Garcia Carrera explained that the architecture on the island itself is “very subtle”, and instead defers to the topography and landscape. As such, he said that the main architectural gestures involve the accessway bridges, the tulips, and the formal amphitheatre that sits within the park. “Each of these would be subtly highlighted while carefully limiting the reach of the lights to avoid perturbing the wildlife native to the Hudson River below,” he said.

The presence of this wildlife within the river was brought to the fore during the design process, and was one of the key challenges that FMS had to work around, particularly when figuring out how to best illuminate the supporting tulips. Garcia Carrera explained: “The support pillars are undoubtedly the most striking design element of the island park, and at the onset of the project there was little doubt that they should be suitably highlighted.

“However, they are also the elements in closest proximity to the Hudson River, and of special concern to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). We eventually came to the decision that only the tulips that were not directly visible from the water would be able to be highlighted, which mostly limited us to those adjacent to the entrance bridge and those visible above the island surface.”

Environmental considerations for the lighting design also extended to light trespass and pollution – something that Garcia Carrera said is “important in every architectural lighting project, including urban projects, as we’ve learned in the past decades of the harm to wildlife and to the visibility of our night sky”.

On Little Island, it became evident that the project was located in a section of the Hudson River that is home to the American eel, meaning that FMS had to be mindful not to disrupt its habitat.

“We performed several studies, including existing illuminance values on the site, illuminance values in nearby sites along the Hudson River, and projections of light penetration underwater at the depth of the eel habitat, to demonstrate to NYSDEC that the habitat would not be disturbed by the negligible stray light component in our design. This exercise also led us to limiting the highlighting of the tulips, regardless of their architectural importance to the project.”

The extra considerations towards the surrounding nature also meant that the designers had to be slightly more discreet than they had initially planned, despite the new park’s relative isolation from the inner city of Manhattan. Garcia Carrera added: “The more isolated location makes the project and its lighting stand out in a way that might not have happened in a more densely built-up part of the city. However, that same river location prevented us from implementing some of the lighting concepts that we originally developed, in consideration to the natural environment below and surrounding the island. So, we in fact had to be more restrained at this location than almost anywhere else in New York City, including other segments of the Hudson River Park.”

Other challenges that FMS had to overcome on this particular project included the harsh, corrosive environment caused by the salty seawater that comes from the Hudson River merging with New York Harbour as it reaches lower Manhattan – which meant that only the sturdiest of light fixtures would survive. Alongside this, the outdoor park needed state-of-the-art dimming controls, but lacked ventilated, dry areas to locate control equipment and repeaters. Overcoming this, the lighting control system, fully hard-wired with cables and boosters, was buried underground for robustness and resilience in the harsh environment. Despite this, the system allows for park staff to wirelessly recall and adjust lighting scenes from any location within the park.

While the lighting controls are buried beneath the park, the lighting fixtures themselves are fully immersed within the architectural fabric of the project. “The lighting, as in all FMS projects, seeks to be fully integrated and indistinguishable from the architecture,” Garcia Carrera said. “Heatherwick Studio did have specific ideas on how the park should look at night, but left it to us to devise the methods to achieve this vision.

“FMS took the lead in determining the lighting approach for each area, while always going through rigorous review by Heatherwick, landscape architects Mathews Nielsen, and the Little Island committee – a process that kept informing and fine tuning our design as it developed.”

Indeed, the high-profile nature of such a project meant that there was several different teams, departments and external stakeholders involved, making the process slightly more arduous than perhaps expected on other, more traditional projects. However, as Garcia Carrera explained, the ends justify the means.

“Having such a high visibility project, of unprecedented design and scope, guided by so many different stakeholders, all with their own priorities, makes our job as a lighting designer much more difficult than on more ‘normal’ projects,” he said. “However, FMS has a long history of working on unique, exceptional projects and we know going in that the journey will be difficult, but the result is often quite satisfying for all. That was the case with Little Island.”

Looking back on the project following its completion and unveiling to the public last year, Garcia Carrera reflected on the magical experience that has been created for visitors. “In order to convey our design concepts to the committee, we produced several renderings and animations of the illuminated, night-time environment from various vantage points. None of them ended up doing justice to the completed project,” he said.

“Little Island surpassed our expectations of what it could be at night. The experience is a magical trip of discovery, with outstanding architecture and landscape areas being revealed and concealed by turns, thanks to the thoughtfully designed and executed lighting. At night, Little Island is transformed into a luminous floating jewel.”

And this “floating jewel”, Garcia Carrera believes, comes at a much-needed time for New York, particularly following a tumultuous few years. He concluded: “A city like New York has a shortage of welcoming exterior public spaces that can be visited after dark. Appropriate lighting has the power to draw the public in and help them feel safe, comfortable, and in a mood to explore.

“Nothing made this clearer than the pandemic, in which New Yorkers, mostly confined to their cramped apartments, needed to experience the outdoors like never before. Little Island came around at the exact moment when it was needed, and it being able to operate after dark is something that people have dearly appreciated.”

Image: Michael Grimm