Welcome to Diller Island: a $260m pet project on Manhattan’s shore

It took nature thousands of years to create the island of Manhattan. It took Barry Diller a decade and $260m to create his own island just off the shore of Manhattan.

The 2.4-acre Little Island, known to many as Diller Island, sits in the Hudson River atop 132 tulip-shaped concrete pods that have been carpeted with flowers, trees, rolling lawns, an amphitheatre and many small wonders.

“I said: I want lots of colour . . . I want it to be like Oz!” Diller said on a recent afternoon, recalling his instructions to architects and designers as he surveyed his almost-completed creation.

It is set to open on Friday after years of lawsuits, engineering challenges and fraught debate about the role that billionaires should be permitted to play in shaping New York City’s public spaces. All that will be left to one side as New Yorkers, at last, have a chance to set foot on the island and judge the thing itself.

“We may not like billionaires creating public space, but in this case it turned out pretty great,” said Dan Kaplan, senior partner at the architecture firm FXCollaborative, who calls Little Island “magical”.

Opponents of the project claimed it was a misuse of public land and imperilled a native eel species, while the island was derided in the press as a billionaire’s bauble at a time when other public parks were starved of funding © Monique Jaques/FT

The timing is certainly magical: the island is literally blossoming just as New York City is coming back to life after a year-long Covid-induced freeze.

“My wife says: how the fuck did you luck out that you’re going to start live performances outside at just the moment it’s possible to have them?” Diller said, referring to his partner, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. “It’s very affirming.”

As a media mogul, internet baron and patron of the arts, Diller, 79, has helped birth plenty of grand productions over the years — from Broadway shows to blockbuster films and the Fox television network. He and von Furstenberg were champions of the wildly popular High Line elevated park that has brought wonder to the west side of Manhattan. 

A few years earlier, Diller had planted a shiny flag in what was still an industrial neighbourhood by hiring the architect Frank Gehry to build an imaginative westside headquarters for his internet company, IAC/Interactive Corp. It resembles an iceberg floating along the Hudson River.

That building, says Diller, is an object of pride. But Little Island is something else. “This is joyous!” he declared, clearly besotted, as he absorbed the blaze of colour from 66,000 bulbs, 22,000 perennials, 113 trees and 300 or so shrubs. “The purpose of doing this was for people to have a smile, to feel whimsical. Every time you turn there’s a surprise, a view, a slice.”

Then, as Diller consulted on final plantings with his landscape architect, Signe Nielsen, there was a flash of the obsessive Hollywood boss. “What are those?” he demanded, suddenly fixated on a few concrete blocks sitting on a plaza where open-air concerts will soon be held. Bases for umbrellas, an assistant reported. “They’re so big,” Diller complained. For the next 40 minutes, as he traipsed around the island, they would periodically haunt him.

The varying height of the concrete ‘tulips’ satisfy a building code that stipulates how much shade the structure can cast on the water below © Monique Jaques/FT

Diller is entitled to have things his way: he has spent more than $260m on Little Island, with the city and state contributing about $20m. (To put that in context, the total budget is roughly equivalent to Diller’s pay in 2005, when he was the most handsomely remunerated chief executive in the US.)

The Diller family has also pledged another $120m to cover future operations. The media mogul, who has been known to use the corporate jet for personal travel, will not need to shell out to fly to Little Island: it is 196ft from the shore and connected by a walkway.

The project began in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy deepened the misery of a rotting west side pier that long ago hosted cruise ships such as the Lusitania. Because of his involvement in the High Line, and the fact that his headquarters are just across the West Side Highway, Diller was approached about replacing it. He found a rectangular model that was being proposed boring.

Then inspiration struck. “I thought: my God! We could build an island!”

He staged a contest among a trio of architects: Santiago Calatrava, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick. 

Little Island is ablaze with colour, emanating from 66,000 bulbs, 22,000 perennials, 113 trees and 300 or so shrubs © Monique Jaques/FT

Heatherwick, the designer of the Olympic torch at the 2012 London games and the not-so-well loved Vessel sculpture at Hudson Yards, captivated Diller with plans for a stainless steel Noah’s Ark. It was bold and fun but ultimately impractical. Then came the tulips.

Their varying heights are meant to give a sense of undulation, as if the park were a leaf floating on the river. Yet they also satisfy a building code imperative: the new structure is only allowed to cast so much shadow on the water below, according to environmental rules, so as not to harm the fish.

Those were the least of Diller’s problems. As Little Island began to take shape, opponents sought to sink it with lawsuits. They claimed the project was a misuse of public land and imperilled a native eel species. It was derided in the press as a billionaire’s bauble at a time when other public parks were starved of funding. Douglas Durst, one of the city’s developer barons, was a particular enemy. Costs were ballooning well beyond the initial $35m budget. 

In 2017, Diller quit his island — only to return when Governor Andrew Cuomo intervened on his behalf. All this has deepened Diller’s sense of awe, he said, when he looks around the city and sees the great landmarks left by likes of the Rockefellers and their ilk. “How did they?” he asked, his voice trailing off.

Diller does not fear that he has built an island beside a dying metropolis. “New York’s coming back. New York will be fine,” he assured, dismissing a reporter’s suggestion that he might tow the island to Palm Beach instead. “All the people who left for Florida — it’s kind of a self-definition realisation project. Make of that what you will,” he snarled.

Still, Little Island will take its place in a city that has been changed by the pandemic — one where the divide between rich and poor seems as stark as ever, and there is a newfound hostility to the ideas of the rich. Diller became uncharacteristically tongue-tied as he tried to articulate the disparities of the age without sounding, as he put it, “just like any bimbo”.

“It’s hard for me to think badly about people who support the Lincoln Center, the Public Theater, the Delacorte and Central Park,” he said finally. “Some will throw tomatoes. I can wash them off my face.”

Just then, a cyclist whizzed past Little Island and its benefactor and shouted: “Barry Diller! We love you!”

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