NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 15: A view inside the Vessel at Hudson Yards, New York's Newest Neighborhood, Official Opening Event on March 15, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Related)
Heatherwick’s Vessel: What makes Hudson Yards’ new landmark so uncomfortable?
New York is a city which assumes its bold architectural choices and expensive megastructures. The world’s most famous architects seem to be given a fair amount of freedom (maybe too much?) in their designs and budget. A few years after the completion of Santiago Calatrava’s $4 billion train station, a new designer has been given the task of conceiving a monument that would be the centrepiece of the new Hudson Yards’ plaza. This resulted in ‘Vessel’, a “monument to us” which boldness divides opinions and is sure to be a generator of discussions.
Stephen Ross, the billionaire property developer behind the Hudson Yards project, knows that it is the largest private-sector real-estate development in American history, with eighteen million square feet in sixteen buildings on twenty-eight acres and a cost of about twenty-five billion dollars. The masterplan aims to expand the midtown Manhattan business district towards the Hudson River with residential space, office towers, retail outlets, a collection of high-end restaurants, a new centre for artistic invention, and a luxury hotel. As such, the eccentric seventy-eight-year-old wanted an art piece at the centre of its plaza, one that would bring in tourists, like the Rockefeller Centre’s Christmas tree, but as “a three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day tree”. In his research for the perfect artist for the job, Ross turned to who he perceived as today’s “great sculptors” and this is where Thomas Heatherwick’s name emerged.
The British designer and head of Heatherwick Studio is a safe choice for non-conventional designs. Not being an architect himself but having a background as a sculptor and artist made him a distinct figure in the contemporary architecture world and allowed him to become an “early” rising star. In his thirties, he was already designing distinctive projects like the Rolling Bridge (London, 2002), The B of the Bang sculpture (Manchester, 2005) and the breath-taking UK pavilion for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, winning a RIBA International Award. Other projects of his includes the cancelled Garden Bridge in London and the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, all projects worth having a look at. His various works redefine the way modern techniques and design reflects each other and collaborations with acclaimed practices like Foster+Partners or BIG propelled Heatherwick Studio to the world’s most talked about architecture firms.
Heatherwick’s design for Hudson Yards plaza aimed at being a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. For the designer, ‘Vessel’ is a site for freedom of spirit and personality, offering a “different kind of public experience that is free for everybody”. And different, it surely is. The 45.7m-high structure is a 16 storeys tall vertical labyrinth with 154 interconnecting flights of stairs, 80 landings and 2,465 steps. Its multiple nicknames deriving from his shape helps illustrate the project; officially called ‘Vessel’, it has been referred to as ‘The Honeycomb’ or ‘The Shawarma’, as it looks like an upside-down cone literally “made” of stairs. Inspired by Indian staircases and often compared to the work of the Dutch artist Escher, it has a distinctive warm rose gold copper colour, making it stand out from the bland grey-blue Hudson Yards’ skyline.
This kind of unique and bold architecture statement should typically be celebrated. Indeed, this structure fits in perfectly within Heatherwick’s portfolio. The technique and the design influences on each other are clearly visible and make the ‘Vessel’ remarkable, extraordinary, out of this world. So why does it appear so uncomfortable? Is it its context? Is it the brief itself? The structure seems to tick all the boxes to make it visually and subconsciously weirdly unpleasant. Explaining this feeling and its origin is complicated as it seems personal and believing everyone will react similarly to ‘Vessel’ would be wrong. However, some of its issues stand out and exposing them would allow translating this uncomfortable sensation.
As stated before, its aesthetic isn’t an inherent problem. Bold and iconic, it was designed to be the Eiffel Tower of the Big Apple. The issue comes from the statement this piece of architecture makes. The fact that it is a $200 million staircase that leads to nowhere questions the public on the kind of investments people make for cities and who are new developments aimed for. On the one hand, critics state that such a large amount of money should be spent toward some better goals (housing the homeless for example), while on the other hand some respect the risk of putting so much private money into an artistic landmark and understand the potential it has in elevating the whole of Hudson Yards. Continuing the comparison, the Eiffel Tower might have suffered from the same judgements at the time of its construction (while Paris still had slums, why build a giant pointless iron tower?), but the fact of the matter is that it is still standing and generating a huge amount of money for the city (directly or not). But the parallel with the Iron Lady has its limits. The French tower rises more than 300 meters above the typical Hausmannian buildings, a scale that instantly created the icon, while Vessel is barely visible against the giants of the Hudson Yard development and surely doesn’t give the best views compared to a number of other viewing platforms in New York.
‘Vessel’ strike as a confused and confusing project. Heatherwick wants to build something that is a sculpture more than it is a piece of architecture, surely influenced by the fact that he was selected because of his talents of “sculptor”. The project, on the Heatherwick Studio website, is registered among the ‘Infrastructure’ projects and not among their ‘buildings’, where it sits in between bridges and pavilions. What does ‘Vessel’ want to be? Too disproportionate within its context to be a tower, too ‘useful’ to be a sculpture, too permanent to be an art installation, too complex to be a public space, it is hard to classify and most media refer to it as an “object”, which doesn’t play in ‘Vessel’s favour. This project might be so one of its kind that at this point in time it can’t be classified and its different symbolic meanings pursue its confusion.
Indeed, the project stands in the plaza purposeless, making people climb sets of stairs towards nothing, without seats or installations in its landings. It does strike as being a symbol of extravagant luxury, expensive and useless. It seems from a different time, like a testimony of the rich New Yorkers and their dominance over the lower classes. Or maybe it is too much of our time? Symbol of ‘Instagram Architecture’, The New Yorker rightfully pointed out that: “Vessel is about as wide as it is tall, and will fit nicely into an Instagram photograph”. While New York continues to get crowded and to push poorer populations outside of the city through massive gentrification campaigns, this kind of statement is obnoxious – its golden colours not lessening the image of glorified luxury it expresses.
With this unsettling representation of the changing face of New York come the issues behind the operation of the building. It was revealed that an absurd number of regulations apply to its visitors. ERY Vessel LLC (the company responsible for running the huge public structure) controls all access to the building and possesses the right to every image taken of the structure in Hudson Yards. Despite the outcry on social media, the company is still planning on maintaining its rights on public photographs. Furthermore, the site will be heavily controlled and will impact Hudson Yards with the flow of people visiting the ‘Vessel’ and create a stressful atmosphere in the neighbourhood. Having in mind a renewal of the way we conceive public space, Heatherwick, unfortunately, created a symbol for everything that public space shouldn’t be: exclusive, confusing, regulated, and stressful.
Notwithstanding its critics, since opening earlier in mid-March 2019, it has been doing well, mostly thanks to the heavy press coverage and the buzz the extravagant shape creates. Visitors have been advised to reserve their free tickets early, as they were sold out for the two weeks following the opening. Time will tell if this architecture extravaganza will reveal itself as a new icon for the Big Apple, competing against the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, etc… However, if ‘Vessel’ fails to attract visitors in the long run, it will have a hard time finding a second purpose and might just stain the whole Hudson Yards development with its failure. A risky investment for an architecture piece that is as impressively distinctive as it is symbolically uncomfortable.