Heatherwick's Vessel Did Not Deliver
Monumental structures shape space in spectacular ways. The Vessel, a massive climbable sculpture in New York City, is no exception. From afar or up-close, it's a sight to behold. Expanding skyward in mesmerizing honeycomb pattern, The Vessel invites your visual involvement. The structure's impressive stairwells – beautifully clad in a shiny bronze finish – guarantees an upward gaze from every visitor... The result? An audience fixating over a structure that speaks loudly of how public space is shaped in the world's most famous city while struggling to make sense of its own place in it. Because if you start asking about meaning, The Vessel is empty. What is this structure?.. What is it doing here?.. What does it mean? You'll find the story un-compelling.
The Vessel was designed by Thomas Heatherwick's Studio (UK)
The studio was invited to design a public centerpiece for Hudson Yards, a new 11-hectare development on Manhattan's West Side that sits above a huge rail yard. To create something meaningful, the studio wanted to create a structure that visitors could use, touch and relate to. It developed the idea of a new landmark that could be climbed and explored. Drawing inspiration from the ancient stepwells of India, the studio sought to evoke the powerful effect of their repeating steps, flights and landings that reach down to the earth. Composed of 154 flights and almost 2,500 steps, the effect of climbing up and down Vessel's staircases creates a personal rhythm in each visitor. Rising to 46 metres tall, it lifts them above the square and reveals views across Hudson Yards and Manhattan from 80 platforms arranged around its perimeter. Polished copper-coloured undersides contrast with the raw painted steel surfaces of the complex architectural framework, enlivening the structure with reflections of the surrounding city. Forming the heart of this large new district, Vessel represents the intention for Hudson Yards to create a meaningful public legacy for New York. — Heatherwick Studio
A good-faith reading of the excerpt above reveals the philosophy allegedly shaping the concept:
- A structure that reveals views of Hudson Yards and Manhattan; to share with New Yorkers a sense of place.
- A place dressed in reflections of the surrounding city; reflecting the city essence.
- A place made touchable, climbable, explorable, relatable; accessible and open to everyone.
- A place that provokes a personal sense of repetition and rhythm; inspiring communion.
- A heart and centerpiece of a new city district; creating meaningful public legacy for New York.
Laudable intentions – Did Heatherwick deliver?
A visit to The Vessel feels impressive, like climbing a beautiful trophy. But the experience, however wonderful, is saddled with could-have-beens; you can feel them as soon as you decide to give it a chance. If the structure provokes in you a spontaneous desire to climb it, it is likely to defeat it: Access is restricted, attendance limited, controlled by online registration — you have to be 'admitted'. No time-slot? No smartphone? No data? The site is in front of you, yet it is not there for you. This is only one of the many ways the experience feels off.
More is revealed as you climb the 16-story structure. Very soon you start feeling the powerful effect of the repeating steps. You can say it's breath-taking becase it's a workout even for the able-bodied. If you find it daunting by age or condition, you are invited to wait downstairs or line up for the elevator. At the end of each flight of stairs there is a landing but none is inviting enough let alone furnished for a resting moment. No landing feels like 'place to be', they rather feel like places of transience, so called liminal. The flow of visitors ushers you forward, it keeps you moving.
The views at the top are phenomenal. The striking urban setting quickly invites reflection on how long we've come as species, as people, as country. You start wondering what modernity has become, about the kind of spaces we build and for whom. You see massive glass towers wherever you look, with designer insides that cater to a discerning community of global corporations and wealthy residents, utterly out of reach to the ordinary New Yorker or visitor.
Exclusivity is the theme at Hudson Yards. If The Vessel is indeed a trophy, it's not immediately clear to what or for whom. From the neighboring residences it's easier to see — it's a trophy for your achievements, rising and shining in golden beauty, right out your window. A trophy that comes with spectators, rising their eyes in aspiration. A view that sells by the millions.
As you find your way down, you see the new visitors working their way up, anxiously feeding the moment into cameras. You start wondering what the experience left you with... A handful of selfies? Stronger legs? A $10 dollar debit? A fleeting romantic moment? You see that the only reflections on the polished bronze are of Hudson Yards itself. You start wishing there was something waiting on the ground other than a luxury shops – some grass to sit down and relax. The Vessel's complete lack of proportion with the square that contains it breaks a basic harmony in ways only a place the size of Champ de Mars could fix.
The whole site feels ill-conceived. You'd wish the vision driving the design of Hudson Yards were the hopes and aspirations of the people of New York, the neighboring community. The structure instead came to be through the cooperating visions of developer Stephen Ross and architect Thomas Heatherwick – one guided by profit, the other by stardom.
How does The Vessel honor the history of the site it sits upon? How does it honor its place next to the Hudson River? How does it embody the dreams of ordinary New Yorkers? The answer is it doesn't. Hudson Yards doesn't honor anything but the ambitions of the money making it possible, seeking to profit from global aspirations to a rarefied life in luxury. That is why Heatherwick fails to provoke a sense of pride the way the Empire State Building does, the way the Brooklyn Bridge does, the way Central Park does.
Meaningful public legacy becomes a source of pride by celebrating the character, values, and accomplishments of a people. If the Vessel celebrates anything, it's the power of corporate real estate developers to shape public space at vast scales, a monumental reminder to the way they control the pulse of this city. Neighborhoods turned into fiefdoms, artificial communities where everything that happens must happen profitably for the landlord in charge. With Hudson Yards, Related Companies and Stephen Ross became neighborhood czars.
The real legacy of Hudson Yards and its central landmark is they invite reflection on what we really want out of the spaces we build. Harmonic public space needs no admittance, it invites and brings together, it is 'place to be'. Heatherwick's ears should've been on the past, present, and future of New York, on the way it's woven into the world, not on ancient stepwells half across the globe. His sights should've been on building a true space of connection, serendipity, and communion; in sharing with New Yorkers a true sense of place. Instead, he built a honey trap, a symbol of frivolity that exploits and feeds off the modern social media dynamic. Public space speaks loudly of the community making it possible and there shouldn't be doubt in anyone's heart that New York can build – and deserves – more than something to stare at.