"What bothers many people is the sense of an alien culture"

The outrage over New York's Hudson Yards is not really about ugly glass towers or bad urbanism – although it features both – but an unspoken disquiet that foreign ideas have overtaken a chunk of Manhattan, argues Aaron Betsky.


What is wrong with glass skyscrapers? New York mayor Bill de Blasio, who is now running for US President, made headlines this spring by saying that he wanted to ban them from the city, supposedly for environmental reasons.

The ban, however, turned out to not be quite what it sounded like. In the end, there will be just a tightening of standards to which any commercial building will be held. But it did reflect a general distaste for boxes clad in a seemingly transparent material.

The proximate cause for this sense of unease strengthening to the point that a politician can use it to score points is the opening of New York's own version of Oz, from film The Wizard of Oz's, in the form of Hudson Yards, at the beginning of May.

Most of the ink this event has generated has been about its shopping and dining opportunities, which seem to cater almost exclusively to either the One Percenters or to visitors for whom any dollar spent or any calorie consumed away from home does not seem to count.

Many have also remarked on its sops to cultural enrichment, Thomas Heatherwick's Stairs to Nowhere, also known as The Vessel, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Fun Palace-channeling Shed.

However, Hudson Yards' largest impact on most New Yorker's daily lives has been the appearance of a cluster of tall and supertall structures clad completely in glass.

With the possible exception of Diller Scofidio + Renfro's bundled luxury skyscraper rising out of the Shed, the design of the towers is thoroughly mediocre and forgettable.

There is a general distaste for boxes clad in transparent material

They could be anywhere. They have no relation either to the life of the city nor to the environment. They are all sealed containers rising from a base that the developer built over the train tracks behind Penn Station.

None of this is without precedent in New York. We should not forget a large chunk of Midtown Manhattan was built by the Vanderbilt heirs over the tracks behind Grand Central Station.

The appearance of these equally bland and repetitive blocks, which now include some of the city's most expensive residential and commercial buildings, were as out of scale with their surroundings then as Hudson Yards is today.

Rockefeller Center pushed that scale to even greater heights but added both a level of abstraction and a hopscotch orientation that was thoroughly novel.

What these eruptions of newness did not do was to break from the material mirroring of the bedrock on which Manhattan sits. They were clad with stone, however thin that veneer might have been.

The arrival of glass appeared at first in relatively small buildings such as Lever House, the Seagram's Building, the Pepsico Headquarters, and the United Nations Secretariat.

Inevitably our eye roams to Asia, where glass towers have become the norm

All were so refined and so beautifully detailed that their openness and difference was part of their beauty. The larger structures that imitated or continued their lead sported large amounts of glass, but almost always with vertical elements or fins made out of metal and sometimes stone that suppressed the glimmering and open aspect of the glass.

The appearance of a few all-glass buildings during the 1980s, such as 499 and 101 Park Avenue and the Onassis Building and Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue remained exceptions.

That has remained true until recently, and it is the bundling of all that glass together at Hudson Yards that makes it seem so out of place.

We have to look elsewhere to find precedents, and inevitably our eye roams to Asia, where glass towers have become the norm.

The notion of creating a complex of towers, united by a single base that includes shopping and some sort of cultural amenity, was also pioneered there and has also become the building block for urban expansions from Beijing to Djakarta to Manila.

If we look at the situation with some degree of dispassion, you could note that glass is not necessarily a worse – or better – cladding in terms of its environmental properties, especially in these days of highly sophisticated coatings and recipes for the glass itself.

Sealing these very large structures might mean that their inhabitants have less contact with the outdoors, but it also makes them more efficient in terms of controlling temperature and air flow.

The logic of Hudson Yards – like that of many of the Asian complexes – depends on tying the whole structure directly into a public transportation infrastructure and densifying the city, rather than occupying more space in the suburbs.

This could also be a plus from both an environmental and a social standpoint.

Finally, it is not as if building this immense new part of the city displaced poor people (other than through the echo or halo effect beyond its boundaries), as there was nothing but unused air space on the site before.

Hudson Yards is not only ugly, it is also a tremendous waste of space that could be open and useful

I would argue that there is something else at work here. What bothers many people, whether they admit it or not, is the sense of an alien culture, one that somehow is capitalist, elitist, and Asian all at the same time, taking up a large part of Manhattan.

The sense that it is foreigners working and living in those towers only makes it worse, as does the fact that the companies and the brands in the stores are also on the whole not American. That makes Hudson Yards seem so out of place, and thus an easy target for politicians.

Don't get me wrong. I think Hudson Yards is not only ugly, it is also a tremendous waste of space that could be open and useful.

It is almost criminal to use up so many natural resources to build such large structures for so few people, and to close it off from the city perceptually and physically – apart from a park that connects here and there to surrounding streets.

It also seems like a bit of an old-fashioned idea: do we really need more luxury shopping and large office floors in an age of WeWork and Amazon?

Making new buildings fit into the tradition of conceptually shaving off a thin slice of Manhattan schist as cladding will not make the next group of such buildings, such as the ones currently planned for the old ABC properties on the Upper West Side, any better.

I would offer the development around the old Domino Sugar Factory across the East River as proof.

We need to integrate new spaces for all those who want to live, work, and play in New York into existing structures

What we need instead is a way to integrate new spaces for all those who want to live, work, and play in New York into our existing structures, extending and connecting them where necessary.

That would be more complex and thus more expensive than plunking down standardised boxes. It would also involve more visionary thinking by politicians, developers, and architects. I doubt it will happen. Perhaps only a recession can save us.

Hudson Yards looks best at dusk, when you stand on the extension of the High Line near the Hudson River. From there, the trains idled on the still-uncovered part of the tracks yearn to be moving towards a new version of Oz, all translucent shards of glass reaching up to the stars.

It is only when you get closer that it all turns out to be mirrors, with the Vessel and Shed as the smoke, that hide the soulless waste of space and material that is Hudson Yards. Look through the mirrored glass, and you will see the true problem.

Photograph courtesy of Related Companies.