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Thomas Heatherwick Vessel Hudson Yards New York

"The Vessel shows us how bad the vampiric ultra-wealthy are at making public space"

It's now two years since Thomas Heatherwick's Vessel was closed following a spate of suicides. As the ill-fated project gathers dust, Matt Shaw reflects on what went wrong.

I arrived in New York City last week on a bus from New Jersey with a skyline view of the West Side of Manhattan. I was annoyed by a mysterious glare, and as I adjusted my eyes, I recognized the Vessel – Thomas Heatherwick's $200 million staircase at Hudson Yards. I realized how that view is the front door to Manhattan and that the Vessel is the image of New York City in the 21st century.

If anyone needs a refresher on the Vessel, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman summed it up well: "Purportedly inspired by ancient Indian stepwells (it's about as much like them as Skull Mountain at Six Flags Great Adventure is like Chichen Itza) the object – I hesitate to call this a sculpture – is a 150-foot-high, $200 million, latticed, waste-basket-shaped stairway to nowhere, sheathed in a gaudy, copper-cladded steel."

This huge, embarrassing failure could have easily been prevented

After three incidents of people jumping off the Vessel, it was closed in January 2021, and reopened four months later with a rule against solo climbs and a sign posted with the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Dark stuff. Then it closed again in July 2021 when a fourth person jumped.

Two years have now passed and it has yet to reopen. According to site owner Related, "We continue to test and evaluate solutions that would allow us to reopen the staircases so that everyone can fully enjoy the unique experiences Vessel provides."

What went wrong? What does it mean for New York? And how can we prevent it from happening again?

The Vessel's demise can be traced back to its lack of public process. Built on private property, it never was subjected to, or benefitted from, any kind of design review process. A single client and single designer. This huge, embarrassing failure could have easily been prevented with even an ounce of community feedback.

Someone at minimum would have pointed out the suicide risks, like former Architect's Newspaper associate editor Audrey Wachs, who predicted them in 2016. Heatherwick could have devised a solution.

Instead, the Vessel was unveiled and built within just 30 months. It is not surprising that the public mostly mocked it when it was completed. In 2013, Heatherwick won a five-designer competition sponsored by Hudson Yards developer Stephen Ross, and the design was kept a secret until it was debuted in 2016 following a behind-closed-doors "sculpt off".

It is the ultimate example of the failures of this plutocratic way of building public space

Ross told the New Yorker that he "fell in love instantly" with Heatherwick's design. "My guys around here thought I was out of my goddamn mind," he boasted. "It was too big, too this, too that. 'How are we going to build it?' 'What's it going to cost?' I said, 'I don’t care.'"

The Vessel symbolizes everything wrong with America's wealth gap and the unchecked power out-of-touch elites have to dictate public life in the US. With no clear function, it is the ultimate example of the failures of this plutocratic way of building public space.

The scam doesn't end there. It was reported by Kriston Capps of CityLab that Hudson Yards diverted at least $1.2 billion from affordable housing programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods. How no one was held accountable is astounding, but not surprising. While taking public financing, Related had the audacity to claim ownership rights over any photos taken in the vicinity of the Vessel, in addition to collecting biometric and shopping data from The Shops & Restaurants.

With a contempt for the public, the developers of Hudson Yards see people as numbers on a spreadsheet: faceless masses of potential consumers ripe for data extraction – a mass of potential advertising dollars. There is no sense of generosity, only taking. The Vessel is the embodiment of this ideology.

Many successful urban projects have benefitted from the public process. Across the East River in Brooklyn, nearly a decade of meetings – almost 300 – resulted in a fully public-financed Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP) that is well-attended and well-liked. "The learning, the frustration, and the productive disagreement that finally leads to consensus are all part of the public process, which is wonderful," BBP designer Michael Van Valkenburgh told me. "So much of what people love in the park are ideas that grew out of ideas that began in that process."

It is unclear why Heatherwick didn't suggest something similar. Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, as he perhaps trails only Santiago Calatrava in sheer number of disastrous projects. Both somehow keep convincing gullible rich people to let them design large-scale, high-profile structures. Perhaps the media is partly to blame, as they continually write puff pieces comparing Heatherwick to Da Vinci and Willy Wonka and praising him for "giving a special award to hair stylist Vidal Sassoon".

The Vessel gives nothing back to the city – it only extracts from it

What can we learn from the mistakes of the Vessel? As critics Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster once noted in Design Observer, Little Island – the Heatherwick-designed, privately owned public park just down the road from the Vessel – "set up an uncomfortable choice between supporting design innovation and letting donors set urban priorities". The Vessel is a case study in what happens when this donor-class urbanism is taken to its logical conclusion.

It would be easy to write off the Vessel as some kind of metaphor for "capitalism-turned-death-cult of climbing a spiral to our death". But the reality is more boring: The Vessel shows us how bad the vampiric ultra-wealthy and their for-profit developers are at making public space and public art. There must be a feedback loop between the top-down and the bottom-up.

We shouldn't demonize individual genius or private financing for ambitious projects. Risk-taking should be celebrated, and there are many positive examples of philanthropy. Additionally, the public – left to its own devices – can produce terrible things as well. That kind of pure consensus is a recipe for bland mediocrity just as bad as the one demonstrated at the Vessel.

In stakeholder discourse, there is a clear objective to bring both together "process facilitators", or designers, and "content experts", or the community members that can inform the process. But there was nothing like this for the Vessel.

An object with no function, the Vessel gives nothing back to the city – it only extracts from it. No wonder the public similarly cares little about it. No one cares about the Vessel because no one asked for it.

Matt Shaw is a New York-based architecture author, editor and curator. He is a contributing editor for The Architect's Newspaper and teaches at UPenn, Indiana University, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture. His upcoming book with photographer Iwan Baan, American Modern: Architecture and Community in Columbus, Indiana, will be published by Monacelli Press in 2024.

The photography is by Michael Moran.

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