Hudson Yard’s Vessel-An architectural Art-Piece

Uday Kumar Varma

New York’s newest living and breathing neighbourhood that brings first-to-New York experiences, Hudson Yards, is part of an ambitious and imaginatively conceived Redevelopment Project undertaken by New York City with liberal contributions of philanthropists.
Arguably the swankiest destination both for New Yorkers as well as millions that come to this fabled city, it claims to offer a never-before experience. An ambling 1.5 mile long plant-lined elevated parkway converted from a long-abandoned freight line above the west side of Manhattan encircles the Yards.
The center-piece of the attraction of Hudson Yards, a 5-acre parcel of land, is ‘Vessel’. Only one of its kind, unmatched in elegance, magnificence and dazzle, its design is inspired by the innovative step wells of Western India.

‘Vessel’ is an architectural poetry, an imagination frozen in chrome, steel and glass, a riveting beauty that mesmerises you. This extraordinary centre-piece of Hudson Yards is a spiral staircase, a soaring new landmark.

Taken up as a part of Hudson Yard Redevelopment Plan where a 5- Acre (2 Hectare) parcel of land was developed as Hudson Yards Public Square by the New York City, it is easily the most eye-catching structure. Stephen Ross, the CEO of Hudson Yards’ Developer Companies, attributes its unusual shape to an intention to erect a structure that could stand out like a “12 month Christmas Tree’. He wanted something ‘transformational and monumental’.

The Yard Public Square accompanies another symbol of human ingenuity and imagination-The High Line. A revolutionary project to revitalize New York’s public spaces, High Line is an ambling plant-lined elevated parkway converted from a long-abandoned freight line above the west side of Manhattan. The 1.5-mile-long parkway, 30 feet above the street level, offers a refreshing walk from 14th street in Chelsea, through the garden district to Hudson railway Yard.

New York’s Staircase

‘Vessel’ -this interactive artwork was imagined by Thomas Heatherwick and Heatherwick Studio as a focal point where people can enjoy new perspectives of the city and one another from different heights, angles and vantage points. It took five rejections before Thomas Heatherwick from Britain presented something so spectacularly different and bold that the developers unanimously approved it. It answered all the requirements of the developer.

The concept of Vessel was unveiled to the public on September 14, 2016. Construction began in April 2017, with the pieces being manufactured in the commune of Monfal in Italy and shipped to the United States.

It opened to the public on March 15, 2019.

Vessel was originally slated to cost $75 million, but by the time it was completed, the cost had overshot $200 million. Heatherwick attributed the greatly increased price tag to the complexity of building the steel pieces.

Comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs — almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings — the vertical climb offers remarkable views of the city, the river and beyond.

The total length of the stairs exceeds 1 mile(1.6Km).

No photograph or video does justice to the elegance, grandeur and dazzle of this landmark building seen on a bright sunny day. But above all, Vessel is made extraordinary by the people who visit, and by experiencing it with others.

Structure

Vessel is a 16-story, 150-foot-tall (46 m) structure of connected staircases. The copper-clad steps, arranged like a Jungle gym or Climbing Frames, (a playground equipment where one can climb, sit, hang even slide). It is modelled after Indian stepwells, and can hold 1,000 people at a time.

50 feet (15 m) wide at its base, expanding to 150 feet (46 m) at the apex, the visitors can see the Hudson river at the top of the structure.

The Indian Inspiration

Yes, Stepwells of India are the inspiration for this extra-ordinary structure.

 Stepwells (or baori), an Indian utilitarian and architectural innovation are wells or ponds with a long corridor of steps that descend to the water level. The builders dug deep trenches into the earth for dependable, year-round groundwater. They lined the walls of these trenches with blocks of stone, without mortar, and created stairs leading down to the water

Stepwell played a significant role in defining subterranean architecture in western India from 7th to 19th century. Some of such stepwells are massive, multi-storeyed and can be accessed by a Persian wheel which is pulled by bulls to bring water to the upper floors. Common in the Western India, they began as utilitarian structures to access the scarce subterranean water but evolved into a distinct architectural style, some of them notable for their elaboration and grandeur. The embellishments adorned the simple structure offering it an elegance and beauty of its own.

Over time, they evolved as leisure sites and centres for social gathering. The soothing coolness and the ambient serenity of water provided both relief from severe summers as also the rigour of a tough quotidian life, and the enclosed space a sense of security and comfort. They became retreats. And some of them elaborate monuments.

While the design inspiration is distinctly discernible, one major difference is that it is like an inverted step well where the water seems to be at the bottom and stairs descend from above into a central well.

Jinxed?

Vessel has closed its magnificent stairs to public since July 2021 and remains so indefinitely.

On February 1, 2020, a 19-year-old man jumped from the sixth floor of the structure and died; on December 22, 2020, a 24-year-old woman jumped from the top of the structure and also died. A third fatality occurred less than a month later on January 11, 2021, when a 21-year-old man jumped from the Vessel. 

Following the third death, the structure was indefinitely closed.

Vessel was reopened at the end of May 2021, but all visitors were required to be accompanied by at least one other person. In addition, after the first hour of each day, all visitors above five years old had to pay $10 for a ticket.

Two months after Vessel reopened, on July 29, 2021, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death while he was with his family. After the fourth death, Vessel was again closed indefinitely.

Controversies

Two major controversies also made the structure famous. The first was their photo policies that required paying royalty on the use of its photographs. The second controversy was it being largely inaccessible for wheelchair users. Both were, however, resolved, by allowing visitors to use its pictures as they liked; and making the structure disabled-friendly.

Overwhelmingly Acclaimed: Some Criticism too!

Heatherwick’s sentiment while designing Vessel assumes significance. He said, “We had to think of what could act as the role of a land marker. Something that could help give character and particularity to the space.”

No wonder, once the structure was complete the acclaim and wonder was overwhelming. Fortune called Vessel “Manhattan’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, CNN in its review copied this sentiment. Elle Décor writer Kelsey Kloss compared Vessel to an M. C. Escher drawing.  Several commentators have referred to the structure as the Giant Shawarma, a popular Middle Eastern dish, a rather gross simile.

The New York Times said the sculpture, while a “stairway to nowhere” in the utilitarian sense, served as an “exclamation point” to the northern terminus of the High Line. Gothamist called Vessel “a bold addition to the city’s landscape”. Public Art Fund President Susan Freedman called it “a leap of faith in terms of scale.”

Criticisms were few but they added to the popularity of this monuments. ‘Gaudy’, ‘eyesore’, ‘A piece of junk’, and ‘wilful and contrived’ were some of the strong epithets used by the critics. 

Synthesis of Five Elements

Vessel, to me, symbolizes the synthesis of all five elements, water, air, space, fire and sky. It connects the water (at bottom) to blueness of sky (at the top) through the air. The flaming reflections on its burnished copper exterior offers a semblance of fire. And all these four elements are configured into a space, presenting a sight so spectacularly distinct and so elegantly beautiful.

Or is it my Indian bias that sees this celebrated structure so differently!

P.S.

Curiously the structure is called “Vessel(TKA). TKA stands for Temporarily Known As. After its opening, Hudson Yards asked the public to give it a formal name and created a website to that effect. The wait for a final name continues.

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B

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