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Road to nowhere

Venturing to the Vessel at Hudson Yards, Phase 1

C Hart Hudson Yards 30

A few flights up the Vessel.

Photos by Caitlin Hart

All the images of Hudson Yards: Phase 1 that I had seen before visiting were smartly taken Instagram pictures or slick renderings. Coming into New York on the bus from Boston, my first in-person glimpse was underwhelming: Vessel, a shining beehive-shaped series of Escheresque stairs, dwarfed by the development’s towers, surrounded by construction equipment, and captioned with a vinyl banner: “HERE WE GO #helloHudsonYards.”

After deboarding and grabbing a quick lunch in Midtown, I walked toward the no-man’s land of BoltBus departures, Penn Station, and the Javits Center. I expected Vessel, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, to act as a beacon: reflecting light, visible from sidewalks, guiding me to it. In reality, it was in densely developed Manhattan. Not remembering the signature towers vividly enough for them to work as beacons, I had to use equal parts mental map and GPS to track down the site.

I found it easily enough. Hello, Hudson Yards.

Once on official turf, Vessel was more like what I had expected it to be: a polished self-contained object among the high-rises. Vessel’s surroundings—landscape, hardscape, architecture, wayfinding—were still coming together, not yet occupied by luxury tenants and residents. Still, the site managed to be somewhat off-putting and inaccessible.

Wayfinding was scarce (so were trash and recycling receptacles). It took some hovering around the base of the object to figure out that a black-clad man addressing a small group of people was a Vessel authority. Approaching him, I was pointed to an easy-to-miss little-marked ticket stand. After getting back in line with my ticket, I was told I would have to finish or dispose of my iced coffee before I would be admitted.

I thought this was dumb because I had been thinking about Vessel as a piece of public art; instead, it was the sculpture-structure version of a privately owned public space. It is a creative work—arguably the only thing in the new luxury neighborhood that is not a residence or a business—and I expected to engage with it without being ticketed, screened, and told what to do. While finishing my coffee, I took the opportunity to do a couple of laps around the base of Vessel. I could check out only the exterior of The Shed, a cultural center not yet open to the public. The tulips were very nice.

After showing my ticket, I waited at the base of the object to be admitted as other visitors left. Immediately upon entry, there were photo ops, and there was congestion. A purple light glowed from the floor at the center of Vessel, drawing people in to lower their phone cameras and point them upward, a prime spot for selfies with a wall of shining Vessel as backdrop.

I avoided all that and started up the stairs on a choose-your-own-adventure path. There were hordes, and I had to pause a handful of times to avoid people’s selfies or group photos. However, the option to take different routes up and around Vessel (and probably, I’ll admit, the monitored admission) made it more tolerable than some crowded art-consumption experiences.

I actually enjoyed the climb, the experience of ascending the stairs with no real direction but up. I like walking, getting as high up a building or structure as I can, for the views. Meandering to the top of the Vessel, rather than making a beeline for it, was almost meditative (as close as you can get to meditative in Manhattan). It was a pleasant walk, apart from the extreme wind. (I’ll admit that everyone was safer because I didn’t bring my coffee.)

Looking up from the base. Photos by Caitlin Hart

Ultimately, though, it didn’t get me anywhere. Maybe I was influenced by Curbed critic Alexandra Lange’s idea that looking toward the river and the tracks gets you the best view, but I have to agree that it’s the only real view. The surrounding towers take away all the pleasure of being up high. The handful of interesting Hudson Yards visual vignettes I saw from above will be gone soon: workmen on the top of The Shed, building sites walled off by chain link fences, heavy-duty construction barricades lined up like dominos. Only small slices of the city are visible between the Hudson Yards buildings. Apparently, the place one is supposed to look is inward, at a glowing purple navel. Perhaps more offensive than Vessel’s sleek Instagrammability is that it really is a stair to nowhere, with nowhere to stare at.

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