The Vessel is just the latest, most obvious example of structures designed for Instagram first, argues design critic and former OnOffice editor Elissaveta Marinova
Some of the best architectural specimens in history are those that have a greater purpose embedded in their design. From Waugh Thistleton’s climate-conscious MultiPly installation, recently shown at Milan Design Week, through the Rockefeller Center’s human-focused masterplan, all the way back to India’s ancient stepwells and their ingenious irrigation tanks, honesty has been the foundation of good architecture.
Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, though inspired by the latter example, does not belong in this category. At the heart of New York’s Hudson Yards, the $150 million glorified playground stands 46 metres tall amid the glass towers that surround it and yet, it stands for nothing. It is a space designed for the egotistical interaction between human kind and its selfie stick – a type of architecture many critics fear will be emulated in the rebuilding of Notre Dame, should it come with a modernised spire and entry fee-boosting viewing platforms.
In Hudson Yards, the most expensive real estate development in US history, the Vessel boasts 80 landings and 154 flights of stairs. Ultimately though, it is a gimmick masquerading as public sculpture.
First, there’s the texture. From inside and out, the copper steel cladding is a blinding, mirror-like eyesore. Where have all the textures gone? Hudson Yards was built over the West Side Yard where there was grit, there was history. Heatherwick has ignored it all in favour of a self-absorbed, over-sanitised folly that will never weather.
Then, there’s the shape. By virtue of its inward-looking conical profile, the Vessel shouts “look at me, look at me” – and it is working. What could’ve been a ground-breaking social catalyst that enhances the dignity of the public space, has instead lured in a sea of people angling their phones in search of their next profile picture. In fact, tourists quickly identified the prime spot that captures the sculpture in all its Instagram-worthy glory: from the inner centre and looking up, a restricted angle that completely disregards the urban fabric around it.
Which brings me to the context, for Hudson Yards as a whole is disconnected from the city. And while the Vessel’s honeycomb structure allows for framed views, in a plaza encircled by ubiquitous glass towers, there is nothing much to frame but snippets of the Hudson River, which too will disappear when the second phase of the development rolls in on the western yards.
And yet, the meandering journey up, though underwhelmingly monotonous and prone to gusts of wind, has a certain playfulness to it, and once at the top, the close-up views of Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s new cultural centre, The Shed, feel like a hiker’s reward after a long trek. As for those views, it takes a few rounds to spot the very tip of the Empire State Building, poking its art-deco head from behind the metal mesh roof of the Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed mall.
It has me wondering: would the Vessel have had better luck in a less walled-off part of the city? Was it doomed to fail from the start by virtue of its exclusive location? At first, it came as no surprise that the anchor point of New York’s new pretend-neighbourhood is a pretend-landmark on an ego trip – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all – but could it be that the Vessel’s self-centred design exists to distract from its generally bland surroundings?
As I climb back down, I’m reminded of the Endless Stair that London-based dRMM studio installed for the 2013 London Design Festival – but the parallel ends at the Escher-like stairwells. dRMM’s design culminated in a stairway overlooking the Thames, with direct views over St. Paul’s Cathedral. A temporary structure, designed to be reconfigured, it allowed for exploration and most importantly, it was honest about its purpose. Heatherwick’s design – a selfie trap that goes around in circles and culminates in nothing – is a truly empty vessel.