A week before the opening of Vessel, a $200 million art installation at New York’s Hudson Yards megadevelopment, Related Chairman Stephen Ross looked down at construction workers putting the finishing touches on the paved walkway. He was standing at the very top of the installation, surrounded by a small contingent of developers and journalists — the first group to ever climb the structure.
“I hope it’s memorable,” he said. “I’m a developer, so I’m looking at all the things that aren’t done … I can’t enjoy it like everybody else can.”
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Enjoying the structure could mean something different to everyone: Some may climb the nearly 2,500 steps for a bird’s eye view of the Hudson River. Others may hop on an elevator, or stop at one of the lower tiers to look out at Hudson Yards, the $25 billion site for which Vessel serves as both centerpiece and symbol.
When real estate firm Related Companies set out to build the complex alongside Oxford Properties Group, the company knew it needed a signature that would capture the world’s attention. Vessel’s architect, Heatherwick Studio, was given no direction other than to create a “galvanizing moment.”
The challenge, though daunting, was somewhat familiar. The firm’s namesake, British designer Thomas Heatherwick, has conceived of monumental structures like the 2012 Olympics cauldron and the Seed Cathedral in the UK. Though he’s a favorite among billionaire clients, he’s also been criticized for allowing ambition to supersede reason.
In 2009, his starburst-shaped structure, called B of the Bang, began losing its spikes, and was ultimately dismantled due to safety concerns. Eight years later, his plan to build a Garden Bridge over the River Thames was scrapped after costs ran too high. The anticipated cost was about the same as what it took to build Vessel, but that project drew partially from public funds. Vessel, on the other hand, is all privately-funded.
As an artwork that can carry up to 700 visitors at once, the installation had to allow for a steady flow of pedestrians. From the start, Heatherwick Studio envisioned Vessel as a series of staircases and landings that call to mind the stepwells in India. But it also had to gesture to its surroundings, which include nine major buildings in Manhattan’s Eastern Yard.
“Sometimes the blank canvas is terrifying as a designer … but in this instance it was a very liberating start point,” said Stuart Wood, the group leader at Heatherwick Studio.
For the material, his team landed on a reflective copper-colored steel, which mirrors the ground plain of the public square. Wood said the warmth of the copper mimics a beating heart — a contrast to the shimmering blues and silvers of nearby skyscrapers. Many of Vessel’s pieces were prefabricated and shipped from Italy, then assembled like puzzle pieces at Hudson Yards.
The design — which has been likened to a honeycomb, a beehive, an urn, and a rib cage — starts small at the base and fans out to 150 feet wide at the top. Wood said this was deliberate so as not to “jam up” ground-level public space. Ascending to the top necessitates a mile-long climb, though the distance feels much shorter after stopping at various landings.
“We’ve never designed something like this,” Wood said. “We’ll probably never design anything like this again.”
Visitors are likely to find better views at the Hudson Yards observation deck, which hovers 1,100 feet in the air at 30 Hudson Yards, a sky-high office tower that’s taller than the Empire State Building. But Vessel’s major selling point is that it’s free to enjoy.
The installation is open every day from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Visitors must get a ticket to climb onboard, but the development sets aside same-day tickets that can be picked up on-site. Tickets can also be reserved online up to two weeks in advance. Guests who claim a ticket are given an hour-long window to enter the structure, but their time to mingle and observe is unlimited.
As the structure welcomes its grand opening on March 15, both Related and Heatherwick Studio are standing by to see how their vision plays out. The public will soon be asked to name the structure (Vessel serves as a stand-in) based on their experience. If all goes according to the developers’ plan, the new name may become as ubiquitous as Times Square or Rockefeller Center, a signature in its own right.
New York City