Steven Heller | Essays

Hudson Yards Lays an Egg

I live just a few blocks east of Hudson Yards. I’ve seen it grow from a seedling into a forest of glass and steel, anxiously waiting to see just how spectacular it is. So on Sunday, off I went on my first and possibly only visit. Prior to the opening there has been a healthy dose of hype and reviews — positive and negative — and since I am not an architecture critic, I’ll let them address the formal and social issues. And I'll let Bernie and AOC talk about the income disparities that are brightly illuminated by the retail gallery mall. Instead, my focus is on Thomas Heatherwick’s much anticipated giant honeycomb, 150 foot-tall “Vessel” structure, the centerpiece of the outdoor plaza, bathed in reflective copper-steel, comprised of 154 staircases and 80 landings. It is an interactive artwork, which will doubtless be something of a Rorschach test for those who experience it — it looks like a tea-stained soft boiled egg to me.

It also reminded me of a World’s Fair, like the 1939 World of Tomorrow’s Trylon and Perisphere (that I was not born for but I did a book on) and the 1963 New York World Fair’s Unisphere, which remains intact in Flushing Meadows park (and that was one of my childhood thrills). Those were fantastic centerpiece structures that not only unified the fairgrounds but symbolized their respective global themes to exalt in the future and celebrate innovation. On my short walk to the Yards, I anticipated reliving the overwhelming positive energy that possessed me in ’63. No luck. I was sadly disappointed. The “Vessel,” the shopping gallery, the buildings, the claustrophobic plaza were let downs — only the shell of The Shed (its massive exoskeleton is truly impressive) piqued my fascination.

But I wanted more, especially from the “Vessel” and what I wanted was something like the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse in Disneyworld’s Magic Kingdom. Call me a philistine but although the “Vessel,” which is reminiscent of an Escher illusion, has a certain sightseeing charm (and aerobic benefits), there is something too slick, too orderly, too predetermined. I recall the Big Bambú Tower during the Venice Biennale created by Starn Studios (a 50 foot-tall nest made entirely of bamboo shoots with a spiraling walkway that reaches the apex). Now that was stupendous and a little dangerous. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse is nothing like Big Bambú, but it has the same D.I.Y. spirit.

Decades ago, I asked an architect friend to draw up plans for a folly to be constructed in the woods behind my country house. It was to be made from 4 extra-large treated wood telephone poles, sunk deep into the ground with three levels connected by an interior staircase. It looked something like a park ranger’s tower but had no other raison d’etre except it would be my folly. Turned out the cost outweighed its functionality (and in the Summer when it could be used as a superannuated patio-tree house, there would be so many insects, I’d go crazy). But I love the idea of transforming the natural environment in unusual ways (I always like Robert Smithson’s Earthworks).

The “Vessel,” however, was none of these things. It is iron, steel, and glass intrusively situated in the Hudson Yards plaza. Misplaced, it is nonetheless an attraction. When I visited a few hundred people were waiting on line, advance tickets (yes, tickets) in hand to climb the steps to nowhere and back. At least in Disneyworld, the Robinson family was waiting with a smile, a parrot and in costume to greet you. At the “Vessel” you’re just herded like cats up and down, no turning back.

Posted in: Architecture

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