Like a modern ziggurat, British architect Thomas Heatherwick‘s monumental public artwork for Hudson Yards–a 28-acre development on Manhattan’s west side slated for completion in 2025–invites passersby to climb its steps to the apex. From atop the steel monolith, which is composed of 54 flights of stairs and will rise 150 feet above the plaza below, viewers can take in the urban panorama and take part in what the developer, Related Companies, views as the city’s next great public space.
“We view public art and public space as something social, active, and interactive,” Michael Samuelian, vice president of Related, says. “Those are the important components that make public space great today and what will make the public square at Hudson Yards completely New York and completely authentic and completely of today’s time.
Heatherwick’s $150-million sculpture, the design of which debuted today, will be one of the most visible elements in the plaza. But it’s just one component in the landscape’s master plan by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture (NBWLA)–4.5 acres of public space that will be composed of of handsome trees, lush plants, and eye-catching hardscaping whose elegance will belie the workhorse of modern engineering and technical achievement that allowed an entire neighborhood to be built over an active rail yard. NBWLA conceived of the site as a contemporary interpretation of an Italian piazza: a vibrant neighborhood hub.
“It’s a space that’s about people and embraces people,” Thomas Woltz, principal of NBWLA, says of the forthcoming park.
The west side of Manhattan has been teeming with new development and Hudson Yards is smack in the middle of it all. The High Line, a slender park Diller Scofidio + Renfro built atop an abandoned railway, opened its final phase in 2014. Michael van Valkenburgh’s Hudson Boulevard Park, which includes the new terminus of the MTA’s 7 line, finished construction in 2015.
“While there are fantastic open spaces along the West Side, they’re really kind of long and skinny,” Samuelin says. “They’re more transient spaces and we viewed the public square at Hudson Yards as a place where people can gather and socialize and see one another, meet, sit down, and rest rather than constantly walk through.”
Heatherwick’s dramatic sculpture–which looks almost like it was ripped from an MC Escher illustration–is an objet d’art designed to spark curiosity and draw pedestrians toward the plaza’s center. Its web of 80 platforms connected by 154 flights of stairs invites viewers to to gain a bird’s eye view of the plaza, assuming their legs and will are strong enough to make it to the top. According to Heatherwick, the concept is based on a flight of old wooden stairs that intrigued him as a graduate student in London; he was hooked by its materiality and its treads.
“The act of rhythmically moving up and down multiple flights of stairs seemed to have the potential to become an extraordinary human experience,” Heatherwick writes in his artist’s statement. “The goal became to lift up people in the square to be more visible and to allow new views and perspectives of each other.”
Heatherwick wanted to design a sculpture that was about an experience as opposed to a stagnant object to behold, and in the same way, Woltz thinks of the plaza as an integrated whole that underscores the gravitational pull of the artwork. He and his team organized the landscape as a series of orbit-like ellipses that emanate from the sculpture. “Sometimes you see art plopped down in a plaza and you have a landscape where piece of art was put on it as decoration,” Woltz says. “And in this case, there was enough time and enough dialog that the two are fused together. I call this a contemporary urban labyrinth.”
The public space is divided into three zones: plaza, grove, and garden. The planters, pathways, and benches all follow the silhouette of concentric ellipses–clearly, designed to be as attractive to view from ground level as they are from Hudson Yards’ four new skyscrapers. While the design is graphic, its geometry is rooted in the specific elements that are in the park, not just an arbitrary pattern.
When NBWLA designs its landscapes, it looks to local biodiversity and history to inform the plan: the firm specified flowers, grasses, and trees native to the Hudson Valley to outfit the landscape. But planting a seemingly natural garden posed a challenge considering that the site–which is built on a huge platform supported by hundreds of caissons–has no soil.
Because a railway courses beneath Hudson Yards, the landscape architects and engineers had to build infrastructure that could support a garden–not an easy problem to solve considering that the trains generate 160-degree heat, which is enough to fry the roots of plants and trees.
“It’s like cultivating an oasis over a desert,” Woltz says.
To build the oasis, NBWLA had to pull off a few engineering tricks. For fire safety and ventilation in the tracks below, a fan system releases hot air and circulates fresh air into the tunnels. Since the root systems of mature trees run deep, NBWLA decided to insulate the concrete planters, which are about four feet deep, with chilled glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze. The system also protects the plants–which will grow in just 18 inches of soil–from overheating in the summer sun. A sensor system monitors the temperature and if it hits 75 degrees (optimum temperature is 70 degrees), the cooling system kicks on.
The soil itself is specifically mixed for the site by scientists at Pine & Swallow, an environmental consulting firm, and is a blend of compost, mulch, sand, and gravel that encourages root systems to grow horizontally, instead of vertically.
Though the landscape is entirely man-made, NBWLA attempted to replicate natural ecosystems as much as it could; using natural plant communities and hydrological cycles as sustainability drivers lie at the heart of much of the firm’s philosophy. The hope is that no potable water is needed to irrigate the plants. To achieve net-zero water, the designers incorporated a catchment system that stores and filters stormwater. NBWLA estimates that the 60,000-gallon cistern will hold 80% of rain that falls onsite.
To Woltz, one of the most urgent needs of urban landscapes is to think of parks and open space as components in a system, not as discrete elements in a city. Hudson Yards, with its connections to surrounding parks and with its complex irrigation network, is an example of this approach.
“We as a culture often do a pretty good job of creating urban parks or destinations or public squares, but starting to see those destination parks as connected to our daily lives via the streetscape, public transportation, and systems of stormwater management,” he says. “It’s not being satisfied with parks alone, but seeing parks, streets, boulevards, waterfront as one giant complex system.”
At its completion, Hudson Yards will include a retail, residential, hospitality, and office space. Related views this mixture as an embodiment of the 24-hour neighborhood of the future; while planners have preached the gospel of mixed-use development for years, that it’s being built from the ground up by a single developer at the scale of Hudson Yards is rare.
“As an urban planner, I liken Hudson Yards to a 21st century Rockefeller Center,” Samuelian says. “That was an opportunity 90 years ago to develop a whole new part of the city, which was just as much about culture and media as it was about office space. That reflected a 20th-century view as a city. Hudson Yards reflects the 21st-century city–the co-dependency and interdependency of uses that are kind of emblematic of today’s cities. It’s not like people come into the city, work in Midtown, and go home to Greenwich, Connecticut–that is not the paradigm we see in the 21st century.”
The landscape was critical in linking all of these uses, particularly since Related worked with many different architects, with different styles, on the buildings that comprise Hudson Yards. “The landscape is really the tie the binds,” Samuelian says. “It really combines all design aspects of the site into one central component, which brings everything together. The landscape is the one design component that touches everything and the one visible component that touches everything.”
To Woltz, Hudson Yards embodies landscape design’s untapped potential in cities. “It’s not about decorating the outdoors,” he says. “What drives me crazy about the sort of invisibility of our profession is that it gets reduced to, ‘oh we need to soften that [building], we need to green it up, we need a living wall…Over the past 20 years, I think a lot of landscape architecture has been burdened with a graphic approach—a lot of pattern making that’s very cool, very graphic, very compelling, but often it’s not about the stories about that place.”
Strapped with technical challenges and an ambitious brief to create a vibrant public space, the landscape has its work cut out for it. Similarly, the Heatherwick sculpture is intended not as decoration, but as a facilitator of social activity in the neighborhood–yet its success will be determined by future park visitors. From its resource conservation to its relationship with pedestrians and the surrounding buildings, the public space aims to be the project’s icing and its cake.
[Plaza Renderings: Visual House/Nelson Byrd Woltz, Sculpture Renderings: Forbes Massie/Heatherwick Studio]