It started as the “stairway to nowhere.” Today, the Vessel, the $150 million structure in New York’s sprawling new Hudson Yard development, has invited more fantastical descriptions.
The Thomas Heatherwick-designed structure, which has stairs climbing 150 feet in the air, has been described by architecture and design writers as a “mythical giant’s wastepaper basket,” “a colossal shawarma,” “an Instagram-friendly panopticon,” and what you would get “if Twitter were a work of architecture.” “The depth of architectural thinking at work here makes a kiddie-pool seem oceanic,” writes critic Kate Wagner in a Baffler essay unsubtly entitled “Fuck the Vessel.”
It’s not just critics who are dismayed by the structure. The public has taken aim as well. Instagram posts reference the structure’s resemblance to a tower of shawarma meat, a beehive, a “pineapple thing,” an architecture overdose, M.C. Escher stairs, “a shiny thing to walk on.” One person quoted the blog Boing Boing, calling the structure “a perfect symbol for the grifter capitalism of New York City’s privatized Hudson Yards ‘neighborhood.'”
The descriptions are hilarious, but the derision points to a bigger problem with how Hudson Yards’ developer Related has framed this expensive structure as a public benefit–when in fact, critics say it is yet another way for the developers to make money (even though climbing the Vessel is technically free).
For starters, the Vessel sits in an open courtyard directly in front of a four-story, 720,000-square-foot mall–a seemingly overt design decision to lure over the structure’s visitors and get them to open their wallets.
The Vessel also serves as an amenity for the neighboring luxury apartment buildings (condos start at $2 million). The website for one of the luxury towers, 1 Hudson Yards, highlights the fact that the building overlooks the Vessel as a prime reason for why someone should spend $9,000 per month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the tower. The Vessel gives Related built-in marketing, much as The High Line, another controversial New York City landmark, gave real estate companies license to dramatically hike up property values in the Meatpacking District.
But you won’t find any of that detailed on the promotional material for the Vessel or in the interviews its designers have given. Instead, they insist it’s a public amenity. “We think of this as a three-dimensional public space, like a park, but taller,” Heatherwick lead designer Stuart Wood told CBS.
Even the Vessel is supposed to be a temporary name, until the public comes up with a better one. Online, Related is asking people to submit ideas for what the name should be online. This is meant to reinforce the idea that the structure is for everyone, not just Hudson Yards’ wealthy residents. (It’s also a handy way for Related to get your name and email, which are required to submit a name.) But tellingly, people have come up with creative names for the Vessel. Suggestions, per NYC’s subreddit, include: Staircase McStaircaseface, Meat Tornado, The Rat’s Nest, Chalice of the Privileged, The Escalator to Nowhere, The Hudson Yards Copyright Assignment Provision Clause, and UnitedHealth Group Vessel brought to you by Papa John’s dot Com Bowl.
Technically, the square the Vessel sits within is public space–but one that lacks some basic features of a public space. There is no place to sit on the structure, unless you block one of the 154 staircases. You have to schedule an appointment to visit. And any time you spend on the structure is heavily policed by a commercial entity. The Vessel comes with a lengthy terms of service agreement attached, one that got Related into hot water after Gothamist reported that the legal document granted Related all rights to any photos, audio, or video you take at the structure–meaning the developer could use your likeness for any commercial activity forever. (After public outcry, Related changed its policy slightly to clarify that photo-takers retain ownership of whatever media they create of or at the Vessel. But if you post that photo online, Related still can use it how the developer sees fit.)
But perhaps the public will have the last laugh. We all remember what happened when the U.K. government asked the internet to name its $287 million polar research boat.
I’ll be voting for Staircase McStaircaseface.